The Disabled Veterans Reintegration and Education Project (DVRE) has hosted over 100 disabled veterans at five sports camps. Participants were not enrolled in higher education and came to Tucson from all over the country. The objectives of the camps were to introduce physically disabled veterans to the opportunities available for them within athletics and higher education. All five sports camps were held on campus at the University of Arizona which hosts the most comprehensive collegiate wheelchair sports program in the nation, housing five competitive teams: Men’s and Women’s Basketball, Tennis, Quad Rugby, and Track and Road Racing. The program offers a state of the art, adaptive gym to its athletes as well as to disabled community members.
Veterans who acquire physical disabilities or mobility impairments must learn how to participate in sports using a wheelchair or prosthetics. During the camps, participants engaged in clinics with professional coaches and a team of student and community athletes. These clinics focused on learning the rules and techniques for playing a range of adaptive or wheelchair sports including basketball, tennis, softball and rugby. In addition to experiencing sport, they also explored strategies for personal wellness including sleep health, meditation, and energy therapies, such as Healing Touch. Additionally, participants met with higher education and Veterans Administration (VA) professionals to review the educational and medical benefits available to them.
Participants stated how significant it was for them to spend time with other disabled veterans. These connections engendered a feeling of support and understanding that could not be replicated with civilians or non-disabled friends and family. The camp provided a safe space where veterans did not have to explain their situations, but could simply enjoy playing sports and being part of a team. Because of this safe space, participants also expressed feeling comfortable experimenting with fitness and sports for the first time post-injury.
A second key outcome involved a positive shift in perceptions of disability. Participants indicated that their new understanding of the vastness and competitiveness of wheelchair sports changed the way they thought about the disability experience. Previously, they had not conceived of disability positively. For them, exposure to sports challenged many of the disempowering ideas about disability associated with weakness and immobility that were impeding a positive self-identity. For example, one veteran said that as a result of participation in the camp, his “self-esteem and self-confidence went through the roof”. Another said he was now motivated to make the Paralympic swimming team.
Six participants have enrolled in higher education as a reult of their experience with the sports camps. For these individuals, the opportunity to play collegiate wheelchair sports motivated them to pursue higher education and even relocate their families to do so. The information and resources provided around operationalizing education and medical benefits directly influenced their higher education aspirations.
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