Students with Disabilities Thrive in Adaptive Sports | Sports

THOMASVILLE — Those who went to the GHSA State Basketball Championships last March might not have expected to see wheelchair basketball there. But that’s exactly what the crowds saw when the Houston County Sharks won another state title. Through the AAASP and GHSA, adaptive sports have made their way into high schools across the state of Georgia, giving young people with disabilities, who otherwise couldn’t represent their schools, a chance to compete at the high school level.

Since its inception in 1996, the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs has strived to provide students with disabilities the same athletic opportunities as their able-bodied peers. Students who have orthopedic or other disabilities have the opportunity to play wheelchair basketball, wheelchair football, wheelchair handball and track and field.

“For me, it’s life-changing to be able to compete at the high school level,” said Houston County Sharks wheelchair football coach Jeremy Downing. “I was very nervous at first when Coach Jones asked me to take over the football program. Simply because I didn’t know the sport, but I quickly fell in love with it. And the athletes that we have, they give 110% effort in everything they do and they are one of the hardest working groups of athletes I have ever coached. They don’t let any disability affect their game.”

The Houston County School District has been involved in adaptive sports for many years. As a program, they draw students from county schools to ensure they are able to field enough athletes to form a team, a common practice for adaptive sports programs. The Sharks have been very lucky with enough athletes to form varsity and JV teams in wheelchair basketball, wheelchair football and wheelchair handball and have proven to be one of the most successful athletic programs of State.

In all three sports, the Houston County Sharks have won 34 state championships and are now consecutive state champions in all three sports.

“We’re doing very, very well,” Downing said. “And it’s because of the work ethic these kids have.”

The AAASP and GHSA may be responsible for integrating adaptive sports into the high school athletic system, but it is the athletes themselves who drive the game forward. These children consistently show that their disabilities do not limit their athletic prowess . Children can play in wheelchairs and the playground may be smaller, but that’s where the difference ends. The speed and physics of the sport do not change. According to Downing, adaptive sports are sometimes more difficult than athletics for able-bodied people.

“I remember the first game we had, I was impressed,” Downing said. “And it takes a lot more precision when you play on a smaller area with the same penalties. For me it’s a lot more complex. It was my first time coaching adaptive sports and I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the athletes work ethic, attention to detail and everything to do with it.

Adaptive sports have grown exponentially since the inception of the AAASP. According to their website, in their 25-year history, they’ve had over 7,000 seasonal attendees and worked with 2,490 different school districts across the United States.

Communities always hear about the importance of athletics for youth development. The incredible lessons they learn and how sport improves their mental, physical and emotional health. For a long time, children with disabilities did not have the opportunity to experience this. Now they are doing it and the effects are being felt.

Students of all kinds can compete and bond in the sports they love. Not only do these athletes benefit, but they show others that their disability does not limit them. That they are very capable individuals who can do truly amazing things.

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