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By Timothy E. Hornik, LMSW, CATIS, US Army Veteran and Founder of Blind Not Alone.Tim is a disability and Veterans advocate pursuing a PhD in Therapeutic Sciences through the University of Kansas Medical Center. He adheres to Dr. Ed Canda’s concept of transilience, or going beyond who you were before to become someone new. He has earned various military and civilian recognitions for his service.
As we flip through social media feeds it is common to hit upon anything from a shared post on some fitness app, like Straba, to “liking” a friend’s running race results These posts may motivate us to remain physically active or inspire us to establish health and wellness goals (Teodoro & Naaman, 2013). Our timelines and feeds lead us to conclude that the society generating our online experiences clearly cares about physical fitness. Unfortunately, the National Institute of Health recently reported otherwise. In the last decade one out of three American adults and 13% of American adolescents achieved an average body mass index (BMI) classification of either overweight or obese (Ng et al., 2014).
For individuals with disabilities, the chances of being overweight or obese are even greater. In 2010, The Center for Disease Control reported 57% more adults and 84% more adolescents with disabilities were overweight and/or more obese than their peers
Factors such as access to quality nutrition, financial and social resources to engage in physical fitness-related activities, secondary effects of medications or conditions, and access to suitable equipment and programs, directly impact these elevated rates (Jaarsma, Dijkstra, Geertzen, & Dekker, 2014; Warburton, Nicol, & Bredin, 2006).
However, by understanding how to achieve fitness goals, individuals with disabilities may reverse national trends. In a study of older adults, moderate to vigorous physical activities three times a week lowered their mortality rates by 22% (Hupin et al., 2015).
Children who participated in a group aerobic and strength training program for 60 minutes twice a week achieved fitness goals established by the 2010 President’s Fitness Test for their age groups (Fragala-Pinkham, Haley, Rabin, & Kharasch, 2005). For adults, research pinpointing precise strategies or fitness requirements vary based on an individual’s disability. Community and group programs tend to do more than just empower one to reach their fitness goals, they more importantly aid in the process of accepting a disability or adopting a positive disability identity (Lai, Young, Bickel, Motl, & Rimmer, 2017; Lundberg, Taniguchi, McCormick, & Tibbs, 2011; Ponchillia, Ponchillia, & Strause, 2002).
The impact of fitness goals goes beyond health and wellness. It alters self-perception. Consider an individual who has just lost their sight. It’s common for people in this position to feel suddenly secluded. The simple act of going for a run resides largely outside of their abilities without accommodations and supports. No cane technique affords one the chance to truly hit a moderate to vigorous running pace and cycling independently remains elusive—at least for the time being. The solution requires a community approach. Blind Running or cycling quickly becomes a team sport through sighted guides and tandem captains. An individual’s results range from the achievement of fitness goals, to a sense of belonging, to engagement with community, to empowerment in establishing new independent living goals (Ponchillia, Ponchillia, & Strause, 2002)
The sense of positive effects of being a part of something greater than oneself in achieving a previously impossible goal echoes my feelings generated during my time in the US Army before losing my sight — and in every race or event I’ve participated in since then. My sight loss stems from injuries sustained during combat operations in Iraq. The Warrior culture places a significant value on one’s ability to demonstrate individual physical prowess during fitness tests and to developing a sense of cohesion, improved morale, and esprit de corps through group activities.
Throughout my military service, my fitness goals pushed me to exceed minimum requirements and obtain the maximum score possible. Early in my career, I managed to easily achieve this, earning the respect of those under my leadership and generating a high level of self-confidence. These feelings of accomplishment came crashing down after I lost my sight and could no longer independently run, cycle, or do a host of other activities.
During my rehabilitation process, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Army Wounded Warrior Program, and friends and family contributed to developing my disability identity. Initially I rejected outright all attempts to integrate tools and skills which brought any attention to my blindness. The only exception involved assistive technologies for computers. This would align with my love for computers and an understanding of the role they would play in my remaining time in the Army. At no point during this period did anyone attempt to assess my capacity for setting goals in adaptive sporting or recreational programs.
