Paralympics·Analysis

Making para-sport more accessible

Aside from the Paralympics, para-sport in Canada is a patchwork of different groups, divided by different disabilities and sports. The biggest challenge is linking these groups with people who may want to participate in some kind of para-sport.

How programs across Canada are helping kids discover what's possible

Canadian Paralympian Marco Dispaltro was a successful wheelchair tennis and rugby player before his body forced him into the sport of boccia. (Photo courtesy Canadian Paralympic Committee)

For Marco Dispaltro, life has been a series of hurdles. So far, he has overcome them all.

Dispaltro has muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease that weakens his muscles year after year. He was a successful wheelchair tennis and rugby player before his body forced him into the sport of boccia.

Playing boccia, he won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Paralympics, and narrowly missed the podium in Rio earlier this week.

The road to a spot on an Olympic podium is undoubtedly a difficult one. For Paralympic athletes, the struggle is even more pronounced.  All of Canada's para-athletes have different tales of how they ended up in Rio, how they ended up at the top of their sports.  All of the stories likely involve common themes of doubt, perseverance and family struggle.

A Paralympian's journey to the podium begins many years before, far away from any court or arena. It is an imperfect science of acceptance, awareness and belief that there's sporting success to be had, even with a disability.

Each path to the Games is different; many of the athletes competing in Rio were born with a congenital disability, incurred illnesses later in life or were involved in an accident.

Whatever the case, this initial stage can be full of fear for families.

"You get a kid and you find out in the first few years he is disabled. It's hard if you don't have any help around you," Dispaltro says. "Knowing what can be accomplished with a disabled kid you don't know and sometimes it's easier just to coddle your kid and shelter them from all of the bad stuff that could happen to them. But that's not a life."

Canadian boccia player Marco Dispaltro uses sport to motivate himself to become better in life. 1:04

Finding the right avenue to get involved can be difficult. Until athletes reach the elite levels, para-sport in Canada is a patchwork of different groups, divided by different disabilities and sports. The biggest challenge is linking these groups with people who may want to participate in some kind of para-sport.

ParaSport Ontario runs the Ready, Willing and Able program, which sends out para-athletes and coaches to schools and rehabilitation centres to introduce and demonstrate a variety of Paralympic sports, including sledge hockey, swimming and sitting volleyball.

Joe Millage, ParaSport Ontario's chair, says these initial demonstrations plant the seed for both children and their parents.

"If a child is born with cerebral palsy, that child will likely spend the first four or five years of his or her life just figuring out what they can do.  Whether they will be able to walk, whether they need a wheelchair," Millage says. "The parents usually haven't spent much time thinking about what kind of activities they can do.  And the assumption is that they can't do much."

Discovering what's possible

Dispaltro says that assumption is flipped once children with disabilities begin exploring, discovering and testing what is possible.

"You need to go out there and experiment with stuff," he insists. "I'm not saying you have a kid that can barely move doing extreme sports, but there are always sports out there you can adapt for your kid. If your child is an amputee, doesn't have hands maybe, you can play hockey, tape a stick to one of his stumps and have him play."

The Ontario Cerebral Palsy Association (OCPA) is also working to get more people involved in para-sports. Its focus these days is boccia, and once again, the journey will begin in rehab centre across the province.

"We pulled together a 'train the trainer program' in all of the treatment centres across Ontario and use boccia as the delivery tool to get involved in sport and recreation, to be active, " says Amanda Fader, the OCPSA's executive director.

Fader says when it comes to para-sports involvement, it's all about spreading the word, and finding a champion to promote, teach and drive interest in a particular sport within a community.

"We are hoping that the rec staff, the occupational therapist that there are champions in those facilities want to take this on and that we grow the program, grow awareness and perhaps more volunteers willing to create these type of programs in their community."

One of the biggest launching pads for potential Paralympians is Variety Village in Toronto.  The sprawling facility in the city's East end offers a comprehensive menu of sports for both able-bodied athletes, and athletes with disabilities.

It's at centres like this one where a disabled athlete may try a sport that one day could lead them to a Paralympic podium.

Archie Allison, Variety Village's director of access and awareness, says the first step is getting them in the door.

"Many times it`s championed by a person they meet at school or in their community," he says. "They hear of the place or learn of the place and once they see all of this, they realize there are options out there."

Allison says the learning curve can be steep, especially for families who deal with disability as a result of an accident.

"Your child may have been involved in sport before and may think they can't be now because there has been a physical change," Allison says. "So we see if there is still an interest or a passion and then see how to adapt based on their ability.  And for the parents, to make sure they feel comfortable that their children are safe. So initially, it`s really an education for everybody."


Amazing to watch

Allison says it's amazing to watch children discover what is possible.

"Through our multi-sport, grassroots program, we introduce a variety of sports - wheelchair basketball, a variety of other adapted sports that have a Paralympic lead in," Allison explains. "Kids can learn if they like it [and] if it appeals to them. Through that process our coaches can see what kind of talent a kid may have skill in a certain area and maybe have them come out and participate in a team practice and see what they do."

Allison says it's helpful that many current Paralympians began their journey at Variety Village and still spend considerable time at the centre.

"A lot of time it's a role model or a Paralympian that will create that experience," he says. "So they will see an [two-time wheelchair basketball gold medallist] Adam Lancia or [seven- time Paralympic wheelchair basketball player] Tracey Ferguson, and be excited by what they do and what they have done.  And for the parents, when they see those coaches and athletes they see what's out there, what's possible."

And while Lancia long ago moved on to national stage, Allison always uses him to remind new athletes what is possible, that the journey to a Paralympic podium has to start somewhere.

"I met Adam Lancia when he was nine at the Ontario Science centre. He was there with his mom and I approached him and asked him to come to Variety Village. He came and he tried wheelchair basketball."

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