Sports expand for people with disabilities

The bike was specially designed to help 13-year-old Josh Silvern overcome disabilities that affect his balance. But his mom hopes cycling — and other adaptive sports — will help bring another kind of balance to his life too.

Silvern received the bike in December from the Variety Club, a charitable children's organization, during the Chicago Wheelchair Bulls' Day for Kids. Its highly stable wheels and accommodating seat hold the promise of a degree of independence and mobility that have eluded him for most of his life.

Designing a bicycle built for better balance is a hallmark of the broader movement that helps people with disabilities to be physically active. Adaptive sports such as wheelchair basketball make modifications to classic sports or equipment so people with disabilities can experience them.

Though many adaptive sports have existed for years — some of the first were created to help rehabilitate veterans after World War II — they are expanding as people with disabilities seek to participate at the recreational and professional level.

Learning to move did not come easily for Silvern, of Crystal Lake, who suffered from a variety of motor problems as a young child because of a neurodevelopment delay.

"At 16 months we took him to a pediatrician who said, 'He's never going to walk unassisted and he's never going to speak intelligibly,'" recalled his mother, Sherry Silvern. "And I said, 'Yes, he will.'"

Though Josh's condition made it difficult for him to learn complex movements like walking, his mother has guided him and he has pushed himself along. He took his first unassisted steps at age 3.

"He's just gone from there, and I've pushed him into all sorts of things," Sherry Silvern said.

He tried adapted yoga soon after walking. He later earned medals in the Illinois Special Olympics, competing in track and field, gymnastics, basketball, and baseball. His mother hopes the new bike will help him after he first faced setbacks learning to cycle.

The National Center on Physical Activity and Disability leads research and advocacy efforts in the field. Based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the center has worked to establish the benefits of physical activity for people with disabilities.

Aside from the traditional metabolic benefits, exercise also helps with the management of secondary conditions such as pain, fatigue and anxiety, researchers say.

Still, many people who have disabilities lack access to physical activity altogether. The issue of access has been a priority for the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability, said associate director Amy Rauworth.

Some policies, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act, work on improving access, but not all sports facilities comply with guidelines, and the act does not cover the cost of exercise equipment.

Researchers have also identified social attitudes that act as barriers to exercise. Family and friends may not believe people with disabilities are capable of physical activity, and the disabled may doubt their own abilities.

Wheelchair basketball helped Dan Ferreira, a coach and team member of the Wheelchair Bulls, break some barriers associated with disability. Ferreira said he found wheelchair basketball at 15. The game taught him strategies for dealing with his quadriplegia and introduced him to accomplished adults with disabilities who served as role models.

Ferreira, who also develops programs for kids with disabilities as a program director for the Chicago Park District, said able-bodied kids have role models like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Kids with disabilities deserve similar role models.

"Every kid has the right to dream. I don't care what their situation is," Ferreira said. "That's what I believe 110 percent."

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