By John Register
In 1948 Dr. Sir Ludwig Guttman, who escaped Nazi Germany and found solace in Stoke Mandeville, England, became the father of disability sport and, eventually, the Paralympic Games. His goal was to return spinal cord-injured WWII veterans to a healthy and active lifestyle using sport as the tool. The practice continues to this day with hundreds if not thousands of disability sports groups supporting wounded, ill and injured service members who have been injured on the battlefield or off.
I was fortunate to be the founder of the United States Olympic Committees Paralympic Military Sports Program in 2004. It began a lifelong pursuit of using sport as the conduit to healthy, active lifestyles both for the military and civilians.
I had a passion for this work for at least two reasons. First, I was a product of it. Though the programs I outlined were not in existence, I used sport as a tool for my recovery and, in the process, made two Paralympic teams.
Second, the relationships I forged during my time in the Army’s Community and Family Support Center (CFSC) under the tutelage of the best boss I ever had, Colleen Amstein, prepared me for building this program with familiar commanders who had once welcomed me to their military installations when I was the associated director for the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers Program, or (BOSS).
Contrary to the belief that this program was easy to build, it was not. If you remember, in 2004, Americans were unsure if they wanted to defend the new war. Debates were high about whether WMDs or weapons of mass destruction existed.
This was supposed to be Dad’s war, and over in a matter of days, just like Desert Shield/Desert Storm. When casualties, primarily amputation, began to overrun Water Reed Medical Center, military commanders did not know how to build a program centering on injured veterans who had fought for our freedoms. We’re now fighting to rebuild their lives.
In my 15 years of building these programs, let me share why sports are essential for both military injured and civilians with disabilities.
Belonging: The greatest observation I made was that every service member, no matter how limited they were by their disability, first longed for reconnection to the unit they left behind. There was a sense of abandonment. They felt as if they had left their buddies on the battlefield.
Overwhelmingly there was a consensus to get back to the battlefield.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has our basic needs at its base: food, shelter and clothing. But underneath it all is belonging.
Injured service members begin to find a new community when sports are introduced. They are healing together, and sports have become the conduit to the community. I witnessed service members who were reluctant to play a sport, time and again, become that sport’s number one cheerleader.
Confidence: A person with an acquired disability may not know their new capabilities. Why? Because they are dealing with a new set of data points. In my keynote speech, “Amputate Fear: Hurdle Adversity, Embrace Your New Normal Mindset,” I share that the NNMS begins with rebirth. We have to relearn how to function by adapting to our new environment.
Sports like sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball and goalball are team sports allowing service members to test their skills and grow in their new environment. Each session increases their confidence in their abilities. Eventually, they become strong enough to do the sports independently or find the confidence to try other activities. Some athletes even pursue a higher level of sport and make Paralympic teams.
Self-Identity: I believe one of the most remarkable outcomes of sports for the service-connected person is understanding who they are.
When a person has an acquired disability, they have to work through societal stigma. All of our lives, we are shown images of people with disabilities who are perceived as less than others in society.
In the movies, people with disabilities are villains. At the end of October, we see ghosts, goblins and goons come out for Halloween. Have you noticed that many are disfigured? Many have disabilities, or what some may call deformities. Others have hidden disabilities like mental health conditions.
When a person transitions from being temporarily abled-bodied (TAB) to disabled or “disfigured,” they wrestle with the fact that they are not the character they have been accustomed to seeing portrayed by society.
Sports help to normalize disability. People begin to walk confidently by challenging the status quo through physical actions — their mental acuteness returns. There is work to get to this “resolve” moment, and sport brings us back to that identity of not caring how other people view us. We walk with confidence in knowing who we are because we have done the work of learning our new capabilities because of sport.
Two programs that helped me in this regard were kayaking on the San Marcos River and single rowing on Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas.
I wonder if Sir Ludwig Guttman understood the depth and vastness of his work, as he primarily focused on spinal cord injuries. But through his vision, I was inspired to continue his legacy of using sports for all those who need to embrace a new normal mindset.