Athletes with disabilities in it to win it

By Neel Madhavan
Medill Reports

Rohan Murphy lost his legs at birth and grew up thinking that he wouldn’t ever be able to play sports.

However, in eighth grade his physical education teacher introduced him to wrestling and he started to become fully involved with the team in ninth grade. He later went on to wrestle at the collegiate level at Penn State.

Murphy says going through life with his disability is much different than competing in wrestling with his disability.

“I think people give me even more credit for living life without legs,” Murphy said. “I mean, wrestling without legs is pretty simple. There are only a few things that can happen to me, either I win or I lose. Life without legs is a little bit more complicated than that.”

Something as simple as going to the grocery store can be a drawn-out task for Murphy.

When the average person goes to the grocery store, they will get a cart, find all the items they need and checkout and leave. Murphy said he gets a hand basket because he can’t push the cart. He’ll fill up the basket, checkout, take the items to his car and go back inside and keep doing that until he gets all the groceries he needs.

“Everything that I do is just different compared to someone with legs,” Murphy said. “Unlike the average person that makes one trip going to the grocery store, I make three or four trips.”

Even with the difficulties they face, athletes with a range of disabilities, both physical and mental, have proven themselves capable of playing almost any sport at a high level, from the Paralympics to wheelchair tennis and even Division I college basketball.

Jessica Long had both her legs amputated as a child, but has won 23 Paralympic medals in swimming; Anthony Ianni and Kalin Bennett are two of the first Division I college basketball players on the autism spectrum; Jake Olson, who has been blind since age 12, played college football at USC; Anthony Robles was born with one leg and went on to win an individual wrestling national championship in the 125-pound weight class; Jim Eisenreich was a Major League Baseball player with Tourette’s Syndrome, and the list goes on and on.

“Until society starts realizing it, people are just going to look at people with autism, ADHD, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy or whatever, and go, well they just shouldn’t play sports, or they shouldn’t be part of groups,” Ianni said. “But, that’s not true at all. Those same individuals are talented in so many ways.

“It’s time for our country to realize that, and not just from a sports standpoint, but from a society standpoint, there are thousands, maybe millions of talents individuals on the [autism] spectrum out there, whether it’s at sports or not sports.”

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Mental health issues for athletes with disabilities

The concern with mental health in sports has received greater emphasis in recent years as the stigma surrounding it has begun to decline. Mental health issues are a concern for athletes with disabilities, as well, and sometimes more so given the additional hurdles they have to overcome.

“The most common mental health issues in the population are anxiety, depression and mood disorders, adjustment disorders, trauma, substance use disorders, and eating disorders,” said Jen Carter, lead sport psychologist for Ohio State University Sports Medicine. “This is also true for athletes. Mental health issues specific to athletes include coping with injury and performance pressures.

“Athletes with disabilities face these same mental health issues, with sometimes additional struggles of fighting for opportunities and making adjustments based on the particular disability.”

The sport psyche has evolved over the years. All over the world, athletes at the high school, college and professional level are starting to open up about their mental health struggles.

NBA players such as Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan have opened up about their struggles with anxiety and depression, respectively.

Just recently, the NBA announced an expansion of its mental health policies, including measures requiring all 30 teams to have at least one mental health professional on retainer, identify a licensed psychiatrist available to help manage mental health concerns, enact a written action plan for mental health emergencies and attend a health and wellness meeting prior to the start of the season.

Dr. Becky Clark has a unique perspective on the mental health of athletes with disabilities, as she’s dealt with it from both sides of the table.

As a deaf athlete, she played college basketball for the legendary Pat Summitt at Tennessee in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and she’s now a sports performance consultant and clinical psychotherapist with a private practice in New York City.

“I have my deafness,” Clark said. “It was caused by child abuse. I went through a traumatic childhood, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I lost it all. It was progressive after a time.

“I struggled with the loss of my hearing, even those years playing high caliber ball, trying to figure out how I’m going to understand the professors in the class. Just the loss of hearing and just isolating. I went through a really bad period of depression. I was like, ‘Gee, I wish I could find someone that understood sport and mental health both.’”

Clark was inspired by her own struggles with mental health, and she put her two passions together to pursue sports psychology.

According to Clark, isolation is another big issue that she sees in her patients and clients with disabilities. Depending on the disability and the sport, sometimes an athlete is isolated from being able to compete because of lack of competition and resources. That isolation also comes into play with interpersonal relationships because it can be tough to find someone, whether it be a friend or significant other, that has the level of understanding to accommodate their disability.

“It’s a constant struggle to get to the starting line,” Clark said. “You’re always educating and advocating and that in itself is very exhausting.”

Clark utilizes a variety of approaches and therapies to help an athlete address their particular situation, depending on disability.

