Gone are the days when children with disabilities and special needs have to sit on the sidelines. Today, there are plenty of places where families living with special needs can go to get active. These local leagues and organizations are helping kids of all ages and ability levels learn valuable sports skills. In the process, they”re developing confidence, sharpening their ability to work on a team, and nurturing a sense of adventure that will serve them for years to come.
Wilderness on Wheels
If you’re a parent to a child with special needs, then you already know that accessing Colorado’s spectacular trail system can be a challenge. The Wilderness on Wheels Foundation has been providing greater access to adventure sports for over three decades. Head to Grant, Colorado, to take in picturesque mountainside views while rolling and strolling along an 8-foot-wide, mile-long boardwalk that gradually rises to 9,000 feet. Another access-friendly path meanders along the bank of a Rocky Mountain trout stream. There are twelve campsites, five huts, and two cabins on site; reserve your lodging in advance. The site is operational from Memorial Day weekend through October 15, and serves as a seasonal venue for special needs events.
Baseball and Softball
Perl Mack Little League
Servicing North Denver and Westminster, this league brings competitive baseball and softball directly to children with disabilities via its Challenger league. The league gives kids ages four to 16 the unique experience of participating in a traditional league sport—complete with practices and games. Adaptive services are offered, and players requiring further support are paired with peer mentors for a fantastic and integrated experience.
Olympic Sports and Competition
Special Olympics Colorado
Special Olympics Colorado improves lives through sports with more than one hundred annual activities and events for athletes age two and up. There’s something for each of the 21,000-plus local athletes served by Special Olympics Colorado. The organization provides training and competition opportunities in 22 Olympic sports, including volleyball, football, basketball, softball, speed and figure skating, powerlifting, tennis, and aquatics. And prior to competitions, all Special Olympics Colorado participants get a chance to engage in an extensive sports training program that teaches age-appropriate skills, rules, and strategy. A Young Athletes Program offers opportunities for kids ages two to eight. Training and competition schedules are broken down into four seasons, and all programming is free for participating families.
NSCD Ability Clinics
If your budding athlete loves rooting for the home team, now is his or her chance to get into the arena with players from the Denver Nuggets, Denver Broncos, Colorado Rockies, Colorado Avalanche, Colorado Rapids, Denver Outlaws, and Glendale Rapids. The National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) is one of the largest outdoor therapeutic recreation and adaptive sports agencies in the world, and this Colorado-based organization has teamed up with local pro-sports teams to offer interactive clinics featuring adapted drills for athletes age five and up. Free clinics are hosted throughout the year, helping participants master fundamental skills in basketball, football, baseball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse, rugby, and golf.
Recreation and Leisure Sports
childrenscolorado.org (type ARCH in the search box)
The Adaptive Recreation for Childhood Health program (ARCH, formerly the Hospital Sports Program) is rooted entirely in sports and outdoor recreation. Though it originally launched as a skiing program, ARCH now sponsors a range of year-round athletics crafted specifically for children, teens, and young adults with physical and mental conditions including cancer, amputations, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, and head and spinal cord injuries. Athletes can develop their skills in tennis, golf, sailing, fishing, rafting, horseback riding, and biking with trained instructors who are focused on bolstering individual ability in a positive and safe environment.
Recreational and Leisure Sports
All programming offered through Boulder Parks & Recreation is available to everyone, regardless of whether an accommodation is needed. If you register your child for a class or activity, EXPAND will provide support. Through its peer-mentor program, EXPAND pairs youth mentors ages 10 to16 with peers with disabilities for a more inclusive environment. Specialized programs are offered, too. With a low staff-to-student ratio, youth with disabilities develop skills in the areas of sports, fitness, leisure, and aquatics. For summertime adventure, try Camp Amico or Outdoor Adventure Camp, the latter of which is geared toward elementary age children with a mental health diagnosis or behavioral issues.
Harnesses, ropes, ice tools: When it comes to rock climbing, all athletes are required to use adaptive equipment—and that means some climbers with disabilities won’t need any extra adaptive equipment to participate. Founded in 2007, this Boulder-based nonprofit is all about helping youth and adults with disabilities engage with our local climbing community, and push their physical and mental limits in and out of the gym. Paradox Sports offers multiple levels of training for climbers of all skill levels. They also host climbing trips and the Front Range Adaptive Climbing Club, which meets three times a month and is open to all ability levels.
Adaptive Sailing Program
Sailing isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Colorado, but Community Sailing of Colorado holds adaptive sailing clinics and programs for all abilities. Looking to test the waters before committing to a camp or class? Families can try a free clinic in June, July, and August at Cherry Creek Reservoir or Boulder Reservoir (check the website for dates).
The seven TOPSoccer programs in Colorado focus on player participation and development to bring children with cognitive, developmental, and physical disabilities a chance to experience the world’s most popular sport. Players, age five and older, are placed on teams according to ability, rather than age, and participate in a modified version of the game of soccer. Each player is paired with a buddy who is not disabled. The buddy stays with the player every step of the way, learns to anticipate their needs, and encourages the player to participate at their own pace. While kids are engaging with the team and improving social skills and fitness, parents connect with other families helping both child and parent build community.
Parker Parks and Recreation
Parker’s Therapeutic Recreation Program is making a big splash with adaptive learn-to-swim and stroke technique lessons for swimmers of all ages and experience levels. Thirty-minute adaptive swim lessons cater to small groups and individuals, and will help athletes with disabilities improve their strokes. Once water-loving kids are comfortable in lessons, they can join the free Special Olympics Swim Team. Swim team is another chance for young athletes to gain sharper skills and personal fitness under the auspices of experienced coaches. One-on-one Aquatic Therapy Training sessions are available, too, and use water as a way of coping with disabilities. Parker Parks and Recreation offers scholarship assistance to individuals or groups with disabilities.
SafeSplash Swim School
Prior to jumping into the warm water, indoor pool and starting swim lessons at SafeSplash, an instructor meets individually with families to assess the goals of the student. From the meeting, SafeSplash develops a lesson plan based on the student’s capabilities and matches the appropriate instructor and student. Private or semi-private lessons accommodate students of all ages with a wide range of special needs, including autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and sensory integration disorder.
National Sports Center for the Disabled
Many people move to Colorado for the slopes, and there’s no reason a physical or developmental disability should keep your child from playing in the powder. The National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) got its start in the 1970s, partnering with Children’s Hospital Colorado to provide ski lessons for kids with amputations. The program has grown tremendously since its inception, and today trained staff members and volunteers coach children with disabilities in alpine and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing. Meet up at Winter Park Resort or Devil’s Thumb Ranch for a full or half-day lesson, which includes instruction, equipment, and lift tickets or trail passes. Family sessions are offered too, giving parents a chance to learn how to properly assist their child while practicing snow sports.
Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer and mother.