Nearly a decade after being injured, Richard Hunter, a blind Marine, drew my attention to adaptive sports through his events for the visually impaired division of the California International Marathon. While I participated in a couple of events for disabled Veterans, none of them truly demonstrated the power of adaptive sports to foster life changing dynamics between peers, volunteers, and community supporters. It mattered not whether one crushed the marathon with a two and a half hour time or if they putzed through a leg on a relay team like I did. We all celebrated, regardless of our differences, together. For the first time, I truly felt proud to be blind.
It does not matter whether one establishes a goal to win their division or to simply participate. I continue to feel this way throughout any of the events I attend. When Dr. Mike Reynolds and I competed in the 204 mile Dirty Kanza gravel race, we constantly found ourselves surrounded by other riders asking about tandem riding. The funniest part is that no one realized I was blind until they saw me crossing the stage with Dr. Reynolds with my white cane to mount the first-place podium for the tandem class. Likewise, my sighted running guide, Chris Benjamin and I, spent much time talking with each other and fellow participants during the Kansas City Marathon and the Trolley Run.
It is high time for adaptive sporting programs to cease to be viewed as hobbies or remedial recreational programs for individuals with disabilities. Rather, rehabilitation plans and individual educational plans need to incorporate fitness and adaptive sporting measures. This would benefit individuals with disabilities by providing the tools needed to combat obesity, promote disability acceptance (Lundberg et al., 2011), forge lasting community bonds (Zabriskie, Lundberg, & Groff, 2005), and increase employability (Lastuka & Cottingham, 2016).
Fragala-Pinkham, M. A., Haley, S. M., Rabin, J., & Kharasch, V. S. (2005). A fitness program for children with disabilities. Physical therapy, 85(11), 1182-1200.
Hupin, D., Roche, F., Gremeaux, V., Chatard, J.-C., Oriol, M., Gaspoz, J.-M., . . . Edouard, P. (2015). Even a low-dose of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity reduces mortality by 22% in adults aged≥ 60 years: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med, bjsports-2014-094306.
Jaarsma, E., Dijkstra, P., Geertzen, J., & Dekker, R. (2014). Barriers to and facilitators of sports participation for people with physical disabilities: A systematic review. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 24(6), 871-881.
Lai, B., Young, H.-J., Bickel, C. S., Motl, R. W., & Rimmer, J. H. (2017). Current trends in exercise intervention research, technology, and behavioral change strategies for people with disabilities: A scoping review. American journal of physical medicine & rehabilitation, 96(10), 748-761.
Lastuka, A., & Cottingham, M. (2016). The effect of adaptive sports on employment among people with disabilities. Disability and rehabilitation, 38(8), 742-748.
Lundberg, N. R., Taniguchi, S., McCormick, B. P., & Tibbs, C. (2011). Identity negotiating: Redefining stigmatized identities through adaptive sports and recreation participation among individuals with a disability. Journal of Leisure Research, 43(2), 205.
Ng, M., Fleming, T., Robinson, M., Thomson, B., Graetz, N., Margono, C., . . . Abera, S. F. (2014). Global, regional, and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults during 1980–2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013. The lancet, 384(9945), 766-781.
Ponchillia, P., Ponchillia, S., & Strause, B. (2002). Athletes with visual impairments: Attributes and sports participation. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB), 96(04).
Teodoro, R., & Naaman, M. (2013). Fitter with Twitter: Understanding Personal Health and Fitness Activity in Social Media. ICWSM, 2013, 611-620.
Warburton, D. E., Nicol, C. W., & Bredin, S. S. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. Canadian medical association journal, 174(6), 801-809.
Zabriskie, R. B., Lundberg, N. R., & Groff, D. G. (2005). Quality of life and identity: The benefits of a community-based therapeutic recreation and adaptive sports program. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 39(3), 176.