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DPT Students Learn About Adapted Sports

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It's a sunny August morning on a dock along the Little Mystic Channel near Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in the Charlestown Navy Yard. A group of 20 entry-level doctor of physical therapy (DPT) students from nearby MGH Institute of Health Professions huddles around instructor Allison Stoll, DPT, who explains how someone with a spinal cord injury can paddle a canoe.

As Stoll lists a number of approaches that combine the keen clinical intellect needed for patient care with the ingenuity to adapt to a patient's needs, this next generation of therapists learns how they could include adaptive sports as a key piece of their therapy toolbox.

"Now I have a better understanding of what people with disabilities have to go through to do something like this," said third-year student Maria Victoria, climbing out of an adaptive Hawaiian-style outrigger canoe.

The class, a new collaboration between the two Partners HealthCare System affiliates, occurs at Spaulding Adaptive Sports Center's Dr. Charles H. Weingarten Program, located at the east end of the former naval shipyard and just a short few blocks from the graduate school's campus. Since its 2001 inception, the hospital's award-winning adaptive sports program, led Mary Patstone, director of Spaulding Adaptive Sports Centers (SASC), has assisted thousands of people with disabilities participate in such activities as handcycling, kayaking, windsurfing, and even golf.

Participants range from needing significant equipment modification and full transfer assistance to those who need minimal modification or assistance. Regardless of ability, all participants are expected to be engaged to the full extent of their possibility, even if it involves securing a specially designed paddle grip onto their arm so they can help propel the boat.

"It's a real eye-opener to see learn how people can do these activities," said student David Debaere. "It can allow them to have a more involved and fuller life."

The first of its kind six-week class came about rather quickly when Oswald "Oz" Mondejar, senior vice president of mission and advocacy at Spaulding, Mary Patstone, SASC director, and a board member at the MGH Institute, discussed the idea with School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences Dean Dr. Leslie Portney and her team.

For Mondejar, a lifelong disability advocate, the gap between formalized clinical training of adaptive sports activities and the documented positive outcomes was a great opportunity. And when the class filled minutes after it was offered, the three knew they were on to something.

"The independence that a job provides, especially for those newly disabled, is so critical to the long-term quality of life of that individual as well as the greater community," said Mondejar, who points to a 2009 study by Disabled Sports USA that found people with disabilities who engage in adaptive sports activities were twice as likely as their non-participating counterparts to be employed.

While there are several adaptive sports certificate programs, such as Blaze Sports America in Colorado, this is one of the first begin incorporating it into a physical therapy graduate degree curriculum.

"This opens a whole new avenue for our students to better understand how therapy plays an important role in a person's full participation in life activities," said Portney. "I look forward to working with our partners at Spaulding, as well as our faculty and students from physical, occupational and speech therapy, to create a vibrant interprofessional environment, to expand opportunities in winter sports, clinical research, and more."

The students completed their six-week course with their final exam involving working with real participants with disabilities, putting into practice the critical thinking and techniques they learned and ready to educate their peers on the benefits of adaptive sports.

"Spaulding and the Institute are at the forefront of something that could transform the approach to rehabilitation therapy education," said Mondejar.

Timothy Sullivan is director of communications at The Spaulding Rehabilitation Network & Partners Continuing Care.

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