What Are Adaptive Sports?

Published July 4, 2022

Adaptive sports are recreational or competitive sports for persons with disabilities. Adaptive sports come in all forms, from Wheelchair Basketball to Archery and Goalball. Adaptive sports and other types of adaptive recreation promote health and well-being, reduce social isolation, and improve the overall quality of life for those who participate. 

Adaptive programs implement modifications to ensure the most inclusive and accommodating environment for all individuals. Adaptive teams and clubs in various sports across the country exist, from amateur to pro to Paralympic level competitions. 

What sort of modifications are used?

Adaptive sports feature modifications that make it easier for athletes of varying abilities to participate. Common modifications may include using chalk markers for athletes with visual impairments, adaptive wheelchairs for those with limited mobility, guides for runners, prosthetics for athletes with limb differences, weight adjustments, modified fields, adaptive flooring, and more. 

What sports can be made adaptive?

Almost every sport and recreation type can be adaptive. While there are many examples of adaptive sports and recreation that most people without disabilities would be familiar with, the idea behind adaptive sports and recreation is the principle that participation can be inclusive and accessible with appropriate accommodations.

For example, athletes with limb differences use modified bikes outfitted with hand pedals and reclined seats. Adaptive skiing, which typically includes a modified seat or tandem connection to another skier, is popular in many parts of the country, and adaptive surfing, popular in communities with warmer climates and access to water, usually include adaptive seating or straps that ensure the surfer can participate safely in the water. 

Two of the most popular adaptive sports are Wheelchair Basketball and Wheelchair Rugby, both of which have national, regional, and district-level leagues and are very competitive. Wheelchair Rugby is one of the most popular adaptive sports in the country and is typically considered a high-speed full-contact sport. 

That said, there are many types of adaptive sports, as referenced above, including, but not limited to golf, horseback riding, paddling, archery, bocce, bowling, fencing, fishing, hunting, lacrosse, shooting, pool, sailing, scuba, softball, table tennis, water skiing, and more. 

Are adaptive sports part of the Special Olympics?

The Special Olympics, founded in 1968, has a primary focus on athletes with intellectual and physical disabilities. 

There is often a conflation between adaptive sports and the Special Olympics. While the Special Olympics certainly are a form of adaptive recreation, perhaps the highest level, one does not have to compete in the Special Olympics to participate in adaptive sports, and vice versa.  

Adaptive sports are cross-disability and open to all individuals with disabilities in some form or another. 

How to get involved in adaptive sports

There are clubs and teams all over the US. Most programs are inclusive and open for all participants. Some programs have been modified to accommodate mobility impairment and others may have been adapted for those who are Blind, D/deaf, or hard-of-hearing. Some programs are entirely inclusive. 

Perhaps the best way to get involved in adaptive sports or recreation programs may be to search for adaptive sports in your community, contact your Parks and Recreation Department, or identify therapeutic recreation providers locally to identify what may be available in your area. 

For those interested in competitive adaptive sports or recreation, the US Olympic Committee's website has an entire section dedicated to adaptive sports, and Move United, a non-profit organization founded in 1956, facilitates adaptive sports for youth and adults with disabilities. 

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