Special Needs Sports Programs

An often overlooked area of our kids’ lives is their recreation time. As parents, we spend so much time worrying about their health, worrying about IEPs, and education, that there isn’t much time or energy left for recreation time.

The sentiment is starting to change on this topic. Many schools and agencies are realizing the importance and benefit of meaningful leisure time and including it in IEP transition plans. Still, sports activities for disabled kids can be hard to find.

Inclusive sports programs are much more popular than they were just a few years ago.

Side Note: Yes, I do not always use People First Language. Identity first language is also acceptable.

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Also, I am aware that I am using Special Needs in this post, however, if I want people to see the post, we sometimes have to put the terms that people are looking for. Right now, “special needs sports” is what parents are looking for.

And so, special needs sports information…is what you will get.

Wheelchair basketball is a very popular special needs sport near me.

Get the list: 25 Amazing Inclusion Books for Kids

Benefits of Sports for Disabled Kids

Over 10 years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics addressed this issue. The full article is included below. It’s a bit of a dry read. But, I am including it because you may find it to be helpful data if you are trying to convince your school or community to change their mindset.

In part, it reads: The participation of children with disabilities in sports and recreational activities promotes inclusion, minimizes deconditioning, optimizes physical functioning, and enhances overall well-being.

The AAP also goes on to address the importance of communities addressing the barriers to participation.

Sports for disabled kids should not be viewed as a treat or a special occasion. I mean, not any different than our non-disabled kids.

My non-disabled child is signed up for lacrosse this year, for the first time ever. It is a “treat” because lacrosse is a very expensive sport, and it is something we discussed as a family prior to making the commitment. But playing the sport in and of itself should not be a “treat.”

They should be expected to participate in sports and activities that they desire, just like their peers.

Accommodating Sports Activities for Kids with Disabilities

Here are some sports activities for kids with disabilities. These programs are not inclusive, in that the entire group or team will likely be disabled children.

There are many options available for disabled students who want to play sports.

Please note that I tried to stick with large, national organizations in which you could search for a local group or chapter. It would be impossible to list all the local, stand-alone efforts.

Ask your Local Sports Program

On Saturday, my son had his introductory meeting for a local basketball league. There were two kids there who are visibly disabled.

Remember that depending on the situation, ADA or section 504 may apply to the child’s desired sport or activity. Think about what your child needs to access the program, and contact whoever is running the program.

I’m also including these two resources for accommodations and making sports accessible for our kids.

  • Building Healthy Inclusive Communities through the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD)– Founded in 1999, the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD) is a public health practice and resource center on health promotion for people with disability. NCHPAD seeks to help people with disability and other chronic health conditions achieve health benefits through increased participation in all types of physical and social activities, including fitness and aquatic activities, recreational and sports programs, adaptive equipment usage, and more. NCHPAD actively works to create health equity for people with disabilities by providing individualized information, referral, and consultation services to people with disabilities, families, caregivers, policymakers, community members, health care practitioners, and public health professionals through an expansive array of web-based materials and health communication endeavors. Additionally, NCHPAD conducts national training initiatives that educate disability and non-disability service providers in community health inclusion.
  • PE Central– Quality adapted physical education involves the physical educator differentiating instruction to meet the needs, interests, and abilities of each individual student. That differentiation might involve the teacher adapting/ modifying the content, process, environment, and/or student assessment.

Sports Leagues for Kids with Disabilities

These leagues cover a multitude of sports.

  1. Special Olympics– Special Olympics supports over 5 million athletes, 1 million coaches and volunteers, more than 100,000 competitions each year, and 32 Olympic-type sports through programs in more than 170 countries.
  2. Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) – It is the mission of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) to provide opportunities and support to people with physical challenges, so they can pursue active lifestyles through physical fitness and competitive athletics. The Challenged Athletes Foundation believes that involvement in sports at any level increases self-esteem, encourages independence, and enhances the quality of life.
  3. Challenger Athletics– Challenger Athletics Inc. is an organization dedicated to providing sports programs to people with learning disabilities and physical disabilities, who, because of their disability are unable to participate in mainstream programs. It is also our goal to enlighten the community and inspire our athletes to exceed their potential and reach for the stars! Finally, we want to motivate those who can come down and help us. All it takes is a desire to help others and a love for sports. But be prepared our athletes just might change your life as well!
  4. KEEN (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now)- KEEN is a volunteer-led, nonprofit — 501(c)(3) — organization headquartered in the Washington, DC area. KEEN USA’s Board of Directors oversees affiliate operations and charts national initiatives. Each affiliate also has a Board of Directors, comprised of parents, volunteers, and members of the community who direct all local activities in accordance with KEEN‘s mission of providing free programs for kids with disabilities, regardless of the nature or severity of that disability.
  5. Blaze– BlazeSports America is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that is the legacy organization of the 1996 Paralympic Games held in Atlanta, Ga. These games, the first held on American soil, where the realization of the dreams of thousands of Americans involved in the growth and promotion of sports for persons with physical disabilities in the United States.
  6. Sports for Kids Foundation– The Sports For Kids Foundation is dedicated to improving the quality of life of special needs children and their families throughout the United States.
  7. AAPM&R Directory of Sports Organizations for Athletes with Disabilities – This directory contains resources for athletes with disabilities who wish to engage in sports competitions and activities and for physiatrists and the general public who would like to volunteer with these organizations.

