Adaptive sports have often been overlooked as a possibility for people with cerebral palsy. Adapted sports are sports that have been modified to support and maximize the abilities of each athlete. Playing adapted sports[1] offers opportunities for making new friendships, increasing physical activity, reducing stress and having fun.[2][3][4]

Biking is a great sport that can be an accessible entre for cerebral palsy adaptive sportsSome examples of adapted sports opportunities for cerebral palsy include boccia, football, wheelchair slalom, race running, swimming, para cycling, rowing, rugby and many more.

How to get Started with Cerebral Palsy and Adaptive Sports

Many national organizations such as Move United, BlazeSports America, and the US Paralympics support the development of community-based adapted sports programs. These programs take place at recreation centers, schools, and other public facilities and offer quality, competitive sport opportunities.

Below is a list of adapted sport organizations that may help you find local or virtual sport opportunities:

Cerebral Palsy & Adaptive Sports: Options for Participating

Adaptive Sports Enables Participation in Sports like skiingIt’s helpful to determine which type of sports program best suits the individual and is available in your area. You may also consider approaching local sports and recreation groups, or an adapted physical education teacher to advocate for a program that doesn’t exist, but that you would like to see available.

  1. Athletes with disabilities may train/practice with a general sports team to train for future competitive opportunities. An example would be a swimmer who needs extra time to practice balancing on the platform before entering competitions. They could participate in swim practice with the team, but opt out of competitions until they are ready. This is called parallel participation.
  2. Joining a program where individuals with and without disabilities play sports together is called unified sports.
  3. Joining competitions with typically developing individuals with what is referred to as “reasonable accommodations” under the law. This is referred to as general sport setting participation”.[1][5]
  4. Participating in competitions specifically designed for individuals with disabilities. An example would be the Paralympics.
  5. Virtual settings have become very popular since the COVID-19 pandemic. Many community-based programs shifted to virtual platforms where athletes engage in tournaments and meets and upload their results to their respective organization.

Whether you are interested in something informal, or as structured as Paralympic training, there are many opportunities to participate in sports!

Cerebral Palsy & Adaptive Sports: The Right to Competition

All individuals have the right to play sports. Participating in sporting activities is a great way to improve fitness, have fun, release stress and even prevent some health issues from arising.

In 2013 the US Department of Education circulated a Dear Colleague Letter[5] to all public schools stating that all federally funded organizations should provide equal sport opportunities for individuals with and without disabilities. A “Dear Colleague Letter” comes from a federal agency and offers clarification about an existing law or regulation. Because of this letter, many schools in the United States are now offering adapted sports opportunities.

There are also opportunities for adapted sport in college athletics. In 2016 the Eastern College Athletic Conference adopted an inclusive sport policy in response to a Dear Colleague Letter. They now offer adaptive sports championship opportunities in swimming and diving and track and field.[6]

Currently, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), “encourages participation by student-athletes with disabilities (physical or mental) in intercollegiate athletics and physical activities to the full extent of their interests and abilities.”[7]

Paralympic Games

The first Paralympic Games were in Rome, Italy in 1960, and opportunities for participation in sports for people with disabilities have expanded internationally since then.Adaptive Sports, Garmin Watch

In 2001, the US Paralympics organization was created as a division within the US Olympic Committee forming what is now the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC). This national body oversees training, competition, and development of athletes for Paralympic sports including alpine skiing, cycling, Nordic skiing, snowboarding, swimming, and track and field.[8]

There are 27 Paralympic sport programs. Most Paralympic clubs support individuals of all ages and abilities. The best way to get started is by completing the Paralympic Athlete Questionnaire.

Other Ideas

If you are struggling to find adapted sports opportunities in your area here are a few ideas and resources to get started. Many of the resources below offer comprehensive information and training for a willing fitness or recreation professional:

  1. Start a league. There are resources for development on the BlazeSports American site. https://blazesports.org/education/
  2. CIRSA Get Movin’ starting packet for schools and fitness professionals to start programs.
  3. Contact NCHPAD for information and resources about getting programming started in your area.
  4. CPISRA provides a series of documents highlighting specific sport opportunities for a diversity of people with cerebral palsy (all Gross Motor Classification System descriptions).[9] These documents are based on guidelines created by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). They classify athletes to ensure equitable, competition for everyone.[10]

For more information, download our free cerebral palsy tool kit.

References and Sources
  1. Winnick, J. P., & Porretta, D. L. (2017). Adapted physical education and sport (6th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. doi:https://www.amazon.com/Adapted-Physical-Education-Joseph-Winnick/dp/1492511536
  2. Tan, A., Yazicioglu, K., Yavuz, F., & Goktepe, A. (2012, October). Influence of adapted sports on quality of life and life satisfaction in sport participants and non-sport participants with physical disabilities. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23021735/
  3. Martin, J., & Shapiro, D. (2010, April). Athletic identity, affect, and peer relations in youth athletes with physical disabilities. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21122772/
  4. Lexell, J., & Sahlin, K. (2015, October). Impact of organized sports on activity, participation, and quality of life in people with NEUROLOGIC Disabilities. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25828205/
  5. Dear colleague letter from Acting Assistant secretary for civil RIGHTS Seth M. Galanter. (2020, September 02). Retrieved June 14, 2021, from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201304.html
  6. Comerford, D. M. (2018). A Call for NCAA Adapted Sports Championships: Following the Eastern College Athletic Conference ’s Lead to Nationalize Collegiate Athletic Opp (2nd ed., Vol. 28, Ser. 10). Marquette Sports Law Review. doi:https://scholarship.law.marquette.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1736&context=sportslaw
  7. NCAA. (2020, May 14). Student-athletes with disabilities. Retrieved June 14, 2021, from https://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/inclusion/student-athletes-disabilities
  8. Team USA. (n.d.). Paralympic sport development. Retrieved June 14, 2021, from https://www.teamusa.org/team-usa-athlete-services/paralympic-sport-development
  9. CPISRA may 2021 Newsletter. (n.d.). Retrieved June 14, 2021, from https://cpisra.org/
  10. Worldwide paralympic partners. (n.d.). Retrieved June 14, 2021, from https://www.paralympic.org/classification