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PTs help open the world of sports to people with disabilities

Catherine Getchell of Elkins Park, PA, is a committed cyclist who lives for long-distance events, club rides and weekly gatherings of her fellow cycling enthusiasts. For her, sports is more than just competition and a way to stay fit - it's her way of connecting and being involved.

"Club sports and team sports afford people that socialization outside of work and their families," said Getchell, who has been blind since birth. "It's another group to connect with. For a person with a disability, it lets them think, 'hey, I can do that too.' That's the nice aspect of group sports and activities - that socialization."

Getchell participates in club rides and races on a tandem bike captained by a member of the Pennsylvania Center for Adapted Sports, which offers lifestyle sports programs to people with vision loss, cerebral palsy, spinal cord injury, limb loss, stroke, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's, along with other permanent or irreversible physical limitations.

Along with the sense of purpose and camaraderie of adapted sports programs comes the added benefit of health, which carries the same advantages to all people, Getchell said.

"I love cycling," she said. "I'm in the best health I've ever been in. I'm not much for standing still."

Getchell's disability is stable and doesn't affect her physical function. But when a disability is physical in nature, the expertise of physical therapists can bring essential insight into the associated injuries, conditioning and rehabilitation.

Enlightening Experiences

One role of adapted sports programs is providing a way for students to connect with athletes with a disability, giving them insight into the patients they'll be working with during their careers.

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At Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, PTA students in their first year volunteer at the Eastern Iowa Adapted Sports Clinic, an annual event held each spring at Kirkwood's recreation center featuring a rotating array of adapted sports that might include wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, tennis, archery, golf, bowling and biking in any given year.

"This is the sixth year of our involvement," said Maggie Thomas, MA, PT, director of the PTA program at Kirkwood and coordinator of the students' involvement in the program. "[Students] are in charge of taking vitals, pairing up with a participant or assisting at one of the stations." The event has grown each year, said Thomas, and includes sponsors Sportability Inc., The Spinal Cord Injury Association of Iowa, and St. Luke's Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Local vendors provide adapted bikes and sport wheelchairs.

"They absolutely love it," said Thomas of the PTA students' experience. "They enjoy the contact with 'real patients' to go along with their book learning. They'll chat with athletes about a typical day with a disability. The tangible insights and communication skills they learn are invaluable."

"It was a chance to get to know a variety of people and know that each person, no matter what they have been through, is still a person who cares and loves the same things as each of us," said Kirkwood PTA student Ashley Callahan.

The event demonstrates to students that rehabilitating from an injury or progressive disease is not just about coping, but of maximizing function and looking at new possibilities such as sports, said Thomas. In their third semester, Kirkwood PTA students have an optional opportunity to assist with Special Olympics in nearby Ames, Iowa.

The Power of Competition

Physical therapists also bring an expertise in biomechanical function, training and sports performance to adapted sports programs and key insight into the specific concerns of people with a disability.

Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah, Ga., hosts yearly wheelchair basketball and tennis programs for community residents age 8 and above. The programs run on volunteer support and Memorial physical and occupational therapists run the practices, incorporate knowledge about stretching and overuse injuries, and reach out to community organizations to spread the word. Sports wheelchairs are provided to athletes.

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Lucian Smith of Devon, Pa., sustained a spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident in 1985 and has been riding adapted bikes for more than 12 years. "It's truly one of the best forms of physical and mental therapy I've found," he said.

"Our PTs really get a kick out of it," said Corie Turley, MSPT, a level 4 staff therapist at Memorial University Medical Center who helped launch the programs over 10 years ago. "They get out there and compete, get in the chairs, and get real hands-on experience in living with a disability." Therapists are often shocked at how much effort goes into wheelchair mobility, particularly in the sports arena, Turley said. They bring that knowledge back to the clinic to establish a rapport with patients and let them know about available programs.

The tennis program was launched in 2000 in partnership with BlazeSports, a national organization offering training, support and assistance for athletes with disabilities. Local tennis organizations supply instructors and the season runs from March through June.

The basketball program dates back to 2002 and was started by a grant from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, said Turley. The program is indoors and the season runs from October through February. Both programs can house eight to 10 participants at a given time.

