Overcoming Physical Disability Through Adaptive Sports

Jun 20, 2017

When someone loses the use of their limbs because of a traumatic injury, the emotional healing process can be long and difficult. It’s been shown that physical activity is one of the best ways to help that process along, but it takes the help of trained personnel and specially modified equipment. There’s a new program on Cape Cod that’s providing opportunities for those with severe injuries, helping them get outside on the water and the trails.


A Spaulding volunteer makes an adjustment on an adaptive sports bike.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

Chris Young’s life changed in a split second 35 years ago. He survived a plane crash, but became paralyzed as a result. He uses a wheelchair to get around, and has a cheerful disposition. But it took him a while to reach that point.

“I was a pretty angry young man, and really didn’t want to participate in anything, including life,” said Young. “And I was introduced to adaptive sports, and that gave me back my self-esteem – it really did. It, I think, saved my life.”

Adaptive sports is the term for sporting activities and equipment that are modified or custom-built to accommodate those with serious injuries – think 3-wheeled bikes with special brakes and pedals, or kayaks with stabilizing pontoons. The first adaptive sport Chris Young took up was alpine skiing.

“I do every sport now… anything you can think of, except tennis. It’s kinda slow. I like racquetball better,” he said with a laugh.

The McGraw Center for Adaptive Sports is a collaboration between Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Donald C. McGraw Foundation.

Young was one of many people who gathered at Nickerson State Park recently for the opening of the McGraw Center for Adaptive Sports – a collaboration between Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Donald C. McGraw Foundation.

Spaulding’s Mary Patstone says up to now, they’ve only been able to offer adaptive sports one day a week in Sandwich.

“We actually have a waiting list, and have for years, for our programming in Sandwich that was only one day a week, and now we’ve got this brand new place that people can come to any time they want,” she said.

Keja MacEwan is Network Coordinator for Spaulding's Adaptive Sports program.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

Keja MacEwan is Network Coordinator for Spaulding’s Adaptive Sports program. She motions toward a row of customized bikes designed specially for adaptive sports.

“This is a recumbent style leg bike. We call that style a Delta bike,” she said.

These bikes sit very low to the ground – two wheels in back, one in front.

“There are a lot of recumbent cycles out there these days,” MacEwan said. “Even somebody that’s got some mild back pain, this is a more comfortable than hunched over handlebars of an upright bike.”

Jane Barber stands nearby. She’s a nurse from Provincetown, and has been a Spaulding volunteer for five years.

“When you lose a leg, or you lose use of some body function, it’s a deep, dark place,” Barber remarked. “And when you can get out with the wind in your face and just enjoy life again through sports, I think it’s a great healing action.”

When you can get out with the wind in your face and just enjoy life again through sports, I think it's a great healing action.

Barber says it’s heartening to see people who’ve benefitted from adaptive sports now working as volunteers.

“Adaptive sports brings joy, brings you back to life, and then also brings you full circle to start paying it forward to give hopes and dreams to those that come behind you in injury or in tragic loss,” she said.

The McGraw Center’s kayaking program will operate at Cliff Pond in Nickerson State Park. Steve Katzenbach, Adaptive Sports coordinator for Spaulding on Cape Cod and the South Shore, will help run that part of the program.

Specialized pontoons give this kayak added stability in the water.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

“We can use outriggers - 2 pontoons which increase the stability of the boat. We can also modify the paddle by giving hand adaptations for people who have difficulty grasping or moving one limb or both limbs. We can also use a paddle pivot, which is in that red boat there. And what that does – it supports the weight of the paddle, so that you can actually paddle with one arm only,” said Katzenbach.

Spaulding’s McGraw Center for Adaptive Sports will be open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays throughout the summer.