Special Needs Sports for Disabilities

Here are more groups, but each one stays specific to one sport or activity.

For many of them, I copied and pasted a blurb directly from their website.

Basketball for Disabled Kids

  1. Bounce out the Stigma– The primary charter of Bounce Out the Stigma is to empower special needs children and young adults with motor skill sets, self-confidence, peer support, and a unique message to meet the challenges they face. Since Mike was confronted with many of these challenges growing up including;  seizures, the need to take daily medications, peer distrust, bullying, and self-imposed isolation our Program is truly unique. Mike provides people with an insight into what they can accomplish despite perceived limitations or the stigma associated with seizures. We have carefully constructed our entire platform of programs and events to meet the changing landscape of special needs kids.

Flag Football for Disabled Kids

  1. Pop Warner– The philosophy of the Pop Warner Challenger Division is to provide the framework for local Pop Warner programs to offer a structured football program for participants with special needs. The Challenger program is non-competitive and no score is kept. The games are modeled after a typical Pop Warner game with warm-ups, coin toss, national anthem, etc. Participation in the Challenger Division is permitted at the request of the individual’s parent or guardian.
  2. NFL Flag– If your local community runs an NFL Flag league, ask them about opening up a challenger division. My local AGRA Flag Football tries every year to get it going, but it never does due to a lack of interest. (like me and 2 other families sign up!)

Baseball for Disabled Kids

  1. The Miracle League– The Miracle League removes the barriers that keep children with mental and physical disabilities off the baseball field and lets them experience the joy of America’s favorite pastime. Since the main barriers for these adults arise from the natural grass fields used in conventional leagues, Miracle League teams play on a custom-designed, rubberized turf field that accommodates wheelchairs and other assertive devices while helping to prevent injuries.
  2. Little League Challenger Division– Any individual with a physical or intellectual challenge may participate. If an individual can participate in the traditional Little League Baseball or Softball program with reasonable accommodations they should do so. The Little League Challenger Division accommodates players ages 4-18, or up to age 22 if still enrolled in school. The Senior League Challenger Division accommodates players ages 15 and above (no maximum age).

Fishing for Disabled Kids

  1. Youth Fishing Programs for Disabilities

Inclusive Sports Programs for Kids with a Disability

These programs are for both disabled and non-disabled children. Or, it is a group that works to make sports more inclusive for our kids. You may find value in using their materials to create change in your community.

  1. Upward Sports-Upward is a church-based program, and not specific to disabilities. But many locations are inclusive and willing to go the extra distance to include.
  2. Healthy Kids Running Series-I have experienced that if you contact your local HKRS and speak with the director, they will work with you to include your child. I can’t say enough good things about our local HKRS and how this experience helped me overcome my own internal bias.
  3. American Association of Adapted Sports Programs (AAASP) – “AAASP’s mission is to oversee the partnership of leaders in education and community to lay the foundation for a national network of interscholastic adapted athletic programs.” 
  4. Rise Adaptive Sports– To assist persons with physical challenges to Recover, Inspire, Succeed and Empower themselves and others by providing inclusive adaptive recreational sports programs.
  5. E-Sports-Exceptional Sports (E-Sports) is a fully inclusive program dedicated to empowering kids of all abilities to reach their full athletic and social potential. The “E” in E-Sports stands for “exceptional” because we believe all people, both with typical and special needs, are exceptional. The “E” also implies “education”, reflecting our mission to keep learning and growing as we serve this community of families.
  6. Zero Project– The Zero Project was initiated by the Essl Foundation in 2008 and focuses on the rights of persons with disabilities globally. It is a platform where the most innovative and effective solutions to problems that persons with disabilities face, are shared. Its mission is to support the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) and to work for a world without barriers.

AAP Paper on Sports for Disabled Children

Again, I thought that this paper has some value if you are trying to create a movement in your school or community.


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