Meet David Kyle. He runs the local chapter of the Ability Sport Network- a program aimed at increasing access to sports for disabled athletes everywhere! Check out what he has to say.
by Anneliese Knop
Whenever I visited the student fitness center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, my alma mater, I had to work around the practice schedule of a paralympic swim team. I didn’t mind; I thought it was cool to know I wasn’t the only athlete with a disability in the community.
Just recently I learned that one of the kinesiology professors, David Kyle, ran the local chapter of the Ability Sport Network, which in turn hosted the paralympic team. We’d crossed paths a couple of times on campus, so I reached out over LinkedIn to ask if the program was still going. Not only is it still a thriving part of the community, but it has an impressive history of successes and a future full of potential.
David sat down with me one afternoon to tell me about the program, how he got involved, and where he’d like to see it go in the future. Here’s some of our conversation.
1. Please tell us about the population that Ability Sports Network services, how you serve them, and what impact you’re trying to achieve.
We really focus on serving two different populations. Primarily, our services are aimed at young people with disabilities, though we’re trying to reach out to wider age ranges. We run sports clubs and teams and workshops for young people with mostly physical disabilities who want to play team sports.
Our other major goal is working with people who work with and offer services to people with disabilities. We work with teachers, coaches, trainers, and educators who have a direct impact on young people and adults with disabilities, showing them that it’s possible, what they can expect from their populations and how to help them achieve their goals.
We’re really just trying to get people moving. A lot of the secondary disabilities and health issues that this population struggle with come from or are made worse by inactivity.
2. Can you describe how you’ve seen ASN at work in your athletes’ lives developing those crucial social engagement skills that can lead to fulfilling relationships and employment later in life?
Whenever you’re in a coaching, directing, or mentoring environment, you’re learning how to maintain schedules, collaborate on a team, skills like that. These are the kinds of things you’d learn in any athletics programs, but our kids don’t usually have access to. We’ve had three, maybe four students. Now go on to play collegiate wheelchair basketball. Most of our graduates are employed now. We’ve been able to keep up with many of them via social media, and they seem happy with how their involvement has helped them. We keep up with them via social media, mostly.
3. Do you have a favorite success story you’d like to share with us?
Our very first collegiate athlete, he went to Auburn, was part of the big signing day event, he was treated like any other high school athlete who wanted to play college ball. That was maybe the second year we were around. It was pretty exciting to go “oh wow, this has a lot of impact.” And that’s happened a couple times. We have one playing Alabama right now. It was pretty awesome to be a part of that.
4. Other than athletic skills, what are some of the specific skills ASN helps to cultivate in its participants?
Number one, independent living, especially working with them as young people. Pretty much all the coaches involved have disabilities, so trying to instill independent living skills — of course we talk about academics and life skills — but sometimes it’s simple as “hey, why is your mom still transferring you from your every-day wheelchair to your sports wheelchair? That’s something you can be doing for yourself.” Trying to help both parties kind of cut that cord a little bit. Some of the practical things, like ”hey, you can do this kind of exercise on a bed, or on the floor.”
5. What are the most typical barriers that athletes with disabilities and their families face when trying to participate in programs like ASN? How can their communities help break down these barriers?
From a straight program viewpoint, I think the biggest barrier is getting the body through the door. How do we get them to show up? Of course, there’s a lot of barriers attached to that. Is it transportation? Lack of awareness? Fear? Sometimes we talk to people with disabilities and they’re like “I don’t want to do wheelchair basketball, that’s for disabled people.” There’s a stigma even within the community where they don’t want to get involved in programs like this and get labeled by people. But one of the biggest impacts is that, most of the time kids feel like they’re the only ones they know with disabilities, but then we go to a big tournament and there are hundreds of athletes with disabilities there and it’s this huge eye-opening experience, where they’re in the majority.
Money, finances, that’s a big one. We try to pave the way for participation with grants, for equipment, for transportation, going to tournaments. But I think the biggest one is just knowledge that we exist. You know, marketing, communicating, getting people to come in the door.
One of the issues is that every disability kind of has its own non-profits, fan bases if you will, and those groups don’t really talk to each other. We’d be the largest minority in the US if we all worked together, but it’s like “all the people with MS, let’s go storm the capitol! And then all ten of us show up…” We’re working on organizing a North Alabama group for a lot of disability groups, to try and collaborate, build a coalition or network of some kind to address this issue.
