Grassroots Paralympic Programs

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By Betta Ferrendelli

Building a More Active Patient Base from the Ground Up

Paralympic sports garnered significant attention this summer, thanks to the excitement surrounding the Summer Olympics in London, England. But even though the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic flames have been extinguished, O&P professionals can continue to keep those sports programs in the limelight until the flames are rekindled for the 2014 Winter Games.

The Olympic Games in London this summer provided a healthy boost for Paralympic sports, says Robin Burton, executive director of the Orthotic & Prosthetic Activities Foundation (OPAF) and The First Clinics. "Most O&P patient care facilities are making their clients aware of the Paralympic Games, especially since it is an Olympic year." However, she adds, "I don't know how effective [practitioners] are...at making their patients aware of local programming or events due to their busy schedules."

Francois Van Der Watt, CPO, lead prosthetist for the 2011- 2012 U.S. Paralympic track and field team and Össur Academy manager, prosthetics, Össur Americas, Foothill Ranch, California, says that O&P professionals could be doing more to raise awareness about Paralympic sports. "It's a double-edged sword," he says. "Many practitioners may think they can only get involved [with Paralympics] if they are working with or have a Paralympian or a Paralympian hopeful."

That is far from the case, Van Der Watts continues. "Traditionally, amputee track and field athletes get the most media exposure," but there are a number of Paralympic sports options available to O&P patients—more than practitioners might be aware of. In fact, there are 24 Paralympic events, according to Lise Lindsay, CP.This is not the only misperception about Paralympic sports. "Our population is often confused with those with developmental disabilities rather than physical challenges," Burton says. It is an "on-going challenge" to help the public understand that a physical challenge is not a developmental challenge, she says. Adding to the confusion, according to Lindsay, is that "many orthotic and prosthetic patients are still likely to believe that Paralympics are for persons who are paralyzed. The first step in raising awareness is by educating our patients and letting them know what is available for them. Unfortunately, many O&P practitioners are not aware themselves of activities for disabled persons in their own communities."

Lindsay is founder and facilitator of Lively Limbs, an Arizona-based support group for people living with limb loss. Her experience with adaptive sports began more than 25 years ago when she taught English horseback riding lessons in New York City and had to modify her teaching for each student due to their various disabilities. Her involvement in Paralympic sports began in 2007 when she volunteered for Arizona Disabled Sports (AzDS), a nonprofit Paralympic Sport Club. She became the AzDS archery coach in 2008, starting with seven participants. The program has grown to 30 participants this season with eight juniors and four adults qualifying for national competition.

"Being a prosthetist or an orthotist is much more than simply providing a device to a patient," Lindsay says. "We are also responsible for our patients becoming or remaining productive citizens in our community."

Top two photographs by Joe Kusumoto, courtesy of U.S. Paralympics. Bottom three photographs by Randy Richardson, courtesy of Hanger Clinic. First Swim photograph courtesy of OPAF.

Where Do You Begin?

Every competitive athlete starts somewhere, and clinicians can help their patients get involved by encouraging them to try a sport that sparks their interest.

Not everyone is going to be a Paralympian, but everyone needs to be active, Burton says. Adaptive sports are a "huge part" of that, and local, regional, and national programming is available. OPAF's The First Clinics is a good example of an effort to bring more awareness to Paralympic sports development, she says. OPAF's program, which began in 2005, offers adaptive recreational sports programs, from tennis to swimming, to individuals with physical challenges. "First Clinics are offering that opportunity for adaptive recreation at an introductory level for all ages," Burton says. "There are organizations that are working with the higher-end athletes, but everyone needs a chance to try and see what they can do. That's what First Clinics offer."

Lindsay is a huge advocate for The First Clinics and says that hosting a clinic locally is a great way to expose patients and clinicians to various Paralympic sports and "to encourage patients to try a sport in a safe environment with trained professionals."

U.S. Paralympics, a division of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), also makes adaptive sports available locally through its Paralympic Sport Clubs, which offer community-based sports and physical-activity programs for children and adults with physical and visual disabilities— regardless of skill level.

For more than 21 million Americans with physical and visual impairments, including veterans and military personnel, local Paralympic sports programming has filled an important community need, according to Susan Rossi, MNpS, CTRS, manager for grassroots programs for the USOC in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Through partnerships with community-based organizations, the initial launch nearly five years ago encompassed about 20 key markets nationwide. Today, there are more than 175 active Paralympic Sport Clubs in nearly all 50 states, and, Rossi adds, in 2011, more than 13,000 athletes with physical and visual disabilities participated in Paralympic Sport Club activities across the country.

Athletes as young as six years old can start in a Sport Club, and once they are in the program, they can continue into adulthood, she says. Paralympic Sport Clubs offer something for athletes at all levels. "For athletes who just want to ride a bike with mom and dad, to something for more competitive-driven athletes, to the elitelevel athletes," Rossi says.

Paralympic Sport Clubs run the gamut in terms of size and sports programs offered, she continues. "Some are big, some are small. Some may focus on one sport, others may offer ten or 12 different programs. It depends on the club's location."

Photographs on this page by Randy Richardson, courtesy of Hanger Clinic.

