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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

10 Issues The White House Needs To Discuss At The Health & Fitness Disability Summit

On October 6 and 7, the White House Summit and Research Forum on Improved Health and Fitness for Americans with Disabilities will take place in Washington, D.C. It is the first time that the White House has ever convened a forum on this topic. The event will bring together participants from K-12 schools, colleges and community-based organizations to identify best practices for inclusion in physical activity, nutrition and obesity prevention. The goal of the summit is to find a way to expand and implement the federal “I Can Do It, You Can Do It!” wellness program for Americans with disabilities.

Sounds like a great idea! Unfortunately, there are many obstacles to achieving this vision. Here are 10 related issues that directly and adversely affect health, fitness and quality of life for Americans with disabilities and should be discussed at this summit.

1. Poverty

According the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey, 29.2% of Americans with disabilities live in poverty, compared to 13.6% of Americans without disabilities. The American Psychological Association explains, “Lower levels of socio-economic status have consistently been correlated with poor health and lower quality of life.”

2. Food Stamps

About 4.6 million adults with disabilities participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, commonly known as food stamps). Some studies have found a correlation between participation in SNAP and obesity, especially in certain subpopulations.

3. Housing

The process of applying for a Section 8 housing voucher can be confusing for low-income adults with disabilities, and even with a voucher, it may be even more difficult to get reasonable accommodations for accessibility of the home. Limited accessibility means limited physical activity and community involvement. In addition, the voucher may not cover all of the rent, so that paying the rent increases food insecurity.

4. Employment

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 17.6% of non-institutionalized civilians with disabilities were employed in September 2014. The obstacles to employment are insurmountable to most Americans with disabilities, and lack of employment is another risk factor for food insecurity and inactivity.

5. Physical Eduation classes

Students with disabilities are significantly less likely to be enrolled in physical education classes than their non-disabled peers. But even students with disabilities who are enrolled in physical education may be excluded during class time for many other reasons, so they may not be participating fully in physical activity. One solution is to select inclusive, non-competitive games for phys ed while pairing students with special needs with a peer-to-peer mentor.

6. Physical therapy

Many students with special needs have delays in gross and/or fine motor skills, so extra care and effort are necessary for any type of physical activity. But physical therapy in school is usually only 1-2 hours per week, if it is offered at all. In my school district, my son can’t even get an evaluation for OT or PT unless he pre-qualifies for an evaluation. My son struggles to maintain skills without therapy while his peers in general education continue to make consistent progress.

7. Interscholastic and Intramural Athletics

Most students with disabilities do not participate in extracurricular athletics at school, even though they may be eligible. At my son’s school, the intramural teams require tryouts, so the only no-cut teams are the swimming team and the track team. He’s still learning how to swim, so he signed up for track and ran the 400 meter. The track team had over 120 students, with one head coach and two assistant coaches. The amount of support was inadequate for my son, but he was able to manage by following the same schedule every day. Most interscholastic athletic programs are not prepared to make accommodations for athletes with disabilities.

8. Life Skills Education

Students with and without disabilities do not receive enough instruction in life skills such as nutrition and fitness; and worse, any instruction they do receive may be contradicted by adults who model poor nutritional choices and inactivity.

9. Food Rewards

My biggest pet peeve in special education is the continued use of food and candy rewards in school. It has taken me more than 8 years to teach my son to recognize and verbalize his hunger cues, mainly because my efforts at home are consistently undermined by the school staff. In spite of my protests, my son is still coming home with candy in his pockets every week.

10. Community Involvement and Social Isolation

During an early intervention home visit many years ago, my son’s teacher once congratulated me for taking my son out for frequent field trips and community events. Many children and adults with disabilities are partially or completely homebound, and social isolation is a contributing factor to inactivity and obesity. Health and quality of life are intertwined: any proposal to improve nutrition and wellness for individuals with disabilities will have to include an increase in community involvement.

What do you think the White House should discuss at the summit?

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Karen Wang

Written on October 6, 2014 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"
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