Breaking Ground 112 - ABLE Youth: Skills for Sports, Skills for LifeBy Amy Saffell, Executive Director, ABLE Youth
ABLE Youth helps kids in Middle Tennessee with physical disabilities, ages 2 through high school graduation, learn to be independent through adaptive sports. Kids don’t have to be full-time wheelchair users to join. So often, kids with varying physical disabilities focus on learning to walk through physical therapy. But even if they are able to walk in their everyday lives, they may not have the agility to play “able-bodied” or “typical” sports. They may believe sports are off-limits to them. They don’t realize they can use a wheelchair just for sports and have a blast. ABLE Youth has sports wheelchairs for our kids to use, so they don’t have to have a wheelchair of their own.
ABLE Youth is about fun and games, an important part of childhood that kids with disabilities may struggle to access due to accessibility or medical concerns. But ABLE Youth is about so much more: taking lessons that sports teach us out into the world.
The “ABLE" in ABLE Youth is an acronym with two important meanings. One is “Athletes Building Life Experiences,” a fitting description of the ABLE Youth mission. The other is what ABLE Youth calls “The ABLE Way:”
- Adapt (to your surroundings)
- Believe (in yourself and your capabilities)
- Love (yourself and your life)
- Enjoy (all of the opportunities life brings).”
These four qualities are ones that we’ve found to be critical to living life successfully with a disability and are principles we hope to instill in all our kids.
ABLE Youth offers lots of adaptive sports opportunities, both competitive and non-competitive. Super Sports Saturdays, held monthly, are our largest gathering of kids, where we play lots of different sports and games. Our Music City Thunder wheelchair basketball teams compete through the National Wheelchair Basketball Association and travel to different states for tournaments. Competing in multi-sport adaptive athletic meets, also held outside of Tennessee, kids try out track, field events, and swimming, as well as other sports like archery. Closer to home, we participate in adaptive rock climbing, road races, and more.
It doesn’t matter if a child excels at any of the sports offered. We just want them to have the chance to try something new and to have fun first.
Being involved in adaptive sports and recreation provides many health benefits of being active, but the benefits go much further. Kids don’t see people with disabilities in the media enough. If a kid is told that they can’t do something, they might not see that there are lots of people with disabilities out there doing the very thing that they were told that they couldn’t do. They see it at ABLE Youth. Many of our kids don’t see anyone else in a wheelchair at school, so it’s often only at ABLE Youth when they see someone who looks like them. When they go to a tournament or meet, they see hundreds of kids with physical disabilities from across the country. At ABLE Youth, they’re not alone.
They meet other kids who understand what it’s like growing up with a disability. They learn from kids who are further along in the journey than they are. When they accomplish things that once seemed so far out of reach, they turn around and help the next kid coming along.
As they start to learn what they can do through sports, they think, “If I can do this, then what else in life could I do?” It’s a ripple effect throughout their whole lives. Through sports, they have something in common with their non-disabled peers. They have the power to change the whole world as people without disabilities learn about their capabilities.
ABLE Youth’s success stories are numerous and include very young participants. When a child joins us at a young age or when they are new to using a wheelchair, parents tell me the child immediately starts pushing their chair better at home. Studies show that kids who play adaptive sports are more likely to later be employed. Their ABLE Youth successes continue even into adulthood. ABLE Youth alumni are in the workforce in all kinds of industries. They’re continuing their pursuit of wheelchair sports, too.
One of our alums plays wheelchair basketball at Auburn University. He joined ABLE Youth at 4 years old, full of energy and enthusiasm. Through ABLE Youth, he learned not only that he was a great athlete but also how to take care of his disability related everyday needs. He realized that living independently was possible. Through adaptive sports opportunities on college campuses, he built the courage to go to college away from home and put in the work to get there!
We also currently have an alum playing wheelchair basketball professionally in Greece. Although it can be difficult traveling for our tournaments, getting to learn about travel as a wheelchair user at ABLE Youth planted the seed for the opportunity. Another alum is the head coach of the University of Texas at Arlington’s women’s wheelchair basketball team. No matter what our alumni are doing, we’re proud of all the progress they’ve made, both in sports and in life.
ABLE Youth is based in Nashville. Amy Saffell is ABLE Youth’s Executive Director. Born in Atlanta with spina bifida, adaptive sports were an important part of her childhood. She previously worked at a record label.