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About Sickkids
About SickKids

August 12, 2015

Parapan Am athletes inspire patients and promote inclusivity

By Carolyn Gooderham

The Pan Am games excited the SickKids’ community as the torch made its way through our halls on the final day of the relay. As the Parapan Am Games continue this week, the SickKids community is excited for a different reason: for many SickKids’ patients, the Parapan Am games offer an opportunity to cheer for athletes they can relate to and provides hope to those children facing debilitating illnesses. Some Parapan athletes were once SickKids kids themselves, like Josh Cassidy, Canadian wheelchair racer and Paralympian.

Mike Apkon, Josh Cassidy and Myles Lynch at the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Torch Relay in the SickKids' Atrium.
Mike Apkon, Josh Cassidy and Myles Lynch at the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Torch Relay in the SickKids' Atrium. (Photo courtesy of Richard Wintle)

But how many times have you watched Paralympic athletes compete and wondered, what exactly do all of these medical conditions mean? While many people are aware of the challenges associated with commonly discussed disabilities such as visual impairment, many Torontonians might not be aware of what Parapan athletes overcome to participate in their chosen event.

“There are a number of different disorders that can affect normal movement such as ataxia, athetosis and conditions that generally affect the tone of skeletal muscles. This can make it incredibly difficult to compete and perform at any sports,” says Dr. Ronald Cohn, Chief of Clinical and Metabolic Genetics at SickKids.

These three conditions all affect an individual’s ability to control their body, causing involuntary movements of arms, legs, hands and feet. Symptoms are frequently caused by lesions on the brain, often resulting from trauma, genetic disorders, or diseases such as cerebral palsy.

Competitions held at the Parapan Am Games including athletics (track & field) and 7-a-side football (soccer) provide accommodations for these conditions. How participation is determined can be complex, as the severity of symptoms can vary greatly amongst athletes. Sports such as athletics offer a variety of categories, while in football there are rules dictating minimum and maximum numbers of players with specific types of disabilities on the field at one time.

Participation in and recognition of para-sport promotes inclusivity for those with disabilities, as the athletes demonstrate the values of courage, determination, inspiration and equality.

“The Parapan Am games provides an opportunity for people living with movement disorders to compete in sports even at a high level and thus provides unprecedented opportunities to be part of high quality sports competitions despite issues that affect movement of skeletal muscles and the body,” says Cohn.