The biggest way the community could help is inclusivity. It’s a kind of a buzzword right now, but it really just means normalizing the presence of people with disabilities. Someone with a disability isn’t your porn star. There’s this idea of disability porn, where it’s like “if they can do it, you have no excuse!” Which just objectifies the disabled body, and we’ve got to stop doing that. And then, as you know, Universal Design. Doors that open themselves help everybody. Why are ramps secondary rather than a primary means of getting to doors? People over-complicate them, making them three times longer than necessary when it would’ve been simpler to just put a normal ramp instead of stairs instead of trying to include both. And that’s something that helps everybody.
6. What’s one of the most surprising experiences you’ve had through ASN? How has the program overall exceeded your expectations?
I went into this thinking “these are kids with disabilities, this is not youth sports with all its negative connotations. Things are pretty bad in a lot of youth sports teams, the way they treat the athletes, the way the parents behave.” But I think I was pretty shocked by how the parents behaved at some of the games and tournaments, like this is inappropriate for an adult to behave. But at the end of the day, everyone wants to win. I guess I wasn’t emotionally prepared to deal with that. I mean to the point of “why aren’t you making the kids run? You know, making them go faster in their wheelchairs. Why aren’t you punishing them? Make them do laps…” And it’s just like “wow, we’re so far apart in our ideologies,” and just trying to articulate that difference, talking about the goals of the program and why we do things differently. It’s still better than a lot of travel sports, but I still wasn’t prepared for it.
For example, when we were a new team we got our butts handed to us a few times, like 10, 20 points. And I’m cool with it. We’re there, we’re playing, we’re trying. But the parents were upset about it and so I had to try and articulate why it was a good thing, why it was important that coming back after getting beat was helping their kids get ahead in the game of life. When you lose a game, that’s kind of character development. Like “I worked really hard and we still lost,” so we go over that afterward and talk about that, and it’s an area where kids with disabilities don’t always get that experience so that’s something we get to provide.
The program is being accepted by the community, by UAH, Auburn, Alabama, and other people in the disability world. It’s been great, building this network of different people across disabilities and different mainstream organizations. It’s been very encouraging, as we’re trying to grow things in Huntsville, Alabama, but also across the country with other programs.
The potential we have as a community of people with disabilities is so much bigger in this area and it’s just really my desire to see that grow. I think we’ve got a long way to go,but we’re essentially growing exponentially. you would think, you know with 20% of the population having a disability, we’d be able to grow, that there are a lot more people like us in the Huntsville area, and we’re not unusual in that regard.
7. How did you become involved in ASN?
I have a disability, I got involved with para-triathlons, raced in para-triathlons until I was 40, just turned 50 last year, just retired from competition and was just kind of wandering around lost in the world, like “What am I doing with my time now?” Huntington College started ASN about ten years ago, so I went to a workshop to see what it was about, and it just kind of went off from there, and they were like “Hey, want to host a workshop? Hey, do you want to be part of a program, run your own program?” I mean, it’s not often you get a call saying “Hey, you want funding to run a program?”
The program was started by Dr. Lisa Dorman, her specialty area is adaptive sports. She got started with funding from the state legislature, brought us on board in 2015, so we work together, and it just kind of took off from there. Alabama does really well from the disability standpoint. Alabama and auburn both do really well in the disability sports area.
**In this interview David Kyle uses “Alabama” to refer to the University of Alabama, not to be confused with the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where I first encountered the program and where he teaches and runs the local chapter of ASN.**
What I appreciated the most about David Kyle’s perspective was how honest he was about some of the challenging experiences he’s had with program participants’ parents. It turns out, surprise surprise, parents of kids with disabilities have the potential to be as insecure and competitive as any other tiger mom. The aura of awe and inspiration wrapped around these families is both isolating, and distorting. And even those of us with disabilities can be susceptible to that kind of thinking about our peers, too.
You can find more information about Ability Sports network, how to get your kids, or yourselves, involved, Here. Don’t have a program in your area? In need of a passion project? Finding out how to start your own club begins on the program website, too.