It’s been amazing for my son’s self-esteem, confidence-building and socializing with peers. There are not a lot of opportunities for that in school, and this gives him the chance to experience those typical milestones his siblings get to have. It’s been a huge boost… he tells everyone about his next game!”
Lakewood mother of three Nicole Born-Crow explains the positive influence adapted sports have had on her fifth-grader with autism. Brain surgery a year ago left her son with some physical disabilities. Now seizure-free, walking and running, he has enjoyed playing basketball and soccer and is trying golf next.
Northeast Ohio boasts sports and fitness activities for athletes of all ages and abilities. We break down why and how to find these camps and other programs as well as what to look for when determining which one is best for your child’s individual needs.
Adapted athletic offerings vary seasonally and range from group fitness programs or exercise classes to drop-in clinics focused on one or more sports at a time, recreational leagues with team play and more competitive interscholastic opportunities. Additionally, recreational day or overnight camps often weave athletic activities into a broader curriculum with arts/crafts, nature study and field trips.
Consider your child’s interests. “If your child doesn’t like team sports, focus on fitness first,” says certified special needs trainer Tony D’Orazio, founder of Jacob’s Ladder Special Needs Fitness. “Get them started young, and make it part of a regular family routine. Don’t look too much for technique, but model each exercise and reinforce the child’s efforts.”
As a former college and semi-pro athlete, D’Orazio stresses the need to raise expectations to realize ability. He and his son, Jake, who has Down Syndrome, are each certified in special needs training and Down to Box boxing instruction.
The advantages of adapted athletics are abundant. Through sports programs, children can:
Improve physical health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children and adults with mobility limitations and intellectual or learning disabilities are at greatest risk for obesity, with 20% of children ages 10-17 with special health care needs being obese, compared with 15% of children without special health care needs. Exercise promotes strength, mobility, flexibility, agility, balance, visual/spatial perception and more. Regular activity sets the foundation for a lifelong healthy lifestyle.
Emotional well-being support. Research shows physical activity improves mood and reduces anxiety while supporting concentration, memory, alertness and more.
Empower oneself. Explore in a comfortable, safe space where everyone feels included. Whether seeking basic competency or high-level competitiveness, confidence and pride come with greater independence and skills-building. There are opportunities to practice valuable self-advocacy and even life-saving skills, from water safety to self-defense.
Engage with the community in a fun way. Find joy in new enriching experiences. Sporting events give families something to look forward to, expose children to new people and places, and bring siblings, parents, volunteers and broader communities together to rally around a child and team. Opportunities for typically functioning peers to play or volunteer promote tolerance, understanding and compassion.
Grow socially. Support social-emotional development and improve communication skills through interaction with peers, coaches and fans. Learn teamwork and build friendships while practicing listening skills, following instruction and cheering on teammates. Connect to other families and opportunities. Miracle League of Lake County families, for example, builds entire days around a ball game with refreshments, playground time and attending a Captain’s minor league game.
Even so, there can be anxiety associated with trying new things. Between school, medical visits, therapies and more, schedules pose challenges. Barriers for children with special needs to participate in sports include access to proper equipment, transportation, trained support staff and funding.
“If you are eligible for county support dollars or NEON funding, adaptive sports programs in Cuyahoga County, accept it,” explains Nicole Born-Crow, program manager for Connecting for Kids, which provides education and support to Northeast Ohio families concerned about their child . “Full-day camps may be funded by scholarships or school districts for children on IEPs who qualify for ESY (extended school year services). Earlier in the year, families can try to apply for grants from foundations.”
Born-Crow notes that several communities have established adaptive programs, including Middleburg Heights and Solon Blue Ribbon Adapted Recreation, and local recreation departments may partner with adaptive sports organizations like Empower Sports, to meet special needs.
“For children with low support needs, local recreation departments can be a great option, but it becomes really important to ask questions,” she advises.
10 Questions to Ask Camp Providers
How do you know which sports program is right for your child? When meeting a camp provider, Connecting for Kids recommends asking a variety of questions to decide what is most important for your family. We’ve adapted this list for sports-specific considerations.
1. What is the typical camp? This is especially important to ask of community recreational programs, which may include a combination of typical peers and children with disabilities. Is the program for children with physical disabilities and/or intellectual/developmental disabilities? Are participants from primarily one type of diagnosis (ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, Down Syndrome, etc.)? What are the ages?
2. What is the ratio of athletes to staff/counselors? How is it structured? Are teams based on age, ability level, etc.?
3. What is the schedule? This can range from a couple hours per day to full day, one or more days per week, multiple weeks per season or sleep-away. For team sports, when and where are practices and games held?
4. What is the staff composition? Counselors or coaches may include trained professionals, therapists or athletes in addition to college and/or high school students, or a mix. Is there a nurse on staff?
