Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Cerebral Palsy and Sports: Athletes Ask, "Who Says We Can't?"

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Cerebral Palsy and Sports: Athletes Ask, "Who Says We Can't?"

Article excerpt

Not too many years ago, if an individual with cerebral palsy was involved with an elite sports team for athletes with disabilities, it was as manager, statistician or other assistant to the athletes. A number of factors combined to prevent most people with cerebral palsy from actually competing. Not the least of these was the commonly held belief that individuals with cerebral palsy were particularly fragile and prone to injury. Medical professionals were especially concerned with the possibility that strength training might exacerbate already-existing spasticity, or muscle tightness. And few even considered the possibility of athletic participation by individuals with athetosis, a less common type of cerebral palsy characterized by a lack of controlled movement. However, there is no record of any medical researcher asking people with cerebral palsy for their opinion.

Athletes speak for themselves

In 1992, a survey of top athletes with cerebral palsy was completed by 36 elite athletes competing in the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona, Spain. The survey asked open-ended questions about motivation, training, injuries and factors that had positively or negatively affected the athletes' participation and success in competitive athletics. The answers illuminated some of the unique obstacles faced by top athletes with cerebral palsy; however, they said even more about the ways in which these athletes are similar to their peers without disabilities.

* Motivation: Answers to the survey indicated that elite athletes with cerebral palsy train and compete for many of the same reasons as top athletes without disabilities. Respondents mentioned the enjoyment of meeting new people and seeing new places. Some talked about the excitement of competition and the thrill of winning. But, above all, they talked about the joy of mastery and the satisfaction of setting a goal and achieving it:

"I used to read about and watch the Olympics... my dream was to compete in track and field and cycling... if you have a dream, you get involved and work for it," said one athlete.

"I wanted to prove to myself and others. . . that disabilities shouldn't stop someone from succeeding and winning."

* Physical education classes: More than half of the survey respondents reported receiving no encouragement at all from physical education teachers in school. Several referred to their physical education classes as "a joke." Others reported being excluded from classes entirely or being given the role of teacher's assistant. "School PE classes made me think I couldn't be an athlete," reported one athlete. "I wasn't exposed to wheelchair athletics until college."

But when a physical education teacher did make the effort to be encouraging, it often had an extremely positive impact. One top athlete with cerebral palsy attributes his entry into competitive sports at least partially to a third-grade gym teacher who "got after me to lose some of my baby fat."

* Parents and siblings: Most of these top athletes had parents and siblings who either supported them enthusiastically or, at least, did not discourage their interest in sports. Family support was especially important to athletes who received little support for their endeavors--athletic, or otherwise--from teachers, peers or medical professionals. "I was always having to prove to others that I could do things on my own and that they did not have to treat me like a baby all the time," said one respondent. "Fortunately, my family treated me like an equal. They never let me be lazy or not want to accomplish things."

Some athletes mentioned the encouragement of siblings--"My older brother played college basketball," wrote one athlete. "I idolized him, and he drove me to try to be better than him."

Several respondents acknowledged that the support of their families often went well beyond psychological encouragement. One competitor noted that her family had to drive for an hour one way to bring her to the 50-meter pool where she practiced against swimmers without disabilities. …

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