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JUST DO IT.
Experts say that athletics among young people with disabilities yields some surprising benefits

The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat: These are experiences we all know well. In our daily lives, we experience both triumphs and trouncing in various degrees. For many of us, the skills we use to cope with these experiences were formed early on in our lives, often on a baseball diamond, a gridiron or a basketball court.

It has long been known that sports and athletics do more than shape our bodies. They shape our minds and our character as well. Physical education and physical competition are as deeply engrained in the education process as are reading, writing and arithmetic.

For young people with disabilities, the need for athletic outlets is just as great as it is for their non-disabled peers. In fact, it may be greater.

“Research has indicated that children with disabilities are much more prone to adopting sedentary lifestyles and also tend to have fewer opportunities for participation in physical activity,” said Steve Taff, who formerly oversaw adaptive physical education services as well as physical therapy and occupational therapy for SSD. “Beyond the well-accepted physiological effects, regular physical activity also has considerable psychological benefits. Physical activity can reduce anxiety, combat depression and contribute to self-regulation and positive feelings regarding self. Physical activities also provide significant socialization opportunities for children with disabilities.”

But Taff emphasizes that the benefits do not stop there. “In terms of the school environment, there appears to be some evidence that functional learning that is paired with appropriate physical activity leads to better educational outcomes” he said. “The point is that physical activity has global positive effects on individual, educational, and social performance.”

Fortunately, in recent years the local athletic opportunities for young people with disabilities have grown dramatically.

A number of local organizations have come into existence over the last decade with the goal of providing and enhancing athletic opportunities for young people with disabilities.

One of these, Team Activities for Special Kids (TASK), was formed in 1996 with the humble goal of starting a simple tee-ball program for young children with disabilities. Nearly a decade later, the nonprofit group is now a year-round sports program serving more than 700 children and teens. Staffed by a dedicated group of volunteers who include a number of SSD employees and parents of children served by the district, TASK has introduced area youngsters with disabilities to such diverse activities as basketball, dance, outdoor soccer, tee-ball, softball, volleyball, bowling, golf, swimming and tennis.

Of course, TASK is far from the only local organization offering athletic opportunities for those with disabilities. Some, such as the St. Louis Wheelchair Athletic Association, provide access to various sports and athletic opportunities. Other groups specialize, such as the Gateway Disabled Ski Program, whose sole purpose is to provide a recreational ski program for physically disabled individuals.

There’s no denying the importance of these organizations in providing athletic coaching and mentorship for kids with disabilities, but of equal importance is a place for those kids to play.

Even for those students who are not engaged in organized sports, exercise and physical activity should be a priority. “The key is to promote physical activity as a lifestyle that becomes habitual as growth and development progresses,” Taff said. “At SSD, adaptive physical education teachers modify activities so that students with a wide variety of disabilities are able to build skills and improve health while participating with their non-disabled peers to the greatest extent possible.”

So whether it’s a trip around the bases, a slalom down the ski slope or a handful of jumping jacks, experts have a piece of advice for youngsters of all ability levels: Just do it.
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Special School District of St. Louis County (SSD) is a leader in providing special education services to students with disabilities and also provides a wide range of career and technical education programs.
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