"It's a positive outlet," Turley said of the value of sports participation. "It gives them a sense of motivation and participation they might not get elsewhere."

Leveling the Field

Finally, the sense of empowerment and dignity that comes from adapted sports is something that PTs know well. Being around people with physical and cognitive limitations provides a comfort level that few other professions can boast.

On June 15, a team of volunteer therapists and staff from MossRehab in Philadelphia traveled to the beach in Wildwood Crest, N.J., to assist with They Will Surf Again, a free, one-day event that gets people with spinal cord injuries into the ocean and riding waves. MossRehab PTs help surfers get up and down the beach and in and out of wetsuits, and help surfers in the water as they use special adaptive surfboards.

"To have actual therapists who can physically handle people with disabilities with the proper techniques and dignity, say if a surfer falls off their board for instance, makes the experience that much better for surfers," said Chad DeSatnick, who organizes They Will Surf Again events in New Jersey. At the age of 24, DeSatnick sustained a C6-7 spinal cord injury while surfing, and soon became involved with Life Rolls On, a subsidiary of the Reeve Foundation that gets people with spinal cord injury involved with action sports.

They Will Surf Again is a series of bicoastal events that allows people with SCI and their families to network and establish new support networks outside traditional group support settings, DeSatnick said. In addition, the event shifts negative stereotypes of the paralysis community by showing what's possible.

PTs volunteering in adapted sports programs routinely say they get as much out of the experience as the athletes do. Connecting through sports dates back through time, and levels the playing field without regard to handicap or physical ability.

"It's a huge opportunity for socializing," said Thomas. "A lot of people with disabilities were athletes before their accident or injury, so this lets them get back to competition." 

Jonathan Bassett is on staff at ADVANCE. Contact:

Meet Aaron Scheidies

PT with visual deficits is a world-class triathlete

Aaron Scheidies is a 31-year-old endurance athlete who has completed nearly 200 triathlons and been named a World Champion seven times. Born with a hereditary eye condition that slowly deteriorates his central vision, Scheidies now has about 15% of the vision of a fully sighted person. ADVANCE interviewed Scheidies to learn more about his life and career as a PT.

ADVANCE: How did you become interested in physical therapy?

I studied kinesiology at Michigan State University and received my DPT from the University of Washington. I was [always] fascinated with the human body's ability to adapt and withstand extreme stress. I love to help people and I'm a very passionate person. Finally, I am an athlete myself and I always wanted to help others maximize their performance.

ADVANCE: Where do you practice and what patient populations do you treat?

During physical therapy school, I fell in love with the geriatric community. I work for Kindred Health at a skilled nursing facility in Shoreline, Wash. I am the "bridge" for many patients progressing from the hospital to living back at home. I treat joint replacements, stroke, cardiac surgery, traumatic brain injury and much more.

ADVANCE: What's a typical treatment day for you?

I visit a few patient rooms with my dog Ret, who's become an amazing healing element for my patients. I typically have between five and 12 patients a day, with treatment times varying between 30-75 minutes. Some patients can't handle one long session, so we split their sessions up to allow for recovery.

ADVANCE: What does your background in endurance athletics bring to your work as a PT?

My background and my education give me full knowledge of the body's response to exertion. It's one thing to learn how the body reacts to stress, but experiential knowledge is much more powerful and allows me to educate my patients on how it should feel. Many times when I explain to my patients what I do, it serves as a motivating factor. They realize that if I can complete an Ironman [triathlon], they should be able to motivate themselves to walk.

ADVANCE: How does your visual impairment affect your work as a PT?

Like everything in my life, I've had to find ways to adapt. To read charts I use a closed-circuit television that enlarges anything I put underneath it. For billing, we use an iTouch, which has an accessibility voice-over setting to allow for information on the screen to be read out loud to me. Coming soon, all of our documentation and billing will be paperless using iPads, which has a dictation option.

In patient care I'm much more hands-on, and rely upon body landmarks to feel what's going on during functional movement. I often close my eyes to get an even better sense of feel. I ask a lot of questions about how they injured themselves and what activities they participate in.

Because my patients often have age-related macular degeneration and other degenerative conditions, I explain to them that I'm going through the same struggles. This helps build rapport and lets them know they're not alone.

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