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The Importance of Including Students With Learning Disabilities in Athletics

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Inclusion in education is often discussed only in terms of academics, but it is also extremely important in other programs like athletics. When children with disabilities participate in sports and physical activity programs, it can  promote physical, emotional and social well-being. Like academic achievements, these areas of development are very important for success in the future. Unfortunately, many students with disabilities still find it difficult to be included in athletics, especially those with a nonverbal learning disability or dyspraxia.

Creating fully inclusive athletic programs can be challenging because of the misconception that those with nonverbal learning disability or dyspraxia can’t play sports due to severe gross motor and spatial skills challenges. Yes, these skills are very important for athletics, and unlike a curriculum in the classroom, the skills can’t be modified as you need them to follow the rules of the sport.

People with NVLD also often struggle with recognizing and processing nonverbal cues such as body language, facial expression and the nuances of conversation. This can lead to multiple misunderstandings with teammates and coaches and make an athlete feel they don’t belong on the team. Also, there’s so much focus on winning and losing and not enough focus on what it means to be a teammate. As a result, parents may feel if their child isn’t good at athletics they shouldn’t participate, sparing them any embarrassment. However, with effective communication and a strong will to compete, kids with learning disabilities can most certainly be included on an athletic team.

One of the first things you can do is get your child started in athletic participation at a younger age. This will allow them to have ample time to develop the skills necessary to compete. Second, meet with the coach and explain your child’s disability before the season starts. Coaches, like teachers, usually want to support you / your child but they need information to give you the appropriate assistance. This is the first step for effective communication to begin. If they’re aware of your challenges, they can give more effective feedback to explain your progress in a kind and caring but serious way.

Another benefit of early communication is that it gives your coach the opportunity to give you some workouts ahead of time, before the season starts. The workouts can be done individually or you can ask your coach to recommend someone to hire to work with you. It is really no different than getting a tutor to work on your academic skills.

Humor can be an effective method of making things easier and less awkward for everyone. My coach and I along with my teammates could always enjoy a few healthy laughs about all the wrong turns I took due to my weak spatial skills. However, humor needs to be kept in control as sometimes it can go too far. I experienced this and the situation was taken care of very smoothly by my coach having a talk with our team about the appropriateness of using humor.

While participating in sports may seem difficult at times, in my experience you are always welcomed on an athletic team as long as you’re doing your best and are respectful to those around. It wasn’t until my senior day that I realized how included I was. My coach’s inspiring words before our last meet truly delivered the message that coaches need to value inclusion and make all participants feel part of a team. He spoke of how I broke a barrier for those with disabilities and he was so proud of me for staying with it, as I had hit some low points but never gave up.

Inclusion happened because we trusted and accepted one another. Thanks to my coach’s philosophy, the following track season other coaches followed his example and were fully inclusive too. Being a three season runner gave me a stronger sense of belonging at school, and helped me develop self-confidence and both social and physical well-being that played an integral part in my future successes.

Just like creating an inclusive classroom, it takes time to create an inclusive athletic team. However, using the skills and techniques I mentioned a successful outcome like mine is possible.

Originally published: March 25, 2019
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