For Physically Disabled Teens and Young Adults, Running Can Open Doors


“If you have a body, you’re an athlete” – Bill Bowerman, Nike co-founder

Need another reason to keep your family moving right now? A study recently published in the Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities found that children and young adults with a physical disability received a measurable boost in self-confidence after participating in a community running program.

The researchers were hoping to find ways to break a cycle of low self-perception that is typical for this at-risk demographic. That low self-esteem, they have found, tends to lead to decreased exercise and impaired health and functioning, which in turn leads to even lower self-perception. “Any intervention that broadly improves quality of life for a child with a chronic condition is worth continuing to explore,” says Jennifer Angeli, the lead researcher on the study.

Participants in the study were aged 7 to 24 years old with a range of disabilities, but the highest reported was cerebral palsy. The group, divided up based on ability in order to promote peer motivation, met twice a week for ten weeks.

The program was designed similar to a couch to 5k concept. They started by learning about and practicing run/walk intervals, moved on to improving endurance, and tapered their exercise in the final two weeks, leading up to their actual 5k race.

Afterwards, the participants self-reported on their progress and the results showed an increase in self-perceived appearance and athletic competence.

The 7 to 14 year age group also showed increased self-confidence in their school work. Other studies have shown that aerobic exercise can increase reaction time and cognitive function, which might explain this increase, but Angeli and her team are still examining those findings.

For Teresa Skinner, executive director of ParaSport Spokane, the results of the study are not surprising at all. As a coach for wheelchair events for over 20 years, she’s seen adaptive sports change the lives of disabled athletes right before her eyes. “There have been literally hundreds of athletes that have come in with disabilities that are not confident enough even to use their voice to have a conversation,” she says. 

Skinner believes it’s the person’s ability to visualize themselves as an athlete — something they may not have believed to ever be possible — that gives them that confidence boost. It’s also being surrounded by people who are like them and forms a community that they may not have even known that they needed.

And, in Skinner’s eyes, it’s especially imperative to give young women opportunities to participate in para sports. “You’re already at a disadvantage in a lot of ways as a female,” she says, “and then you add the disability component and now whatever self-esteem you potentially could have had is not necessarily there.” 

Giving more visibility to para sports, in general, could also help inspire an entire generation of disabled youth who get stuck in the cycle of low self-perception that Angeli and her team are trying to disarm. 

Jaleen Roberts, who holds the Parapan American record for the 100m and has her sights set on the rescheduled Paralympic Games in Tokyo, has found her purpose in becoming a role model within para-athletics. Roberts was born with cerebral palsy, like many of the kids in this study, but didn’t know of any athletes growing up that had her same disability. Before she met Skinner and her now coach David Greig her junior year of high school, she had no clue about the competitive possibilities and the community she’d find in para sports. 

“I’m kind of representing all the other females with disabilities that don’t have a voice or platform, don’t have any role models in their life with similar disabilities that are actively involved in sports, or anyone they see that is setting big goals and not letting anything stop them as they work toward achieving them,” says Roberts. 

In general, para sport visibility is an area where the United States falls behind the rest of the world, it seems. “Every time we travel internationally, [the para athletes] get so much notoriety and everyone recognizes them or talks to them or treats them as an athlete and we land back on U.S. soil and they instantly become invisible,” says Skinner who has accompanied and coached athletes in the last three Paralympic Games in Rio, London, and Beijing. 

Expanding live broadcasting is just one way to get more fans watching and caring about adaptive sports. The International Paralympic Committee has announced the Tokyo Games (now set for Summer 2021) will see a record 19 sports represented in broadcasting, versus 12 during the Rio Games in 2016.

Other times, visibility just comes from word of mouth. Skinner sees families referred to ParaSport Spokane from therapists, friends, other family members, nurses, and sometimes even strangers. 

Giving a disabled child, or even an adult, the ability to see the opportunities they have in sport could drastically change their outlook on life. From seeing others like them succeed as world champions to joining a local club that can open doors to a new passion. 

Don’t have a run club in your area? Just running as a family can have huge benefits.

Find a Run Tribe for Your Loved One

Check out one of these amazing organizations for local groups and chapters near you.

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