Adaptive sports programs in Ann Arbor are making a difference for local families.
For 17-year-old Grace Cregar, the whole world is a stage and participating in sports has given her the script. Skating as part of the Unified Hockettes team of the Ann Arbor Figure Skating Club (AAFSC) is a perfect fit, says her mother, Marie Cregar, explaining the sport gives her the chance to combine her love of music and performance in one “beautiful mode of expression.”
Cregar’s daughter is on the autism spectrum and although high-functioning, she has always needed a little extra support. Marie credits the adaptive skating program with giving her daughter a sense of belonging and self-confidence, as well as the opportunity that transcends the skating rink.
“The biggest change I saw was that she didn’t feel like she was on the outside looking in. She was a part of the group.”
AAFSC adaptive skating
Mary Johanson, the director of the AAFSC Learn to Skate Program and chairman of the U.S. Figure Skating Adaptive Skating program, said that Grace and another skater, Alex Meints, 17, showed her there was a need for a skating program adapted for people with disabilities. Alex is also on the autism spectrum and has reaped the benefits that sports provide for those with or without disabilities.
In addition to the physical benefits of building strength, balance and spatial awareness, Johanson said skating has social and emotional benefits and is fun. Adaptive skating classes run weekly throughout the year at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, allowing people with physical and/or intellectual disabilities to skate. In addition to offering classes, the AAFSC is a regular supporter of Special Olympics athletes and events.
Special Olympics and SkateFest
This summer, the Ice Cube hosted one of five Adaptive SkateFests held throughout the country, providing ice time and instruction designed for people with disabilities. The event was made possible by a grant received from the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs to benefit veterans, active duty military and people with disabilities.
Offering more inclusive programs is a benefit to everyone. “We see a lot of skaters who say they feel free on the ice. They are not held back by any obstacles,” Johanson said.
Karen Meints said her son, Alex, tried a lot of sports before settling on skating and he now skates beyond basic skills, participating in the Special Olympics and skating in competitions. The skating, Meints said, has helped him develop his spatial awareness and focus. The Huron High School junior is currently working on an Inter Baccalaureate diploma and gives talks to other students about autism. He also recently got a job at the skate rental desk at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube.
Sports and rec opportunities
Skating is just one of many adaptive sports programs available in the area. The University of Michigan Adaptive and Inclusive Sports Experience (UMAISE) offers programs including basketball, soccer, kayaking, tree climbing, camping and cycling.
Becky McVey, one of the founders of UMAISE and a recreational therapist, said the program was started three years ago and offers U of M patients and people in the community the tools, know-how and benefits of sports they might not otherwise be able to access.
Christina Hollis of Chelsea, whose boys both participated in the UMAISE Rollverines Wheelchair Basketball team this past year said the program provided her family a sense of normalcy.
Her sons, Jacob, 13; and Bryce, 10, both have Spinocerebellar Ataxia Type 8, a genetic condition which has caused verbal and developmental delays. Both boys have mobility issues and use a wheelchair and a walker to get around.
Jacob loves music, while Bryce is incredibly social. Both boys love cars and trucks. They are typical boys who need to be active and socially engaged which the basketball program has provided.
Hollis said she heard about the program from a school nurse and since they joined last fall, she has seen the physical, social and emotional benefits of their involvement. As part of a team, they get to see the same children on a regular basis, allowing them the opportunity to build friendships.
It was “awesome,” she said, when UMAISE was able to fundraise and ultimately purchase sport chairs for the participants. The chairs are lighter and move quicker, allowing the children to easily reach down and get the ball. When her son, Jacob, first started the program, she said, he had a hard time but his participation level increased when he was able to use the sport chairs.
Achieving wellness through sports
Dr. Melissa Tinney, who serves on the UMAISE executive board with McVey, said it is vitally important to have opportunities for adaptive sports available.
“From my perspective as a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician, my interest in adaptive sport is looking at how I can encourage my patients and provide them the tools they need to have lifelong wellness and optimum function and part of that is regular physical activity or exercise.”
Depending on their disability, Tinney said, not everyone can go to their local gym without any tools or instruction and know how to participate in a sport safely. She said many who have a new injury go through formal rehabilitation therapy at the hospital or clinic, but then need something beyond that and the UMAISE programs offer that bridge.
Whether it is kayaking or camping, a new activity or one previously enjoyed, McVey said, adaptive sports give children and adults with disabilities the realization that what they might have thought was impossible is actually doable, enjoyable and beneficial in a myriad of ways.
McVey and Tinney’s goal is to provide robust adaptive sports programming for both children and adults, expanding on some current programs and possibly adding others. This spring, they tried out an adaptive rock climbing event at Planet Rock in Ann Arbor.
These programs would not be possible without generous donations and grants as well as the support of a staff of recreational therapists, rehabilitation engineers, faculty members and a large volunteer base. The hardest part, Tinney said, is just getting the word out that these programs exist and encouraging families to participate.
An adaptive sport-—whether it includes gliding on the ice of a skating rink or floating down a river in a kayak—removes barriers and creates opportunities permitting all to enjoy and reap the benefits sports provide.