February is the international month of love and happiness to celebrate the spirit of togetherness. The weather is chilly, but our hearts are warmed. It’s also “Hockey is for Everyone” month. If you haven’t watched a special hockey practice or adaptive sport of your choice, it’s time to head to the rink or gym. Your heart will melt. From reducing prescription medicine to increased friendships, everyone is victorious with the benefits adaptive sports brings to our lives. It’s heart-healthy — in more ways than one.
A few days ago, my husband and I volunteered to lead a cruise for travelers with disabilities, autism and learning differences. It wasn’t the sandy beaches, the sunny weather, the jivey entertainment or the bountiful meals that made this unique adventure memorable for me. Within minutes, a traveler couldn’t help sharing her good news with me. Then, she instantly shared with another chaperone. Then another. The pride and joy in her voice shined. Recently she competed in her first Special Olympics heavy weightlifting competition. Bench-pressing hundreds of pounds, outskilling many of us. While she didn’t win, she broke a personal record. She set out on a goal and succeeded. Her physical challenges didn’t stand in her way. Her smile beaming as a permanent medal around her neck.
Two weeks ago, a friend shared recent home videos of her young daughter, born with cerebral palsy and wheelchair-bound, ice fishing, snow skiing, sledding and walking on a treadmill. I replayed each video over and over again. Watching every step, every glide repeatedly. Her pride and joy shined in every movement. This little dazzling girl also plays special hockey. In another home video, you can hear the bleacher crowd cheering her name when she scores a breakaway goal. Both team benches rose to celebrate — when do you see that in most sports? Scoring goals on and off the ice is the definition of her game plan. Without question, she was born with a million-dollar smile, grit and determination and a purpose in life.
We know that over the next 10 years, 500,000 young adults with special needs will become adults with special needs. As they grow older, many approach adulthood without continued access to the kind of services they routinely received as children. As a nation, we are not prepared for this. From physical chronic health to behavioral health challenges, adults with special needs need our help, increased access to therapeutic programming, like adaptive sports and special hockey, and enrichment to their lives.
Adaptive sports strive to give athletes of all talent, with physical and developmental disabilities the chance to be active with improved physical health, motor skills, increased control of chronic health and society integration. Special hockey, in addition to physical hockey skills, emphasizes the development of desirable individual characteristics such as lower stress, dependability, self-reliance, concentration, willingness to share and personal accountability.
The love for the game alone develops within each player, enhancing the characteristics that will help the player to be more successful both on and off the ice. Therapeutic adaptive sports offer players with disabilities innovative options for behavioral management, obesity prevention and endurance training.
The athlete isn’t the only winner in this game. Serving as a volunteer mentor or coach will make you happy, feel rewarded and also increase your health benefits. Together, adaptive sports teach teamwork and leadership while building character. Together, we learn the importance of practice, hard work, determination, goal setting and … inclusion.
Arguably, the most valuable benefit of adaptive sports for all. Inclusion rests on the idea that every individual, regardless of disability, has the right to be incorporated fully into the fabric of society. All athletes are able to be a part of their communities developing a sense of community, a purpose, while providing all of us an opportunity for treasured friendships.
This February, raise the standard and make an impact. It’s more than eating candy heart with cutesy wording and ordering delivered rose on the 14th. This is the month to share the spirit of togetherness. You can start by heading to your local rink or going to volunteer at a Special Olympics event. You will brighten the athlete’s day and your own day.
We’re all on the same team — the jersey on our backs — are for the team of inclusion. The largest underrepresented group in the world are people with disabilities. If it seems hard to believe, it’s because people with disabilities are not often visible or have a voice. If we want to change the societal narrative about what people with disabilities can do, we must step up with our game faces on.
Be the game-changer. We need to change the paradigm about what people with intellectual developmental disabilities can do. The new universal language of love.
The love of the game.
Jayne J. Jones, a Minnesota native, is the author of “Drop the Puck: Hockey Every Day, Every Way.” She is reachable via www.officialadventures.org.