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Of Sports and Children with Special Needs

By: Andre RaymundoOf Sports and Children with Special Needs

He was unlike any other kid. Born in a Campinas, a bustling municipality in southern Brazil, Daniel de Faria Dias was born with several congenital anomalies: both his upper and lower limbs were malformed since birth. However, these hindrances didn’t stop him from achieving his dreams. Inspired by a fellow countryman Paralympian in 2004 summer Paralympics, he decided to learn how to swim at the age of 16. He then realized that his disability wasn’t a deterrent to his passion. In just two months, he mastered four styles of swimming. And come the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, just after four years of training, he earned a total of nine medals: 4 gold medals, 4 silver medals, and 1 bronze medal to boot.

When Bonner Paddock was born, his umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. This caused severe oxygen deprivation to his brain during the first minutes of his life outside the womb. He survived the ordeal, but as he grew older, his parents noticed that there were delays in his developmental milestones as well as other physical differences from a normal child. At age 11, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a brain disorder that affects movement, learning, speaking, and causes activity limitation and learning difficulties. But this diagnosis didn’t stop him from being the first person with cerebral palsy to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. He also finished the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, making him the first person with cerebral palsy to successfully conquer this challenge.

Josephine Medina was diagnosed with poliomyelitis as a child. Taking up table tennis as a form of rehabilitation therapy, she realized that she was a good player and was able to competitively play with able-bodied paddlers. Her abilities and skills were enough to warrant her a place in the national team but were ultimately rejected because of her disability. According to her, that rejection has become her inspiration. That inspiration led her to win the bronze medal for the Philippine team in the 2016 Rio Paralympics. She says that her disability is not a hindrance, but rather an instrument in reaching success in life.

Daniel, Bonner, and Josephine are just some of the millions of people with disabilities and special needs. However, they did not let their physical and mental limitations stop them from accomplishing their own personal successes both in the field of sports and in life itself.

According to the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), about 18% of the total US population of children have a disability or a chronic condition. In the Philippines alone, it is estimated that 1 out of 5 people with disability (PWD) was aged 0-14 years. These numbers show that there is a significant number of children in the population that have special needs. Most often than not, we tend to relate the term ‘special needs’ to a narrow-minded point of view – that these children are fragile and delicate, and it just “unreasonable” to let these kids enjoy being kids lest they hurt themselves in the process. Admit it, whenever you see a differently-abled child, the first emotions you feel are pity and sympathy. But you shouldn’t!

It is important to note that all children benefit from play and exercise, and the experience behind these activities. This of course, includes children with special needs. It is quite easy to understand why parents do not encourage their children with special needs to engage in physical activities. Parents fear that something untoward may happen, but this fear may eventually cause more harm than good.

The University of Rochester Medical Center lists the following benefits children with special needs can get when they engage in sports and regular physical activities [lifted from the URMC website]:

  • Better overall fitness
  • Improved cognitive benefits
  • Better weight control
  • Healthier bone density
  • Better emotional and psychological health
  • Improved social skills
  • Improved motor skills
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Reduced risk for other diseases

According to Nancy Murphy and Paul Carbone in their journal article published in the Pediatrics Journal, “all children benefit from physical activity, and children with disabilities are no exception. Participation of children with disabilities in sports and physical activity programs promotes physical, emotional, and social well-being.”

Of course, it is imperative that parents consult their child’s doctor (or a more appropriate specialty such as a developmental pediatrician) prior to any action. It is important to remember that every child unique, thus each and every child with special needs have their own especially unique need. Engaging in these activities require teamwork from three integral groups of people: the parents, the healthcare professionals, and the community or support group.

With careful planning from parents, the health care team, and support groups, just about any activity can be modified to allow effective engagement. The University of Rochester Medical Center enumerates some sporting activities that are highly engaging for children with special needs:

  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Football
  • Handball
  • Gymnastics

Other sporting activities such as basketball and tennis can be enjoyed by groups of wheelchair-bound children. Engaging in ballroom dancing can be beneficial to children with autism and sensory disorders. Boccia is a ball sport designed for children with motor deficits. Weightlifting can be enjoyed by children with developmental delays and learning disabilities.

A significant thing to be reminded of when parents are starting to engage their child with special needs in these activities is that the goal is to guide and encourage them, rather than approach it with fear and distress. It may take a lot of effort and time, but the outcomes for these children are truly worth everything.

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