Wheelchair Sports Help Athletes In More Ways Than One

By Dan Peterson, TeamSnap's Sports Science Expert


In a little more than a week, the 2016 Paralympics Games will kick-off. Held for the first time in South America, organizers are expecting more athletes than competed in London 2012 and over 4 billion total TV viewers across the globe.

While the Special Olympics gathers athletes with intellectual disabilities, the Paralympics is for athletes with physical disabilities, including mobility disabilities, amputations, blindness and cerebral palsy. Known as adaptive sports, the rules and approved equipment are modified or adapted to include competitors with a variety of disabilities.

With this worldwide attention every four years, the Paralympics has fueled the growth of both individual and team-based sports. Wheelchair basketball and rugby teams have seen a dramatic rise in popularity, especially after previous Paralympics Games. 

Of course, there is a cost of time and money for players as they still need to work and earn a living like the rest of us. The challenges they face on the court are amplified when they go out into the workplace trying to put their knowledge and skill to use while managing their disability. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation, only 29% of workers with disabilities are able to find full-time employment compared to a national rate of over 95 percent. Being restricted to a wheelchair reduces that number to just 18 percent.

Michael Cottingham, associate professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance (HHP) at the University of Houston, recently surveyed 131 wheelchair athletes to find out if there was a link between their sports life and their success in finding employment. Specifically, he asked about the number of years they had been involved in sports, both before and after their injury or disability, and about their job history, again before and after the beginning of their time in a wheelchair.

What he found was that playing sports was positively related to their success in the workplace. In other words, the longer they played adaptive sports after their injury, the better their employment rate.

"The number of years since disability onset was positively associated with employment and the more severe the injury the less likely the individual maintained employment," said Dr. Cottingham. "The data also show this negative relationship between injury severity and employment becomes less significant the longer they played sports. Over time, the fitness and health benefits are probably mitigating the disadvantage of having a more severe impairment."

The research has been published in Disability and Rehabilitation.

"Our analysis shows that playing an additional year of adaptive sport is associated with an approximately 4 percent increase in likelihood of employment every year for 10 years before the benefits flatten out,” said Dr. Cottingham. “Resources to support disability sport are lacking, though, in part because of the perceived lack of economic return of investing in these programs."

While he’s not exactly sure of the reasons, the social connections, self-confidence and self-discipline required in sports most likely crosses over to the workplace.

"These factors are probably directly and indirectly impacting employment," said Dr. Cottingham. "To what extent we don't yet know, but what seems clear is that disability sport is a catalyst."

This data shows that funding for adaptive sports, including cost of competition and equipment, could show a positive return on investment for the participants as they are able to be more successful in the real world.

"If an additional 100,000 individuals, or 2 percent of the working-age wheelchair population in the country, were to play adaptive sports for only one year, our study estimates approximately 4,000 of them would become employed, and this new employment would add approximately $40 million to the economy in the form of household income,” concluded Dr. Cottingham.

If you would like to get involved, organizations like Disabled Sports USA offer many opportunities to help. 

Release Date: Aug 25 2016

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