5. What kind of training and experience do staff have, particularly with children who have challenges similar to my child’s? Does the staff receive safe sport and first aid training? Are any certified in adaptive and inclusive training, autism fitness, etc.?
6. What skills are addressed during camp? Is there a competitive team structure? These may include athletic skills specific to one or more sports in addition to social-emotional, speech and language and academics/IEP goals.
7. How does the camp handle behavior problems and sensory needs? This includes aggression, refusal, non-compliance, eloping (running away) and attention-seeking behaviors, as well as sensory sensitivities or other differences.
8. What funding do you accept? This may include private pay, family resource dollars/NEON, campership dollars and scholarships/grants. School district funding as part of extended school year services may apply to camps focused on academics/IEP goals that incorporate recreational elements.
9 What communication should I expect? This includes the best way to get in touch with staff, if and how a child’s day will be communicated with parents, and frequency.
10. How is the sport or activity adapted to meet my child’s needs, and what equipment is provided by the camp for the participant? Consider accessibility for wheelchairs, walkers, gait trainers, canes and service animals as well as any supports available, such as a speaker/FM system to help a Deaf or hard-of-hearing child.
“Many kids don’t consider themselves athletes, but once we give them a chance, it changes their lives,” says Brian Veverka, director of programs for Adaptive Sports Ohio.
He described one interscholastic wheelchair basketball player who loved sports when he was younger but did not have opportunities to play.
“Now, he has a scholarship to Auburn University and is trying out for the USA Men’s National team and Paralympics.” He adds, “One dad even said that ‘Two months of playing was better than two years of physical therapy’ for his child.’”
Adapted Sports Providers
Organizations working to eliminate barriers and improve access to sports for all include:
• Youth Challenge (youthchallengesports.com), established in 1976, connects young people ages 4-19 with physical disabilities or orthopedic, visual or hearing impairments who are able to participate in age-appropriate activities with trained teen volunteers through more than 300 free, year-round adapted sports, recreation and social growth activities across Northeast Ohio. Seasonal offerings include basketball, baseball, sled hockey, golf, swimming, tennis, archery, boccia, rock climbing and more. Teams practice weekly during their designated season and travel to compete. Transportation is available on a limited basis via a fleet of lift-equipped vans.
• Empower Sports Ohio of Cleveland (empowersports.org) offers sports and exercise programs at low or no cost for children and adults with physical and cognitive disabilities. Clinics help build skills, and league programs give athletes with special needs the chance to play alongside typically-functioning peers. Seasonal programs include basketball, lacrosse, softball and fitness.
• Adaptive Sports Ohio (adaptivesportsohio.org) offers individuals of all ages with physical disabilities community-based and interscholastic sports programs throughout the year at locations around Cleveland, Akron, Columbus, Wooster and more. Programs range from drop-in clinics to competitive wheelchair basketball, lacrosse, power wheelchair soccer, softball, cycling and more. Annual Dream Camp is an overnight weekend experience July 8-10, 2022 in Ashley, Ohio that includes wheelchair basketball, wheelchair softball, track & field, swimming, kayaking, high ropes, campfire, dance, games and more. Campers may bring a personal care attendant for an extra cost.
• Rec2Connect Therapy (rec2connect.org) connects people with special needs to aquatics, fitness and social group recreation programs serving Cuyahoga, Summit, Portage, Lorain, Medina, Lake and Geauga Counties.
• Achievement Centers’ Camp Cheerful (campcheerful.achievementcenters.org) in the Metroparks’ Mill Stream Run Reservation of Strongsville. Various day, weekend and overnight camps are offered for children and adults with physical, developmental and sensory disabilities. The Therapeutic Horsemanship program and Cheerful Day Camp serve children with and without disabilities. Adapted sports programs include Junior Wheelchair Cavaliers Basketball (year-round), Cleveland Browns Adapted Football League (May – July), Adapted Baseball (August – September), and Adapted Soccer (January – March).
• Jacob’s Ladder Special Needs Fitness (jacobsladderfitness.com) is a faith-based exercise group in Strongsville offering personal and Zoom training, fitness classes and boxing instruction at various locations.
• Miracle League of Lake County (miracleleagueoflakecounty.org) in Eastlake and Miracle League of Northeast Ohio (miracleleagueofnortheastohio.com) in Medina enable individuals with special needs to play baseball on an accessible rubberized turf field accompanied by an accessible playground. Each child is accompanied by an adult or assigned volunteer buddy. Equipment is provided to those who do not bring it.
• iCan Bike Camp (canshine.org) is a five-day camp for people ages 8 and older with special needs. It runs July 11-15 in Independence and Copley and consists of 75-minute bike-riding sessions. Research shows the vast majority of people with disabilities never get to experience independently riding a two-wheeler. This proven, research-based program helps individuals defy those odds.