May is National Physical Fitness and Sports month. Physical activity is important for everyone whether or not we are professional athletes. Exercise not only helps people have good health, but it can also provide various social and learning opportunities. Unfortunately, those of us with disabilities are often excluded from participating in meaningful physical activities. Persistent misconceptions about our capabilities are very common, and can lead to unintentional exclusion and other consequences.
Last week, I read an article about why it is important to include people with disabilities in sports. Besides reinforcing that important message, it reminded me of when I was unintentionally excluded from gym class in junior high and high school. While my sighted classmates were running laps around the track, doing gymnastics or lifting weights, I was either doing light exercise on a stationary bicycle alongside kids with other physical and intellectual disabilities or finishing up homework in the study hall classroom. Of course, at that age I didn’t mind having that study hall time – the less homework I had to do at home the better!
Now I realize that my teachers and classmates did not purposely put me on the sidelines. They – like most people – were afraid I would get hurt. Come to think of it, I too was afraid to a certain extent. Taking a semester of swimming class was a graduation requirement for all students, but an exception was made in my case. As a swimmer I was barely at the beginner level, and like many people felt fearful of even attempting to learn more advanced skills! Without a doubt, I was relieved that the school had waived this requirement.
Much to my chagrin, that all changed during my senior year when my teacher of the visually impaired persuaded the school to include me in swimming class! My parents also loved this idea, so I could no longer escape! I was the only student who is blind, and by working one-on-one with my coach I learned alongside my classmates with no problems – you can read about my experience as a blind swimmer here. Once the semester was over, I realized my fears were irrational, and that I enjoyed swimming very much. Of course, that leads me to wonder if there are other sports I’ve missed out on simply because I haven’t been willing to or given the chance to try out.
Sports and physical exercise are also important for people who are blind or have other disabilities. Although the statistics are not yet well known, it is estimated that these individuals are more likely to suffer from obesity because of lack of exercise. This is something we as a society can easily change by being inclusive and creating more sports opportunities. Let’s set our fears and misconceptions aside and focus on what individuals with disabilities can do. After all, sports are much more than about winning and losing!