As we shared a couple of weeks ago, roughly half of adult amputees don’t participate in sports. And when you stay on the sidelines, according to adaptive sports researcher Julian Woolf, physical fitness isn’t the only thing that suffers.

“[Sports] can help you feel like you belong,” says Woolf, a professor at the University of Illinois. “You enter a community, you develop friendships and support structures, people you can lean on.”

So if adaptive sports are so great, why does half the amputee population take a pass? That’s one of the questions Woolf is attempting to answer this month. He’s leading a groundbreaking research study to understand what’s working and what’s not in adaptive sports, with the ultimate goal of making them more accessible in the long run. The study, which is co-sponsored by Move United, is open through the end of January, and the researchers are still actively seeking participants. Here’s more information about how you can provide your input.

We caught up with Woolf about a week ago to learn more about the study and find out what kinds of barriers keep amputees from getting involved in sports. Our conversation is edited for length and clarity.

How did you and Move United come together to launch this study?
Within our college, we have a fairly strong focus on disability. I have a lab called the Sport + Development lab. We also have a unit called Disability Resources & Educational Services and another called the Chez Veterans Center. We were introduced to Move United via our centers.

They they came to us with the request to help them improve the ways in which they evaluate their programming, and how they could further their mission in terms of showing that sports and exercise has tremendous benefits for people who have a disability. One of the challenges with any sort of research is that, in order to get a good data, you have to ask good questions. So we spent a lot of time trying to make sure the design of the survey is really going to help Move United determine the impact of sports participation on individuals with disabilities.

I can imagine one barrier to participation could be access—that there aren’t enough programs, or they’re not well distributed geographically. Another I can imagine would be the availability of specialized equipment. Another could be simply getting the word out and raising awareness that these programs even exist. Obviously, funding plays into all of these things. Do you have any sense of which barriers to participation are the most prominent?
I think the the one that you haven’t named, and this is a fairly large obstacle, is the perception many people have that “Maybe sport isn’t for me.” When we talk about sports, we often talk about elite sports—professional sports, the Olympics and Paralympics. But sports don’t have to be at that level. Sports can be about having fun and meeting people. Sometimes people’s perception of sports might hold them back in that they think: I’m not an athlete. This isn’t for me.  

We also tend to think about sports as being something people do when they’re younger. So if you’re older, like myself, maybe you don’t see that as being a viable option. I think that’s another major challenge.

Within the amputee community, there definitely are very recognizable elite athletes who are figures of admiration, and rightly so. But they also are outliers in terms of the level of sacrifice they’re willing to make and their determination to excel. Can it become a deterrent if those are the figures that become the biggest symbols of adaptive athletics? Does that feed people’s perception that “sports aren’t for me”?
I don’t think it’s negative, because it does raise awareness. Seeing a high-level athlete who has the same impairment as you can prove that sport is in the realm of possibility. I think that’s definitely a huge positive.

But I think maybe there’s more benefit to finding a group of peers to participate with. I know Move United has a listing of their chapters and so forth, LINK and those offer a range of ability levels. In some areas it might be easier to find people to participate with, but social media can often help.

Are adaptive sports overall on the upswing? Is it a growing trend, or do you sense that participation is flat?
That’s a tough question to answer until we see that data. I do think there is growing awareness, and that leads to more opportunities to participate. And not just for adaptive sports. You would hope there are integrated opportunities where those who do have an impairment can participate alongside those without, and not have their participation completely and entirely defined by disability. It’s a benefit for all abilities to participate together and not feel separated.

For those who don’t participate in sports—maybe they’re older, or maybe they have never been particularly interested in sports or considered themselves athletic—for that segment of our readership, what’s the benefit to participating in this study?
Their experience is very valuable in assisting organizations like Move United with the design of their programming. They are trying to meet the needs of a range of individuals with disability. If people aren’t engaging in much activity, that information is still very valuable in determining the potential for sport. 

In our society, sports is often put up on a pedestal. It can be a wonderful part of peoples lives, but it doesn’t happen by itself. We need to create programs and opportunities that meet the needs of a range of individuals, from those who want to be serious and compete to those who just want to feel better physically, emotionally, and psychologically.

There are a lot of social benefits to sports. They can help you feel like you belong. You enter a community, you develop friendships and support structures, people you can lean on. There are additional benefits beyond physical fitness. We want to get a complete picture of who’s participating and to what degree, and how participation or lack of it may affect outcomes in regards to health and social well-being.