Overall, she said she tries to teach them to “control the controllables” and exchange a negative mindset for a more constructive and empowering one. Also, she says the process for working with athletes who were born with a disability is different than it is for athletes who became disabled later in life.

Clark also serves as an advocate for athletes with disabilities around the world.

“A lot of countries don’t really pay attention to athletes with disabilities,” Clark said. “They just throw them all in one pile and they say, ‘Okay, go compete in the Paralympics.’”

She said she read a United Nations study which indicated that 93 percent of girls and women with a disability outside the United States don’t participate in sports or physical activity.

“In other places, people with disabilities are treated like third-rate citizens or anything at all,” Clark said. “Now, with my athletes I empower them. I help them empower themselves. I try to give them the skills to do that coming from whether I’m a clinician or coming from the sport side mental skills coach, and as a person with a disability, too.”

Changes for the future

Ultimately, most athletes with disabilities just want to be treated like any other athlete or competitor. They don’t want to be coddled, singled out or pitied.

Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo admits that he learned all that and more when he coached Ianni from 2009-2012.

“He never wanted to be treated any different,” Izzo said. “I think the one thing everybody wants to be is treated the same and try to adjust to the small issues that they have.

“I do think we all stereotype a little bit. I think we all figure if we hear the word that he has autism or he has this or he has that, we look at it in a negative way. I don’t know how that experience was for Anthony, but it was actually probably more rewarding for me because I realized that here’s a kid that has autism and has grown and not asked for favors and not wanted to be treated differently.”

However, many of athletes with disabilities feel there are a number of things that can be done to level the playing field, which can go a long way towards fostering inclusion and making participation in sports easier for athletes with disabilities.

Celia Torrey is a dancer with moderate-to-severe hearing loss in both ears who just graduated from the Boston Conservatory at Berklee with a degree in contemporary art performance.

“I think just because dance is so physical, people aren’t necessarily expecting someone with a physical disability to be able to participate, even though they can,” she said. “But I think it would be a better environment if people were more open to the idea of dancers with disabilities, even if they’re not physical disabilities.”

Jennifer Hinton isn’t an athlete, but as a multi-instrument musician and member of the Mississippi State marching band, she practices her craft just as much as any athlete. Like Torrey, she also has moderate-to-severe hearing loss, but with permanent tinnitus, as well.

One of the things she said she noticed in school was that her teachers and band directors didn’t have the training and education to work with people with certain disabilities.

“Most teachers, obviously, they know stuff about Down Syndrome or Autism or ADHD,” Hinton said. “But, when it comes to like more layered disabilities, and impairments such as hearing impairments or people that are paralyzed, in a wheelchair. They don’t know how to react to it.”

This lack of training and education can apply to coaches, trainers and other athletic mentors. Hinton wants to see these individuals receive more training, so they’re better equipped to handle and work with those with all kinds of disabilities.

Increased education and awareness are also a common theme towards fostering inclusiveness.

“I think the more media attention that is focused on people with disabilities and through the Paralympics, and the more that we can do more to help them be more sort of mainstream, and more in the public eye, and help educate people, I think that lots of good things can kind of come from educating people,” said Jeff Martin, a sport psychology professor at Wayne State.

Clark feels that a greater emphasis on a grassroots approach when it comes to those with disabilities participating in sport would go a long way towards preventing athletes with disabilities from having to “catch up” to able-bodied athletes.

“You teach them early,” Clark said. “You give them equipment and all the resources that they need. You also have advocacy and you train teachers, and P.E teachers, coaches, leagues, anywhere in the world, club leagues, whatever the sport. Give them an opportunity to play.

“Let’s get these kids out and teach them, rather than focus on what they cannot do, what they can do. There are different ways for them to adapt with sports. Adapt the game.”

Athletes in their own words

Celia Torrey

Celia Torrey wears hearing aids, having been diagnosed with moderate-to-severe high frequency hearing loss in both ears when she was three years old. She is a contemporary dancer and graduated from the Boston Conservatory at Berklee in May with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree in contemporary dance performance.

Emily Linville

Emily Linville was diagnosed with moderate-to-severe hearing loss in both ears when she was 3 ½ years old. She played basketball in high school and currently attends California Baptist University, where she’s pursuing a degree in early childhood studies.

Jennifer Hinton

Jennifer Hinton was born with moderate hearing loss in both ears and developed permanent tinnitus in both ears later in life. As a multi-instrument musician, she currently marches in the Mississippi State marching band where she also majors in biomedical engineering.

Sam Bidwell

Sam Bidwell lost his hearing at a very young age due to meningitis but received a cochlear implant shortly thereafter to help him hear. He was a competitive swimmer in high school and is currently majoring in mathematics and physics at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

Photos at top: Top row, left to right: Anthony Ianni, Emily Linville and Celia Torrey. Bottom row, left to right: Sam Bidwell, Jennifer Hinton and Rohan Murphy.