Make Room for Kids with Disabilities in Sports

Doesn’t everyone deserve a chance to fall in love with a sporting activity? You may feel free to agree or disagree. But before you conclude, let’s look at both sides of the argument. Perhaps you have found that working with exceptional children is your calling, and it can be the ultimate reward for many. Some of you have likely stumbled across the world of disabilities somewhat unexpectedly. In either case, it’s no one’s fault that the kids take a little longer to learn or that we need to adjust for them to be successful. If we were alike, it would be one boring place!


Today over 10 million kids in our nation suffer from some developmental opportunity between the ages of three and 17. And the numbers are increasing. Parents are struggling to learn as much about the impairment as they can, it often takes time to accurately diagnose a problem and the world, in general, is not well equipped to help manage these kids in an everyday environment, much less in the sports industry.

Most Common Ailments

 As you know, there is a multitude of birth defects that can occur with children of both healthy, unhealthy, wealthy, and lower income families. The diseases don’t care who they touch or how. And for the children, who are the victims, they are reminded just about every minute of every day that they are different.

  • Autism in our country today affects one in about 68 kids, and most are diagnosed between the ages of two and six months of age. Typically, it impacts boys more than girls.
  • Attention deficit disorder (ADD may also be known as ADHD with the “H” added for hyperactivity) happens when kids find it extremely difficult to focus and give undivided attention. ADHD usually shows up during the ages of 13 to 18 and in an estimated nine percent of kids. It also affects about four percent of adults as well.
  • Cerebral palsy impacts children when their brains develop too slowly, which later impacts their ability to physically function well. This touches our kids in younger ages of two and three years old and affects more than 10,000 infants annually.
  • Down syndrome affects about 6,000 kids each year, and an estimated 400,000 Americans have the disability. This is usually viewable in the child’s height as well as slanted eyes and is caused by an added chromosome (#21) passed from a parent. Mentally, different children can be impacted in various ways and to various degrees.
  • Epilepsy also involves brain development that results in seizures. Two or more seizures in a 24-hour period are the first indicator.
  • Spina bifida affects eight babies born each day and is the result of a split spine. Children are required to use braces, crutches or wheelchairs to move around.
  • Dyslexia affects about 15 percent of people in our nation, and it creates issues with reading and writing.
  • Dyscalculia is very similar; however, it impacts reading and mathematics. About six percent of the population suffers from this disease.
  • Depression affects more than half of all adults in America, and it touches children as well. This ailment can impact school work and home life.

 Energy and Physical Activity

Many kids with intellectual or physical disabilities, still have an ardent desire to be active and to play with their friends and other kids their age who may be suffering from a similar impairment. You may find adults who complain they make too much noise, fail to follow directions and are always underfoot. Patience is a virtue!

Being able to participate in a sport makes each child feel more incorporated into the world, and in many cases, it helps to improve their social skills. It’s an incredible combination that is thoughtful, educational and rewarding. When you have special needs, the focus should be on your personal best, so that you are your own competition. Define success by how much better you perform at each event.

Having coaches who are fun, and confident, yet gently demanding with special needs children are extraordinary people indeed. The children take immense pride in each improvement, no matter how big or small and the value of engaging with both adults, and peers is priceless! Most parents report that their kids are happiest when they are doing physical activities and post event, they are less anxious, calmer, and less likely to suffer a meltdown. Special needs kids generally:

  • Require more one on one time with a coach. They may excel as athletes; however, their cognitive abilities may require added care and time to understand fully.
  • Excel at an individual sport at first. Swimming, dance or martial arts are all great options.
  • Respond better to being shown what to do rather than being told. It’s easier for them to understand and repeat what you teach them.
  • Are accepted as equals, if the coach sets the proper tone. Other students in a class (like martial arts) are going to accept and encourage each other.

You may find that trying to fit your special needs son or daughter into mainstream sporting events is just too challenging and frustrating for everyone. However, if you are fortunate enough to find an acceptable program with qualified coaches, it is the better option for many high functioning children. You want to be sure that your child is reasonably matched with other kids at approximately the same skill levels. These kids don’t ask for special treatment; life is full of winners and losers, so no one expects to be coddled. We would like to see coaches highlight their strengths when practical though. This small step allows the other kids to see an individual child in a more normal light and it adds tremendous social value for the kids to see each other that way.


Children without impairments also benefit from interactions with special needs students. The diversity improves social skills, leadership, confidence, and self-esteem.

Let’s make this a win-win for everyone and allow all our kids to gain value from being a participant in the sports industry.

Please share your thoughts on the topic below. If you are the parent of a special needs child, let us know what sports have been the most meaningful to you and your family. Or tell us about an interaction your family has had with a special needs athlete.


What Do You Think?

Make Room for Kids with Disabilities in Sports

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