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Campaign promotes exercise for the disabled

BY JOHN HANC
Special to Newsday

February 20, 2007

Long Islanders involved in sports and fitness for the disabled reacted cautiously to the news of a major national initiative designed to encourage physical fitness among the mentally and physically challenged.

"This probably should have been done 10 or 15 years ago," says physical therapist Phil Kreuter of Glen Cove, who has spent much of his nearly 30- year career working with amputee athletes.

"It's been a long time coming," says Gerri Walsh of Cold Spring Harbor, whose son, Jesse Walsh, now 22, won 10 medals in the Junior Paralympics as a teenager, in addition to competing as an athlete for Cold Spring Harbor High School while in a wheelchair.

Wheelchair marathoner Peter Hawkins of Malverne tried hard to sound enthusiastic about the new initiative. "It's not that I'm skeptical, but ... "

Lofty goals

The coalition's stated mission is ambitious: to "reduce substantially in this country and internationally health problems associated with disabilities and inactive lifestyles."

Given the obstacles and frustrations that disabled individuals, their families and those who work with them face in almost every aspect of life, it's no surprise when grand pronouncements from Washington are greeted with, at best, polite applause.  What few would disagree on, however, is the scope of the problem: Less than 25 percent of Americans with physical or cognitive disabilities get enough exercise.

"The cost to individuals in terms of quality of life, and to the nation in terms of health-care dollars, is staggering and unacceptable," says Dr. James Rimmer, co-chairman of the Inclusive Fitness Coalition, the organization formed to spearhead the new initiative.

Rimmer and his coalition partner, Dr. James Whitehead of the American College of Sports Medicine, have brought together 36 organizations - ranging from the American Disability Association to the Special Olympics - to try to tackle the problem.  Considering that there are 50 million Americans with disabilities, it's a formidable one - made even more difficult by decades of misunderstanding about the importance of exercise for those with physical and mental challenges.

That, in essence, is what the newly formed coalition, which announced its agenda at a news conference in Washington on Jan. 24, is all about. Rimmer, a longtime researcher and advocate for the disabled, is well aware of the need for action in this area. "I agree that it's past due," he said of this initiative, which also aims "to bring two communities together who don't necessarily talk ... the disabled community and the fitness community."

The initial plan is to create partnerships with the fitness industry to expand accessibility of training facilities; to develop certifications for fitness professionals to help work with the disabled; to galvanize the support of physicians, health care providers and legislators alike to lower the obstacles and help convince disabled individuals to do what everyone should be doing: getting more physically active.

Reversing the stereotype

Yet, achieving any of these programs (and getting the funding necessary to implement them) ultimately comes down to a change in attitude. "People still think that because somebody is in a wheelchair or is using a prosthesis or has cerebral palsy, that it's dangerous for them to participate in sports or fitness activities," says Kreuter, who works with amputee athletes at A Step Ahead Prosthetics & Orthotics in Hicksville.

In many, if not most cases, they can participate and even excel - a point that has been borne out locally. Since 1976, when an amputee named Dick Traum completed the New York City Marathon on crutches, disabled athletes have had a high profile in New York and on Long Island.

Notable examples include Sarah Reinertsen, a Huntington native who became the first female amputee to finish the Ironman Triathlon and who has gone on to become a motivational speaker and TV celebrity. She appeared in last season's edition of the CBS reality series "The Amazing Race."

Hawkins, perennial winner of the wheelchair division of the Long Island Marathon, and another top longtime racer, Rob Loughlin of Patchogue, are familiar faces to Long Island runners. One of Kreuter's athletes, Tommy Koehler of Hampton Bays, lost his leg as the result of gunshot wounds when he was a New York City police officer and is now a world-class marathon runner and triathlete. Additionally, teams like the Long Island Express wheelchair basketball team, the A Step Ahead amputee racing team and Rolling Thunder - comprising mentally challenged runners - plus events like the annual Nick Katsounis Memorial Wheelchair 10K in Farmingdale, organized by the Greater Long Island Running Club and directed by Gerri Walsh, have all helped establish a presence for disabled athletes, not to mention opportunities for them to be active and compete.

Meanwhile, the pioneering Achilles Track Club, the organization that Traum founded in 1983, has expanded into more than 110 chapters worldwide.

An attitude boost

Despite this, there are still many disabled individuals who aren't likely to participate in races, join teams or sign up for a gym membership. Hawkins explains what keeps them away. "You don't want more attention drawn to you," he says. "If you have a disability that makes you look different, that makes it even worse." Rimmer agrees, citing research showing that even when given free access to fitness facilities, many disabled individuals decline to participate. That said, he still believes they must be encouraged to do so.

"Many people in the disability community are anchored in medical care," Rimmer says.  "All they get to see through their lives are the inside of a doctor's office or a waiting room. That's why we figure that getting more of them into a health-promoting setting will revamp their attitude."

As to the guiding idea behind the coalition, that the disabled can benefit in numerous ways from being more physically active, Hawkins concurs. "The better shape we all stay in, the easier it is for us to get through our lives," he says. "Being fit and active has helped make me a happier person and helps me do what I want to do."

 
Goals for helping the disabled get fit

The newly formed Inclusive Fitness Coalition announced its agenda for promoting health and fitness among the disabled on Jan. 24 in Washington. The coalition - comprising 36 organizations representing the disabled, fitness and sports communities - aims to:

  • Create partnerships with industries involved in sports and in health and fitness to expand accessibility;
  • Work with health care providers and organizations to increase physical activity for people with disabilities;
  • Work with the U.S. surgeon general and the Office on Disability to bring about a larger commitment among all sectors of society;
  • Advocate for appropriate research and technology.


For more information, go to incfit.org.

- John Hanc

Copyright (c) 2007, Newsday, Inc.

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This article originally appeared at:
http://www.newsday.com/features/printedition/ny-hsnut5100402feb20,0,884364.story

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