WCU Recreational Therapy Students Get Hands-On with Adapted Sports

A physical limitation doesn’t have to mean life without competitive and recreational sports, majors in Western Carolina University’s recreational therapy program learned during a workshop in March.

A group of about 30 recreational therapy students spent a day on campus learning about adapted sports, which allow individuals with disabilities to participate in traditional sports through modified equipment.

Two staff members with Carolinas Rehabilitation in Charlotte, Jennifer Moore and Erin Kuehn, led the workshop. Moore and Kuehn both are graduates of WCU’s recreational therapy program and work in Carolinas Rehabilitation’s Adaptive Sports and Adventures Program. That program provides youth and adults with physical disabilities the opportunity to participate in sports including soccer, basketball, golf, tennis, bicycling, rugby, water and snow skiing, swimming and fishing.

Adapted sports are for anyone with a physical challenge, including brain injuries, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy or amputations. Many attracted to adapted sports are men who, in their 20s and early 30s, suffered a spinal cord injury while participating in an adrenaline-fueled pastime such as diving or racing, Moore said.

“Adapted sports are amazing,” said Victoria Fox, a senior recreational therapy major from Morganton, who said the workshop gave her insight into the mindset of an individual suffering a spinal cord injury, which can affect a person’s mobility, independence, social contact and overall quality of life. “It changes every aspect of your life,” Fox said. “Part of adjusting to and healing from an injury is regaining your leisure lifestyle. That’s something that’s interesting to me as a professional.”

Recreational therapy is the prescribed use of recreational and other activities as treatment to improve the lives of people with physical, mental or social disadvantages. The recreational therapy major, presently with about 80 students, is under WCU’s School of Health Sciences, part of the College of Health and Human Sciences.

Recreational therapy students at Western Carolina commonly model the university’s initiative of synthesized learning, which encourages collaboration and creating connections in and out of the classroom. Their service projects include working with clients of Webster Enterprises, which provides services to individuals with disabilities; and with residents of Mountain Trace Nursing Center, including those with Alzheimer’s disease. Many of the students, including Fox, volunteer with Special Olympics.

“I totally believe in quality of life,” Fox said, “And this major addresses aspects of your life other than just treating disease.”

The workshop included presentations from Moore and Kuehn, and participants had the opportunity to test adapted sports equipment, including wheelchairs for tennis, rugby, soccer and basketball; hand cycles; a golf cart that allowed the golfer to swing while remaining seated; and seated snow skis. A morning session invited students and faculty from the programs of recreational therapy, physical therapy, athletic training and engineering technology to discuss equipment design.

In addition to expanding student knowledge about adapted sports, the workshop introduced the students to ideas regarding career, internship and volunteer opportunities, said Peg Connolly, associate professor and director of the recreational therapy program. “The students said this is the type of hands-on education they love,” Connolly said. “It’s so great when professionals like Jennifer and Erin come in with experience and equipment and can offer a sophisticated program.”

Moore, who graduated in 1998, said she appreciated the opportunity that the workshop gave her to educate students about adapted sports. Viewed primarily as a social outlet, adapted sports programs typically are coordinated by a major rehabilitation hospital, but typically they are not funded. The Carolinas Rehabilitation program, for example, is run largely through grants and volunteers – it takes a team of about 10 people to support one water-skier.

“Logistic and safety components have to be in place,” Moore said. “It’s not all fun and games.”

Connolly wonders if further study might reveal health benefits related to adapted sports, and if adapted sports might find a place among the nation’s healthcare reform. When her program’s budget allows, Connolly said, she is interested in purchasing adaptive equipment, such as a wheelchair mountain bike, to train students in her program.

Fox said she was sold on the prospect of volunteering with the Carolinas Rehabilitation program. “I would love to go down there and volunteer and actually see how it works,” she said.

(For more information about WCU’s recreational therapy program, contact Peg Connolly at (828) 227-2481 or mconnolly@email.wcu.edu.)