Wheelchair Rugby

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I saw this video on Facebook and thought it was great, but it reminded me of something that frustrates me. Children with disabilities often receive the adaptive equipment they need to play sports or participate in recreational activities, which is beyond wonderful. The frustrating part is when I think about the population I work with — adults with disabilities — who have a significantly harder time getting access to and ownership of the same equipment.

I’ve seen firsthand and read about the importance of sports and recreation for people with disabilities. As one of the managers for the St. Louis Rugby Rams, a wheelchair rugby team, I’ve heard some of the players say they learned more by coming to rugby practice than they did in rehab.

I’m not discounting rehab at all. It got them to the point of being able to do the basics. Without rehab, they wouldn’t be able to go to rugby practice. But the amount of knowledge and education that happens when a person with a disability is around people who are not new to the disability world is amazing. It’s an environment where a person can feel comfortable asking questions and know that the answer is based on first-hand knowledge.

“I never did go into any type of support group. I didn’t want to talk about it,” wheelchair rugby player Chuck Melton said in a St. Louis Magazine article, “but coming around here, it just seemed like it was so much easier to talk to these guys.” Melton credits the sport with saving his marriage of 17 years. Additionally, the motivation a player gets from knowing he can compete and be physical again is like no other.

It’s important for people with disabilities to be active. A study commissioned by Disabled Sports USA found that among more than 1,000 working age adults with disabilities, those in sports programs were more than twice as likely (68 vs. 33 percent) to be employed compared with the general population of adults with disabilities, with the majority of them attributing workplace success to involvement in sports and recreation. It’s just a fact for anyone — disability or not — that being active leads to improved mental and physical health.

Now back to the adults part. In researching information on spinal cord injury, I found that the highest per capita of people with spinal cord injury is from 16 to 30 years old. The average age is 27.6 years old, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center. Ten to 15 percent of people who had a stroke are under the age of 45. And the onset of multiple sclerosis usually occurs between 20 and 40 years old, with an average of 32. All of these statistics show that many disabilities happen after the age of 18 and way before what is considered old age, and often in the prime of a person’s life.

Many of these disabilities are significant, and a person needs some sort of adaptive equipment to participate in sports and other recreational activities. However, that equipment is not cheap. Not only is adaptive equipment expensive (a hand-powered bike for a child who’s paralyzed below the waist can cost upwards ​of $7,000), but people with disabilities are also more likely to be unemployed or underemployed than the rest of the population. It’s not, “Go by a pair of $100 running shoes for a run.” It’s, “Get a custom racing chair for $3,000 to $5,000.”

So it seems to me that for people with disabilities under the age of 18, the opportunities and funding for adaptive sports and recreation are more numerous. When a child reaches adulthood, the possibilities are more limited. Furthermore, children with disabilities may grow up to be adults with disabilities who need to maintain an active lifestyle, too.

The main organization that I know that funds adaptive equipment for adults is Challenged Athlete Foundation. Beyond that, I know of some low-cost loans that people can get, but I think with the high prices of equipment, people don’t want to get into owing significant sums of money. Insurance doesn’t cover any of that equipment because it’s not “medically necessary” or considered “extra” or for “fun.” The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does a great job of covering this equipment for veterans, though obviously not everyone with a disability is a vet.

My frustration comes from sports and recreation being so influential on the physical and mental health of people with disabilities, but despite this, there is a disconnect for funding of the actual equipment. I wish some portion of DUI fines or special license plate fees went toward funding adaptive equipment for adults with disabilities because that equipment does change lives.

Lindsey Bean-Kampwerth is the Director of Assistive Technology at Paraquad. She can be reached at lkampwerth@paraquad.org.

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