While the American public in general may not see a common thread linking baseball with disability employment, a recent blog post by Kathy Martinez, assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy, makes a clear case that sports – from baseball to trapshooting to handcycling – improve cultural and employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities.
“Sports, and not just baseball, are ingrained in the American psyche; they’re a cultural force,” Martinez wrote. “Whether played in a large stadium or neighborhood park, they have the power not only to bring people together for fun and recreation, but also to shape societal attitudes.”
Martinez pointed to recent studies demonstrating the powerful link between extracurricular activities and employment for people with disabilities, including data from the Special Olympics that showed 52 percent of Special Olympics athletes in the United States are employed, with half of them in competitive employment. That compares to an estimated employment rate of just 10 percent for adults with intellectual disabilities in general.
A separate study commissioned by Disabled Sports USA also found that among more than 1,000 working age adults with disabilities, those in sports programs were more than twice as likely (68 vs. 33 percent) to be employed compared with the general population of adults with disabilities, with the majority of them attributing workplace success to involvement in sports and recreation.
Numerous testimonies from members of Paralyzed Veterans of America validate these findings, as many of our disabled veterans have long touted the role sports and recreation has played in their physical and mental rehabilitation as well as in their desire to set goals – whether fitness, family or employment-related.
“In my own experience, once I realized I could still live an active sports and recreation lifestyle, everything else – going back to work, continuing education, starting new activities – became second nature,” said Ernie Butler, sports director for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “In every instance, I found that skills developed in my sports and recreational pursuits helped me to develop better transfer skills, chair skills and self confidence that enhanced my everyday life.”
Butler pointed to numerous examples he has seen of young people who have turned their lives around and made decisions to attend college or pursue careers after becoming involved in adaptive sports. Newly disabled adults who were once unmotivated in their own rehabilitation also have found that sports and recreation had given them a sense of purpose and enjoyment that led them to become more fully involved in life and employment, he added.
DeMarlon Pollard, a national service officer for Paralyzed Veterans of America, says sports have been an integral part not only in his rehabilitation but also in his confidence and motivation to continue working. Pollard, a Navy veteran who suffered a T5 spinal cord injury in 2006, says his rehabilitation and outlook were completely changed in 2007, when fellow disabled athletes at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Milwaukee, WI, showed him what was possible through adaptive sports.
“By getting involved in sports and not letting my disability define me, I was able to find the confidence that I once had to do anything that I put my mind to,” Pollard says. “Being around people who still had that competitive edge, that goal to succeed, and that drive to win was exactly what I needed to get my life moving. I apply those same principles in the workplace. Being able to get up every morning and go to a place of employment and leave at the end of the day feeling like I contributed something to the cause and to the team is what it's all about.”
Learn more about Paralyzed Veterans of America’s adaptive sports programs
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.