Breaking Down Barriers
Gina Kinlaw's son, Trevor, used to watch his cousins play all kinds of sports – football, baseball, soccer. He asked his mom, "Why can't I play, too?"
The Raleigh family tried enrolling Trevor in activities like baseball. But because of his Asperger's syndrome, he just wasn't focused enough for traditional teams. "He'd run to first base and then just sit down!" his mom remembers.
But the question lingered: Could it be possible for Trevor to participate in sports? Then the family learned about the Consolidated Football Federation's Challenger program, affiliated with Pop Warner. The Challenger program is a flag football and cheer program for youth with disabilities. Trevor started playing about five years ago, and he's thriving.
"His confidence in himself has grown so much," Kinlaw says. "He's a completely different person out there on the field. He started the program timid and shy, but last year he announced his goal was to make every touchdown he possibly could."
Adaptive Sports Create Possibilities
The Kinlaws scored when they found an athletic league adapted to their son's interests and abilities. For many families of children with special needs, it can be tough to find inclusive programs in which kids with emotional or physical disabilities can participate seamlessly. Fortunately, as awareness of the benefits of participation grows, more organizations are beginning to offer programs that help aspiring athletes with disabilities explore and thrive.
One of these is Bridge II Sports, a Durham nonprofit with a mission to create opportunities for children and adults who are physically challenged to play team and individual sports. Bridge II Sports provides equipment and develops sports, teams and coaching. Ashley Thomas, founder and executive director of Bridge II Sports, notes that participating in sports helps kids discover "tenacity, confidence, self-esteem and the joy of finding the player within."
Many times, Thomas says, kids with disabilities are met with well-intended compassion that actually sends the wrong message. "When people look at them with pity, or when people rush to help them before they're asked, these kids get the message, 'Aw, you can't do that,' and the child might not set goals or expectations for themselves because they start to believe that limitation." But when kids are challenged and shown it's possible, Thomas says, their self perception changes. Ultimately, peer and public perception changes, too. "Just because people have emotional or physical limitations doesn't mean they can't also be productive," she says. "And that's what programs like ours try to help kids learn."
Making the Fitness Connection
Jenna Hinton runs the sitting volleyball program for Triangle Volleyball Club in Morrisville, a community partner of Bridge II Sports. "Fitness is as important to a special-needs kid as it is to an able-bodied child," she says. "It's good for them mentally and physically. Everyone needs the health benefits involved with physical activity."
Hinton points out that kids with physical disabilities often face health challenges that physical activity can help. "Sometimes they have depression, diabetes, heart issues or other secondary health concerns," she says. "If they use a wheelchair, they're often sedentary, too. Physical activity can help tackle some of those issues."
Other adaptive sports offered through Bridge II Sports include golf, fencing, fishing, swimming, hockey and many others, and the organization acts as a conduit to help people find additional programs in the community. Staff members help train organizations so their management feels comfortable running an adaptive program, with its special considerations and equipment needs. Kids in adaptive sports programs are treated the same way their able-bodied peers are, Thomas notes. "We have the same competitive requirements as traditional schools," she says. "Kids have to get a C or above to continue in the program, and we set those expectations right at the outset."
It's not just sports that provide such experiences for children with special needs. Music also tears down barriers and brings people together, regardless of their backgrounds or abilities. Paula Scicluna founded Rhythm & Rehab, a Triangle-based organization that seeks to unlock potential and maximize strengths for individuals with developmental and neurological disabilities.
In addition to offering recreational musical theater and music therapy, which improves motor, cognitive, speech and social skills, Rhythm & Rehab offers adapted piano instruction. It fuses piano lessons with music therapy techniques. The goal is to work on developmental skills – but it's also about simply learning how to play the piano and enjoy music.
"The importance of music in the community in general is vital," Scicluna says. "So many kids who have disabilities are also natural musicians, especially children with autism. So it's amazing for them to unlock that potential."
But it's not only a great experience for the kids themselves, Scicluna points out. "For these kids' peers, they get to see these kids in a different light," she says. "It levels the playing field. Playing music highlights their abilities and strengths. That's what other kids get a chance to see. Not, here's a boy with autism, but here's a boy who's an amazing musician."
