Children with Special Needs are Hitting the Fields, Waves and More

‘Report to the field at 1:30 p.m. with a ball, water, and get ready to play!’

For most children and their parents, running around playing ball seems the perfect way to spend a weekend afternoon. Yet, if you are a child with a disability, dreams of throwing a baseball like Daisuke Matsuzaka, hitting a puck like Cam Neely, or scoring two points like former Celtic Larry Bird can seem just that, a dream.

Yet, Massachusetts families and their children with special needs seeking opportunities to get physical have abundant, uniquely-designed opportunities providing access to all-American team sports such as soccer and baseball, to more rugged, high-challenge sports such as windsurfing and waterskiing. Gone are the days of being relegated to the sidelines, the bench, or worse, home with a Game Boy.

One of the most well-known programs is AccessSport America. Founded by Reverend Ross Lilly in 1995, the national non-profit based in Acton, is dedicated to the discovery of higher function, fitness, and fun for children and adults with disabilities using high challenge sports. Using adaptive equipment to assist people in overcoming a variety of physical challenges, AccessSport America makes sports such as windsurfing, kayaking and water skiing possible for children and adults with disabilities. Rev. Lilly is considered a pioneer in adaptive equipment and training techniques, and today serves as chief instructor and inventor for AccessSport America. The organization has been highly successful at adapting programs for virtually every disability from quadriplegia and paraplegia, to sight impairment, blindness and emotional disorders, and can accommodate a wide range of disabilities.

Andover Challenger Soccer was founded by Tommy Arrigg who, at the tender age of 11, went before the Andover Soccer Association to request permission to start a soccer program on the North shore for children with special needs. After receiving approval, Tommy, with support from friends, his brother David, and father Dr. Fred, founded the Andover Challenger Soccer League which nearly 50 annual participants hailing from southern New Hampshire, Newburyport, Acton, Concord, and Boston.

The primary goal of the Challenger Sport League is to play with no pressure and educate typical peers and parents about sportsmanship. The division leverages a ‘buddy’ system, whereby each child on the team is shadowed and supported by a ‘buddy’ throughout the game (ex: pushing a wheelchair or pointing out where to throw the ball).  Buddies can be siblings, cousins, friends or parents. Challenger programs, which have cropped up in several Bay State towns including Andover, Woburn, Braintree, Sandwich, Sudbury and Wakefield, are open to boys and girls between the ages of 3-19 with all types of physical and developmental disabilities.

For those interested in swinging a tennis racket, The Longfellow Club on the Wayland/Sudbury line offers Handi-Racket Tennis, maintaining a vreputation of the longest running instructional program in New England for people with disabilities. Additionally, Handi-Racketeers comprise the largest group of tennis athletes at the Massachusetts Special Olympics. Participants in the program meet on Saturdays at The Longfellow Club.

For parents and kids looking for something to do indoors, Kartwheels in Motion (Kartwheels) hosts a series of physical activity programs at both the Boston Sports Club in Waltham and the YMCA in Brighton. 

Founded in February 2001 by Executive Director Jeannie Watson, a 28-year veteran teacher in the Lincoln Public School system, Kartwheels is committed to helping children increase skills and self-esteem through physical activity. Watson realized her vision of an indoor recreational program for children with special needs after volunteering at a horseback riding program during the summer months at which time she recognized a deficit in physical activities for children during the cooler, winter months.

Kartwheels incorporates gym activities such as tag, basketball, tumbling and climbing, and pool activities including muscle relaxation, swim stroke practice, and breath control. The Kartwheels program uses adaptive equipment and is open to children with all types of disabilities. “Parents have reported to us that Kartwheels’ inclusive model is unique and has had tremendous benefits to self-esteem,” said Watson. “Our inclusive model has helped overcome preconceptions or misconceptions of handicaps.”

Kartwheels programs occur once or twice a week for eight weeks at a time. Costs range from $16.50 for one session to $320 for two sessions a week for an eight-week period. Siblings are welcome and financial assistance is available.

According to Dr. Phillip Speiser, director of Arts Therapy at Whittier Street Health Center, “Athletics and the arts should not be separated—especially for children with special needs—as they go hand-in-hand.”

Speiser directs CHAMPS (Children and Adults have Arts and Music Programs), a one-hour music, art and dance adventure for individuals with special needs. A compilation of music and art therapy as well as dance/movement therapy, CHAMPS helps participants realize their strengths using expressive arts to communicate, increase attention and engagement, and build peer relationships.

“Children who participate really feel like they have succeeded in meeting the goals of the class and gain a sense of inclusion -- which are two key benefits to the CHAMPS program,” said Speiser.

Several CHAMPS programs currently exist in Arlington, Danvers and Franklin, yet interested parents can contact Speiser to discuss establishment of a program in or near their own hometown. Cost of participation begins at $20/class, yet CHAMPS also awards scholarships to interested students with support from The Genesis Fund, so that no children are turned away.

To most, it would seem that children with disabilities have limitations making participation in athletic programs challenging. The reality is that every family can locate a physical program in the Bay State through which their son or daughter can further enrich their lives and get in sync with their body to derive more energy, and establish more confidence and self-esteem—a result we all crave.

By Wendy Bulawa
GateHouse News Service
Monday, March 19, 2007 - Updated: 09:12 AM EDT