Last week I had the pleasure of speaking to members of the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society during their annual meeting in Florida. Some might say that my work and America’s pastime don’t appear to have a lot in common — at least not on the surface. But on a deeper level, I believe they do.
That’s because sports, and not just baseball, are ingrained in the American psyche; they’re a cultural force. Whether played in a large stadium or neighborhood park, they have the power not only to bring people together for fun and recreation, but also to shape societal attitudes.
We’ve witnessed this phenomenon many times. We saw it in 1947, when Jackie Robinson smashed the color barrier and challenged the traditional basis of segregation. We saw it again shortly after, when Lou Brissie — a veteran who returned from World War II with severe leg wounds — went on to become an all-star MLB pitcher. We saw it in 1993 when Jim Abbott, who was born without a right hand, pitched a no-hitter for the Yankees against Cleveland. And we saw it a month ago, when a new baseball card was issued featuring Teddy Kremer, a man with Down syndrome who served as a batboy for the Cincinnati Reds.
These are defining images that one sport has created. And they clearly illustrate the power sports have to shape perceptions of what people can do. That’s why I’m so pleased that PBATS — which includes trainers from all 30 major league baseball clubs in North America and their minor league affiliates — recently launched a multiyear campaign to highlight the talents of people with disabilities.
Of course, sports can also have a big impact at the individual level, especially when it comes to youth. There is a powerful relationship between extracurricular activities and employment. According to data from Special Olympics, the largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities and a founding member of the ODEP-funded Campaign for Disability Employment, 52 percent of adult Special Olympics athletes in the U.S. are employed, and half of those are in competitive employment. Compare that against the estimated employment rate for adults with intellectual disabilities in general, which is 10 percent.
This impact extends across the disability spectrum. A study commissioned by Disabled Sports USA, one of the largest multi-disability sports organizations, also revealed a positive relationship between involvement in sport and employment. Among more than 1,000 working age adults with disabilities surveyed, participants in Disabled Sports USA chapter programs and the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project were more than twice as likely (68 vs. 33 percent) to be employed compared with the general population of adults with disabilities. Furthermore, a majority of those attribute workplace success to involvement in sports and recreation.
If you ask me, those numbers speak for themselves. But based on my own life experiences, they don’t surprise me. When I was young, my parents and other adults in my life were not willing to let me sit on the sidelines (or shall I say “dock,” since one experience that had a particularly powerful effect on me was when I learned to sail as a teenager). They had high expectations for me, whether at home, at school or in the community.
In turn, I developed high expectations for myself, including in employment. I learned the value and thrill of “being in the game” — whether on the field or in the workplace. Today, my dedicated colleagues in the Office of Disability Employment Policy work each day to ensure that all qualified people with disabilities can be in the game, too.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.