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Accentuate the positives

July 7, 2009

For 20-year old Andy, a passionate martial arts enthusiast, breaking his neck felt like the end of the world.  Now a quadriplegic, he recalls feeling so depressed that he just wanted to die.  He didn’t want to leave the house at all, let alone try to get back into sports.

But after visiting the hospital for his annual checkup, he happened to pick up a newsletter from the Spinal Cord Injury Center and saw an ad for wheelchair rugby.  He decided to check it out, and was immediately hooked.

“I was so dependent still and these are quads, at my [injury level]…and they’re independent.  And it looked like they were having fun.  It just dawned on me all at one time.”

Others – like Mark, who became paraplegic after a motocross accident, or Tim who had both legs amputated, or Olivia, who lost her sight at age 13 – all echo Andy’s sentiment; that sport helped bring them back to life.

Wheelchair racer“So much research exists on why the disabled aren’t active, what barriers they face toward activity,” says John Shank, a professor of  therapeutic recreation in the College of Health Professions, who co-authored a paper on the benefits of sport for the disabled in this month’s issue of Disability and Health Journal.  “We wanted to focus less on impairments and more on their personal feelings and their environment – what it was that got them interested and participating in sport.”

In the study, Shank and lead author and fellow faculty member Barbara Wilhite interviewed 12 people, including Andy, Mark, Tim and Olivia who had a variety of disabilities.  Partcipants then reviewed transcripts of their interviews to corroborate the interpretations made by the researchers. The data collected were analyzed in the context of the  International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF,) in order to understand how participants sought and maintained their health through sport.

All of the participants said the same thing: interaction with a rehab professional helped get them on track.  Shank says this is important, because rehab professionals are the first line after a person is injured, and they need to talk with their patients about it.

 “They need to know that sport can be a venue for an individual to experience and maintain their health, which can positively influence their level of life quality,” he said.


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