When you think of youth sports, what comes to mind--the kids in your programs or maybe your daughter or son playing a sport of choice? Do you ever think about children with Down syndrome, autism or other disabilities? Why not? Statistics show one in 91 children are diagnosed with autism. Children with disabilities are no longer sitting on the sidelines, watching their siblings participate; they are becoming active members of programs and communities.
As a member of a youth-sports organization or community entity, how are you preparing coaches and agencies to successfully meet the needs of current and future athletes?
For a youth-sports coach, including children with disabilities may be intimidating. Since most of these coaches are volunteers, typically they have not been exposed to children with disabilities, and may know little about them. Even paid coaches can be in this situation. This usually flips the fear-factor into effect, which means the coach does not know what to do or how to handle it. The biggest barrier oftentimes is attitude. A coach has the opportunity to change that, and provide for inclusion. Ironically, some programs are already doing this without knowing it.
No Blanket Solutions
Just as each athlete is unique, so is each athlete with a disability. No two people with the same diagnosis are the same. For example, Child A, who has Down syndrome, may have heart issues and atlantoaxial subluxation, a misalignment of cervical vertebrae C-1 and C-2 in the neck. This exposes an individual to the possibility of injury if he or she participates in activities that hyperextend or radically flex the neck or upper spine. Then there is Child B, who has Down syndrome, but does not have any other health-related issues. Each child should receive accommodations appropriate for the situation and needs.
Coaches also should be warned against putting an athlete with an intellectual disability in an inappropriate group. For example, someone may look at a 15-year-old and decide that since the cognitive functioning level is more in line with a 5-year-old, he or she should be moved to that age bracket. This is not advised. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law ensuring services to children with disabilities throughout the nation. It states that the individual should be placed with age-appropriate peers, not functioning level. Consider that, if you wouldn’t want an able-bodied 15-year-old playing soccer or basketball with a 5-year-old, then why would it be OK for someone who is functioning at a lower level? If nothing else, think of the mere safety factor of the size difference. Putting the 15-year-old with age-appropriate peers teaches age-appropriate behavior, social skills and physical skills, for not only the game, but life. Also, think about his or her teammates and the opportunity to change those attitude barriers.
Think of the kid who is hyper and doesn’t seem to listen or pay attention. As a result, he or she doesn’t pick up the skills as quickly as others on the team. Instead of using only verbal skills with little demonstration, try to teach the same skills hands-on for the kid not getting the skills. For example, instead of demonstrating how to scoop up a ball with a lacrosse stick, physically put your hands over the player’s hands on the stick, walk through the movement, and repeat. Correct repetition is a key component. This technique is often referred to as hand-over-hand. It works great in teaching skills to those who can’t stand still, have impaired fine motor skills, or have trouble focusing.
Great opportunities exist to train coaches and parents on inclusion in youth sports. There are agencies in your neighborhood that would love to assist in giving athletes with disabilities an opportunity to participate. Coaches are not alone in this adventure. Parents who are willing to provide information or opportunities for education may also become your best volunteers and advocates for the program.
Teaming up with agencies and/or a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) also can make a program a win-win situation. A CTRS can assist in accommodations, modifications to a sport, disability-specific information and behavioral suggestions for success of the athletes.
It is important to note that agencies you collaborate with in offering youth sports must comply with the highest standard of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means if a municipal or government agency collaborates with a local soccer association (a nonprofit) to offer soccer programs, the nonprofit must follow the ADA because municipal facilities are being used; the rules pertain to the government entity, not to the nonprofit criteria. It is also the responsibility of the municipality or government agency to ensure the parameters of the ADA are upheld. Both groups may be found in violation if the organization denies participation and/or reasonable accommodations.
So how are you going to play? Are you still the person or agency that says, “We don’t have people with disabilities in the community, and we don’t need to address that.” Or are you already looking for the nearest agency to assist with education-development opportunities? Be proactive--invite everyone to get out and play!
Dawn Lewellyn is a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist for the city of Clearwater, Fla. She is also working with the National Alliance for Youth Sports to improve their inclusion training for coaches and administrators. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.