The goal is to have Sport Clubs in all 50 states, she says.

Another good starting point, according to Van Der Watt, is to become a member of the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists (the Academy) and to sign up for the Academy's Lower Limb Prosthetics Society's High Performance Sport Prosthetics group. Being an Academy member allows practitioners to talk to and collaborate with their peers about sport-specific prosthetic devices and related technology, he says. And, perhaps most importantly, O&P professionals should have an open dialog with their patients to find out what their patients' passions and aspirations are. "Every patient can be...involved at some level in some Paralympic sports. There are many opportunities available to get involved, and it doesn't mean you have to work with the world's fastest amputee sprinters...," says Van Der Watt, who has been a part of South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius' prosthetic team since the runner was a teenager. Pistorius made history this summer by becoming the first bilateral lower-limb amputee to compete in an Olympics. He went on to win a gold medal in the final Paralympic track and field competition, the T44 400m sprint.

Pistorius

Patients often only see media coverage of elite athletes who are sponsored by national O&P companies and facilities, Lindsay says. "The awareness is raised regarding marketing these companies but not in regards to Paralympic sports and how to get patients involved at the local level. It is equally important to keep our noncompetitive patients active and encourage them to participate recreationally." When it comes to building awareness about Paralympic sports, one of the best ways to build recognition, according to Lindsay, is for O&P clinicians to remember how their patients may benefit rather than how their practice may benefit directly. "As a profession, we need to take responsibility for the physical and emotional well-being of our patients," she says. "Participating in local adaptive programs can have a tremendous impact on even the recreational athlete."

However, Van Der Watt adds that practitioners need to find their own passions and interests as well. He advises practitioners who want to start an adaptive program to do some investigation on what adaptive recreational activities are available in their area and then gauge their own interest in coordinating these activities.

It Takes a Village

When it comes to increasing opportunities for grassroots Paralympic sports and physical-activity programs, the experts interviewed for this article agree that it takes the proverbial village to make it happen. However, even though building such a program requires time, effort, and commitment, it's not necessary to redesign the wheel, Van Der Watt says. He says that Paralympic Sport Clubs can provide assistance with getting a program started, including advice on fundraising and marketing efforts. He also suggests attending the annual Paralympic Leadership Conference in Colorado Springs. One of the speakers at the 2012 conference was Ashley Thomas, founder and executive director for Bridge II Sports, a Durham, North Carolina-based nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for children and adults who are physically challenged to play team and individual sports. Thomas' topic during the 2012 conference focused on starting a grassroots Paralympic sports program.

Starting a grassroots program requires "a lot of patience, a positive attitude, high energy, and the ability to work with all sorts of people," says Thomas, who was born with spina bifida, has three children, and considers herself a community changer. "We do a lot of community collaboration," she says. "It takes a dedicated person to manage all the interaction."

Top Right, Photograph courtesy of Freedom Innovations. Photographs by Randy Richardson, courtesy of Hanger Clinic.

Local clubs such as the YMCA, parks and recreation departments, rehabilitation centers, as well as hospitals are good places to solicit help when starting a grassroots program. For the last five years, for example, The First Clinics has secured grant funding to provide clinics for children's hospitals nationwide, Burton says. "In many instances, participants are looking for the opportunity to 'try' and just need help in getting started," she says. "Once that happens, many will move forward on their own in other types of recreation."

Lindsay suggests starting small. "Communities should begin with a small, manageable program and build from there," she says. "Adaptive programs can start by partnering with existing activities and programs within the community." She also suggests hosting a Paralympic Experience Clinic, which is designed to encourage local community members to not only come and learn about the various Paralympic sports, but also to provide them the opportunity to try one or more sports.

Community involvement also plays an integral role in funding adaptive activity programs. Local businesses may help by providing discounts as well as monetary and inkind donations. "Our initial equipment for archery was provided by the Arizona Game and Fish Department," Lindsay says. "Independent archery storeowners have donated equipment, completed repairs, and provided discounts when more equipment needs to be ordered."

The Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) is also a good source for funding, our experts agree. "We encourage our athletes to apply for funding through CAF," Lindsay says. "CAF has been fundamental in providing our local athletes with equipment and travel costs for competition and coaching."

Benefits Beyond the Physical

"A healthy lifestyle is important no matter who the person is," says Cathy Sellers, high-performance director, Paralympic Track and Field. "One of the benefits of exercise is the mental aspect," she says. "It helps the recent amputee get their life back into perspective of what is possible."

Burton agrees. "Everyone benefits from an active lifestyle," she says. "First Clinics include able-bodied participants, when appropriate, so that we are inclusive to everyone."

Participating in local sports programs helps O&P patients learn new ways of doing things, Lindsay says. It allows them to build self-esteem, gain confidence with new skills, and build camaraderie with other participants. "A program does not have to be highly competitive in nature," Sellers adds. "It can be as simple as people coming out to train once or twice a week and then hosting a competition or using existing community competitions and entering a group of amputee adults."

As a business owner, starting a grassroots Paralympic sports or activity program can also benefit your practice. "You will be identified as someone who is involved and cares about what happens in the community," Van Der Watt says. "It will differentiate your practice from the rest."

Betta Ferrendelli is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado.