Sports for those with disabilities

Sports and regular exercise offer rehabilitative benefits, especially for people with disabilities

In boccia (above), players throw or roll balls as close as possible to a target ball. Boccia is one of the more popular disability sports in Singapore.
In boccia (above), players throw or roll balls as close as possible to a target ball. Boccia is one of the more popular disability sports in Singapore.PHOTOS: REUTERS, ALPHONSUS CHERN

When businessman Raja Singh, 54, competed in wheelchair-racing events from 1984 to 1994, there was less awareness of disability sports.

But it was not an issue for him.

"My goal was to achieve. I just wanted to feel stronger each day and be a part of society," said Mr Singh, who became paralysed from the waist down after a cycling accident in 1983.

"We had limited resources then. There's greater awareness now and support from Sport Singapore and ActiveSG (the national movement for sports)."

Indeed, the success of swimmers Theresa Goh and Yip Pin Xiu and other athletes at the Rio Paralympics recently has shone the spotlight on what athletes with disabilities can achieve.


I trained hard. I fell and I had bruises.

And I attended my sister's wedding with a bruise on my cheek. It's part and parcel of the life of an athlete.

MR RAJA SINGH (above), a businessman who was in Singapore's pioneer batch of Paralympians at Seoul in 1988. The 54-year-old rides his stationary handcycle every other day for about half an hour.

ActiveSG is promoting disability sports, including new ones like wheelchair rugby, for which Singapore has formed a team, said Mr Singh.

But the sports take-up rate among people with disabilities remains low, though they stand to benefit more than able-bodied people by being active, experts said.

"The number of those with disabilities who do competitive sports is growing but the pool is very small," said Mr Singh, who is vice-president of the Singapore Disability Sports Council (SDSC), the national sports body for the disabled.

He said there are only a few hundred people with disabilities here who do sports on a regular basis.

In Singapore, those with disabilities are estimated to make up 3 per cent of the population or well over 100,000 people.

People with disabilities should be active as much as possible. "The benefits of exercise that apply to the able-bodied are applicable to people with disabilities," said Dr Benedict Tan, chairman of Exercise Is Medicine Singapore.

"Many forms of exercise also serve rehabilitative purposes, for example, strengthening of the unaffected muscles to compensate for those that are affected."

He said the advantages of sports and exercise for anyone, especially those with disabilities, range from social integration to self-esteem and health benefits.

Dr Tan, a former national sailor who is a sports patron of the SDSC, said there are many reasons people with disabilities may shun sports.

These include:

•Difficulty in getting transport to the sports facilities.

•Cost of specialised equipment and transporting them.

•Struggles with the basics of daily life that push the thought of exercise into the background.

•Depending on volunteers to help out, such as transferring the person with disability from a normal wheelchair to a racing wheelchair.

•A tendency to withdraw from society and an unwillingness to leave the house for various reasons.

•Logistics. For instance, when a wheelchair racer travels overseas for races, he has to take along a special racing wheelchair, a regular wheelchair for moving around and a commode chair.

Despite these challenges, sports is for all, said Dr Ong Joo Haw, an associate consultant at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital's Sports Medicine Centre.

"Physical impairments may pose challenges and barriers to exercise but participation in sports and exercise can help lessen the amount of disability and handicap that the impairment causes," he said.

There may also be psychological factors such as confidence, selfimage issues and a self-perceived inability to do sports, he said. But this is not unique to the disabled.

"We may not realise it but these challenges apply to able-bodied people who are on a learning curve for many sports as well," he said.

Dr Ong, a committee member at the SDSC since last year, said both able-bodied and athletes with disabilities suffer similar injuries.

These include acute traumatic injuries such as falls, bony fractures, ligamentous sprains and muscular strains.

"Overuse injuries of the upper limb are also common among wheelchair athletes," said Dr Ong. "Lower limb fractures from falls are also common."

Pressure sores can also occur with decreased sensation due to spinal cord injury and long hours spent in a wheelchair, he added.

Mr Singh said he had suffered his fair share of injuries when he was training.

"I trained hard. I fell and I had bruises. And I attended my sister's wedding with a bruise on my cheek. It's part and parcel of the life of an athlete," he said.

Dr Sean Ng, an orthopaedic surgeon at Gleneagles Hospital Singapore, said people with disabilities need to be aware of their limitations in order to avoid injuries.

Common injuries include simple sprains and tendinitis, or more severe ones like dislocations and fractures, said Dr Ng.

While acknowledging that those with disabilities have unique challenges, Dr Tan said various sports have been adapted for them. The range of sports offered at the Paralympics attest to this, he added.

"For example, sailboats can be built to be capsize-proof and handled by people with disabilities," he said. "Such boats give them the freedom to independently go wherever they want on the water."

Sometimes, the disability could confer benefits elsewhere. For instance, some patients with muscular dystrophy may have stronger upper limbs and can play wheelchair basketball, said Dr Ng.

In Singapore, the range of sports for people with disabilities includes handcyling, swimming, table tennis and boccia, a ball game that can be played by wheelchair-users with motor-skill impairment, said Mr Singh.

Mindsets are gradually changing about getting everyone to play sports, regardless of their abilities.

Last December's Asean Para Games, where Singapore won a record 63 medals, created "great momentum and awareness for para-sports", said Mr Singh.

"We are encouraging them to do sports. We are modifying the sports to suit them."

Yet, more can be done. He said: "There should be regular disability sports sessions in all special education schools and organisations for the disabled."

Rehabilitation departments in hospitals should also include sports in their programme, he said.

Ultimately, the person with a disability has to want to do sports, said Mr Singh, who was in Singa- pore's pioneer batch of Paralympians in Seoul in 1988.

Otherwise, they are the ones holding themselves back.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2016, with the headline 'Sports for those with disabilities'. Subscribe