Bridging the Gap between Physical Therapy and Community Based Physical Activity
Lori Watkins, M. Ed.
Physical activity is important for all people, especially children. Not only does it positively impact physical health, but it also supports social development and mental and emotional well-being. But not all children get enough physical activity, and youth with a disability have a 35 percent higher prevalence of obesity with an increased risk of secondary conditions associated with being overweight. That is why it is vitally important for children and teens with a disability to participate regularly in a vast range of physical activity opportunities.
For children with a physical disability, especially children with congenital disabilities, physical activity may begin in a physical therapy setting. But the timeline for physical therapy appointments can be limited. Physical activity opportunities for children with disabilities should continue beyond the clinical setting and transition into community based programs which promote a lifetime of health and fitness.
A partnership between two organizations in Birmingham, Alabama is focusing on bridging the gap between physical therapy and community based programs. Three years ago, Children’s of Alabama pediatric medical center and Lakeshore Foundation created a vision to facilitate the transition of children from physical therapy into Lakeshore’s community based aquatics, recreation and athletic programs. This vision culminated with the opening of Children’s at Lakeshore, which provides clinical and therapy services on Lakeshore Foundation’s campus. Children who attend weekly physical therapy sessions at the clinic are just steps away from wheelchair basketball practice, after-school recreation programs and aquatic classes. In addition to the functional and social skills gained through the land and water-based programs, an important shift is made in how children and families view health and fitness. Children transition from patients to athletes, gait training is replaced with perfecting a dolphin kick, and peer-to-peer interaction increases.
Most children and families don’t have access to a facility like Lakeshore to continue their road of health and fitness. Thanks to policies promoting inclusion and partnerships between Lakeshore, NCHPAD and national organizations, children with disabilities can access community based physical activity in cities big and small. In 2017, the National Recreation and Parks Association launched Parks for Inclusion to make local park and recreation programs inclusive and built environments accessible to all. After-school programs like Girls on the Run and CATCH Kids Club have inclusive curriculum. The number of youth adapted sport programs has increased with 175 Paralympic sport clubs and 78 National Wheelchair Basketball Association sanctioned youth wheelchair basketball teams. Since 2013, when the Office for Civil Rights published its “Dear Colleague” letter providing additional guidance on access to extracurricular athletics for students with disabilities, more state high school athletic associations have established guidelines and implemented Para sport divisions for youth with physical disabilities to participate in high school track and field.
Children with a disability are as diverse as children without a disability. Physical activity opportunities should reflect their vast interests. Whether it’s outdoor recreation, play or competition, physical activity options are growing. Don’t let physical therapy be an end to movement. Begin a life-long journey of health and fitness today!