Scicluna says one of her students, who began at age five, now excels at clarinet. Music gave him a place in the community where he wasn't isolated because of his special needs but was instead successful in a leadership position because of his musical abilities.
And parents can get new perspective, too. "Sometimes parents are so inundated with things like therapy and doctor appointments that it's great for them to have something normalized for their kids to participate in," Scicluna says. "They can just simply say, 'I'm taking Billy to piano lessons now,' and it's just a leisure activity that any other kid does, too."
The benefits to music training are many. Motor skills and rhythm go hand in hand, and kids can develop their language skills through singing. Memory and attention span are addressed, as well. "Music creates a natural, empowering setting for people of all ages with disabilities," Scicluna says. "It's fun, it's motivating and music is processed in the brain globally, so you can work on so many things at one time."
Even more important, making music is just plain fun. "Being able to sit down and create purposeful music at the piano is priceless," Scicluna says. "I think it's critically important to the psyche of any human being."
Seeking the Spotlight
The taste of success that comes with being part of a team and exploring the arts is the driving force behind Together on Center Stage, an inclusive theater program hosted by the Holly Springs Civitan Club that allows aspiring thespians of all abilities an opportunity to shine. Program creator and director Alan Rosen loves his job. "What we do is take people with any abilities and give them a chance to be on stage, to be the star that they're not always allowed the chance to be," he says.
Participants are active in the development of a production that gives them a voice and the opportunity to perform in front of an audience. "We brainstorm with them and they come up with ideas and characters and how the character fits in the story," Rosen explains. "Everyone is in a welcoming environment and everyone feels comfortable doing this. They usually end up making friends for life after they perform here."
The audience benefits as well. "There are always tears of joy in the audience at performances," says Rosen. "We give audiences a chance to see people may be different, yet they're all really the same, too."
Clearly, one thing these organizations hope to achieve, beyond giving children with disabilities a chance to explore such worthwhile activities, is that communities will begin to understand their programs' importance and support them.
Triangle Volleyball opens their doors monthly to the general public, allowing both typical and adaptive league members and visitors to play. "This goes a long way to raising awareness for every person who participates," Hinton says. "They might know someone who could benefit from adaptive sports and spread the word."
The Challenger football and cheer program – to which the Kinlaws belong – also gives communities the chance to see kids with special needs in action.
"The program provides kids the opportunity to participate in sports and on teams where they might not otherwise have the opportunity," says Consolidated Football Federation coordinator Sally McCormick. "It gives the athletes a place to succeed, feel safe and accepted, and to have a great time with their peers. It also builds a sense of community among the athletes and their families."
The public gets a chance to watch the Challenger teams play, too. "Often, our games are nestled in the middle of the game scheduled at one of our Pop Warner associations," says McCormick. "This gives parents and players from other teams the opportunity to watch the Challengers play. They become our enthusiastic fans. The players on other teams also form the human tunnel that our athletes run through at the beginning of their games."
In Apex, Middle Creek High School head football coach Mike Castellano has worked to raise Challenger's profile as well. Castellano holds a Challenger night at a school football game each fall and invites representatives from the Challenger program to speak at his parent meeting each year. Several school football players have been regular "buddies" on the field to Challenger players.
"Generating this kind of awareness can only be positive for everyone," McCormick says. "I think people are sometimes surprised at what our players can do, especially those in wheelchairs." What it boils down to is at the heart of all sports. "I think the pure joy of our athletes is contagious," McCormick says. "As we say, 'This is youth sports at its purest and best.'"
When members of the public see kids with special needs actively involved in the same pursuits as typical kids, it's another step toward breaking down barriers and one step closer to a more unified, inclusive community. Whether your child is a budding performer or athlete, or is simply looking to explore a new interest, the Triangle's growing list of organizations with adaptive or inclusive programming is ready to help them shine.
How to Help These Organizations Grow
Volunteers fuel many of the organizations that offer adaptive programs. If you'd like to learn how you can help out, please reach out to them.
See our Exceptional Child directory listings for additional organizations that offer inclusive and adaptive programming.
Kathleen M. Reilly is a writer and author living in Raleigh with her husband and sons.
Top photo provided by Together on Center Stage. Bottom photo provided by the Challenger Division Flad Football and Cheer program.