Let Them Play: Why Kids with Disabilities Should Play Youth Sports

By Alex Perdikis

There’s nothing quite like play when you’re a kid. Maybe it’s a neighborhood game of baseball, basketball or flag football, perhaps it’s playing on a youth sports team or maybe it’s a simple game of catch in the backyard. It doesn’t matter. The joy of play is part of growing up.

Team sports in particular offers benefits that last well beyond the playing field. But, for kids with disabilities, participating in youth sports is a challenge. As adults, we have to take steps to make it easier for children with disabilities to join in.

Why Youth Sports?

The benefits of playing youth sports are widely known. Belonging to and learning to work with a team of diverse personalities teaches children to get along, rely on one another, build camaraderie, promote  self-esteem, practice resiliency and develop problem-solving skills. All of these benefits lead to life skills that follow children as they grow up and become adults.

There are multiple physical advantages as well, including building muscular and cardiovascular endurance, coordination and flexibility. Physical activity promotes a healthy lifestyle.

Children with disabilities may struggle with self-esteem and have difficulty making friends. Disabled children are often less physically active and some have a tendency toward obesity. For kids with disabilities, engaging in youth sports offers a host of advantages that include improvements in both mental and physical health.

The Challenge for Kids With Disabilities

Children with disabilities face a boatload of challenges when it comes to playing youth sports. Some children feel frightened or insecure about joining. For others, finding a community program willing to welcome them may be the issue.

Parents, coaches, team administrators and program leaders may wittingly or unwittingly put up barriers. For every problem, there’s a solution. Here are a few:

Parent and child fears: Children with disabilities are often the target of derision. Parents want to protect their children and kids may be reluctant to participate in a new environment. It’s a parent’s job to keep their child safe. But, it’s also a parent’s job to let their child grow and learn to be a confident well-rounded adult. Youth sports is a great way to help children do just that.

There are several ways parents can deal with their own fears and that of their child. Meet with the coaches and explain your child’s disability. Provide ample opportunities for the child and coaches to meet and get to know one another. After a while, what was once a frightening situation is now less so.

Of course, if parents don’t like a program or feel a coach isn’t willing or able to deal with the child in a positive manner, they should look for another program.

Administrators fear liability: If a program has not had a disabled player on the team before, they may balk because they don’t know what to expect. Perhaps they fear the disabled child will be injured and the team or league held responsible. Perhaps they fear prosthetic or adapted equipment will lead to injuries to other team members. In some cases, team leaders may decide they just won’t accept disabled players.

Parents need to take the lead with administrators. Sometimes all that’s needed is a little education.

Any player can be hurt on the field. If needed, parents can assist coaches in making modifications to increase safety levels. Parents can also make safely modifications themselves. For example, if a child uses a wheelchair, perhaps adding extra padding to the chair to make it safer if other players run into it would help.

Pull all the decision makers, including coaches and administrators, into the discussion to get feedback, come up with new ideas and encourage acceptance.

If administrators still say no, consider organizations such as Special Olympics.

Team member fears: It’s natural for existing team members to feel a little unsure when welcoming a disabled player onto the team. Coaches are instrumental here.

One strategy is to have a team meeting where the child with the disability is introduced and welcomed. The coach then explains that the new teammate has a disability and discusses a little about what that means. The coach then opens the meeting for discussion, letting the kids talk, asking each other questions and getting to know one another. Before long, team members won’t see a kid with a disability, they’ll see a kid like themselves who may need a little help sometimes.

Youth sports provides so many benefits and kids with disabilities should not have to miss out. All children deserve the opportunity to enjoy one of childhood’s greatest pleasures.