Benefits of sport for people with disabilities

 The road to good health does not stop when a person with a disability is discharged from hospital. Even though his life may have been saved, his medical condition has stabilised and he has been issued with a wheelchair or prosthesis, this does not mean this person’s rehabilitation is complete. 

It’s a long of intensive rehabilitation that lies ahead as this person slowly adapts to a new life. Many people are born with a disability and do not have a sudden change in their function. One of the activities that can improve the health, well-being and quality of life of any person with a disability is sport.

Sport offers physical advantages – good blood circulation, stronger muscles, better balance and co-ordination. But, sport can offer so much more. “Sport provides a platform for acquiring life skills,” says Hilary Beeton, an occupational therapist and athletics classifier for the South African Sports Association for Physically Disabled and the International Paralympic Committee. Beeton says people who participate in sports enjoy psychological benefits like goodself-esteem and confidence and a belief in their skills and abilities.

They may also have lower anger and stress scores than people with disabilities who are inactive.

The healthy side of sport

Through training for a sport, learning a new skill and working with others, Beeton says many people have better self-discipline, better organisational skills, leadership and a sense of responsibility towards themselves and others.

Communities can also benefit when community members are involved in sport. Many sport programmes around the world are focused on including unemployed youth in crime-ridden areas. “Sport can provide healthy competition, promote constructive time use, positive social interactions and promote valuable life skills,” she says. In the same way, sport is beneficial to people with disabilities.

Sports may need to be adapted by changing the rules or changing the way in which it is done, to enable a person with a disability to participate, but as a general rule, the adaptations are reduced to a minimum.

For example, Beeton says, in athletics, the athlete with poor balance or inability to stand, may compete sitting using a throwing frame; in wheelchair tennis the ball may bounce twice.

Common sports for disabled people

Some of the sports more commonly available for people with disabilities are track and field, table tennis, wheelchair tennis, wheelchair dance, chess, judo, 5-a-side soccer (for the athlete with visual impairment), 7-a-side football for athletes with cerebral palsy, swimming, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby and cycling.

In some sports the rules don’t need to be changed at all to accommodate a person with a disability – depending entirely on the disability and how it affects playing the sport. 

An example of such a sport is archery.  An archer with a disability can compete on an equal footing with any other archer.

In competitive sport, such as in the Paralympics, athletes with disabilities undergo classification in which they receive a sport class based on their impairment and the extent to which it impacts sport performance. Classification is done togroup athletes with similar levels of impairment for competition purposes and to level the playing field. 

Classification ensures that athletes who succeed in competition do so because of sport ability, skill and training rather than because of having milder impairment than a fellow competitor. Beeton maintains that the fairer the competition is, the more it attracts the interest of the public, the media, and the athletes and their coaches.

  “People with disabilities are encouraged to join regular mainstream sports clubs in their own communities to access coaching, sporting facilities, and the social interactions that club membership affords,” she says.

“The challenge out there is for all community-based sports clubs and school sport to promote inclusion of people with disabilities in all their sporting activities as far as is possible, by removing physical and emotional barriers to participation.  Stigma and an incorrect perception that people with disabilities do not want to or cannot participate in sporting activities is one of the biggest barriers to be overcome.  

“ The recent media coverage of elite competition at the 2012 Paralympics has had a very positive impact on attitudes.”

Beeton suggests that people interested in taking part in a sport look at the official Paralympics website for more information.

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