Transcript: The Benefits of Adaptive Sports


Dr. Feranmi Okanlami: 

Welcome to Equal & Able, which is in partnership with Guardian Life. I am Dr. Feranmi Okanlami, your host, but you can call me Dr. O. I use he, his pronouns. And I'm a Nigerian born, young to middle aged black man, with brown skin and short black hair. I identify as a cisgender heterosexual male wheelchair user. I am an advocate for people with disabilities, speaker, Christian father, and a physician dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Our hope is to engage in challenging conversations that push us all to do what we can within our own spheres of influence in order to make sure everyone's tomorrow is better than their yesterday.

I would like to introduce our guest, Dr. Jasmine Townsend.

Dr. Townsend is an associate professor in Recreational Therapy within the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management at Clemson University. She is the Program Coordinator for the Recreational Therapy Concentration, Director of the Clemson Adaptive Sports and Recreation Lab, and Chair of the Clemson University Athletic Council.

Her primary research area focuses on the outcomes of participation in recreational therapy and the transformative nature of adaptive sports. Her research interests also include investigating the outcomes of participation in recreation for families of all types, including those with members with disabilities. Dr. Townsend's practical experience includes working and community adaptive sports and therapeutic recreation programs as a certified therapeutic recreation specialist, as well as in wilderness and residential behavioral treatment programs for adolescence. She is also a certified adaptive recreation and sports specialist.

Needless to say, Dr. Townsend's experience speaks volumes. And it is for those reasons and many more, that I'm excited to have her here as our next guest. Welcome, Dr. Townsend. Good morning.  

Dr. Jasmine Townsend

Thank you for having me.

Dr. Feranmi Okanlami

Thank you so much for joining us. So, what we like to do here at Equal & Able is really just have a conversation amongst two individuals. We've read your bio today, but I really want people to hear from you. What it is that that brought you to where you are today. Could you tell us a bit about your educational background and life that brought you to the work you're doing now?

Dr. Jasmine Townsend

Sure. Well, I kind of found my way as many people do through this like, wandering route through life. It wasn't a direct path. I did two years at a community college, not quite sure what I wanted to do. I'm from California, so I just stuck around at home and didn't really have the ability to move anywhere, or, you know, go to a big school or anything like that. So, I kept it close. And in that time, my mom moved to another state - Utah. I tagged along and was looking for a job when I got there and started working in a wilderness therapy program. And that was really my first introduction into this world of therapy. I absolutely loved it. I've grown up a sporty outdoorsy person my whole life, and so enjoyed basically getting paid to go camping with, with kids who, you know, troubled kids basically, is how people referred to it. And so after working there for five years, I went to Utah State University and got a degree in history, which people think, how did you start in history and end up here in the adaptive sport world?

But I had continued to work in that wilderness therapy program during that time. And I loved it. I I was working with people who were not in the best places in their lives at the time. But I enjoyed helping them through that. I certainly didn't, you know, have a perfectly smooth life growing up… who does, right? So I felt like I could identify with some of the students and I also enjoyed being able to help them work through their program. So, I really was very interested in this whole world and didn't know it was a degree at the time. I didn't know it was an industry with certifications and those types of things. So, after I finished my degree in history, I was thinking, how could I continue this work? And I was talking to the field director at the organization that I worked at the wilderness therapy program, and he said, “you know, there is a degree in this. It's called outdoor recreation.”

And I was like, “Yes, this is awesome!

So, I looked into it and found a graduate program that was focused on youth and family recreation and coming out of the U.S. treatment world, I thought “yes, this is where I will find my home.” So, I went to graduate school at Brigham Young University, for youth and family recreation and had an outdoor recreation kind of focus. And while I was there, I discovered this whole other world called recreational therapy, which was focused on using sports and recreation for individuals with disabilities to help remediate, you know, dysfunction and rehabilitate and improve, basically just life functioning. And it really resonated me and made complete sense. And so I added those classes, those undergrad classes onto my master's degree. And I remember sitting in those classes, as they're talking about what recreation therapy is, and what it was intended to do, and it just clicked, it made so much sense.

It was, in some ways, very validating of what I'd spent the previous five years doing in the industry, but not having the educational background to do. And a lot of this, this industry, is on the job training. You learn it when you get hired. But there are degrees to be able to help prepare you for that I found out the not like I said, not the linear route that most people planted to do with their education. And I remember sitting in his classes and it was like, I would learn these concepts and the clouds would part rays of sunshine would come down and birds were chirping. And it was just like, aha moments in class to attach that, that educational knowledge to the experiential knowledge I already had.

But I really just got connected to the adaptive sports side almost instantly. I was working for one of the professors in my department and his area was adaptive sport. And he asked me to go collect data on intramural wheelchair rugby, which the Campus Recreation Department at BYU had wheelchair rugby incorporated into intramurals. And I was like, what is this, and went down there literally, it was like one week into my master's degree with a big old stack of surveys. And my job was to hand them out to people. It was asking about what their perceptions of individuals with disabilities was, and so that was my introduction to research, my introduction to adaptive sports, my introduction to all of it. And out of all the people who participated for that whole season, in that intramural season, there was only three people with disabilities.

The rest of it, you know, your typical able-bodied students. And this is what I started to learn about the whole inclusive aspect of adaptive sports. And I just stuck with it I, it got in my soul. As a former collegiate athlete, myself, I was like, well, this makes sense to me too, because I like sports. And I like doing all this. And of course, it should be an option for individuals with disabilities of any age to be able to participate in all this too. So I just kept going, I just kept doing it. I did an internship at the National Ability Center, which is in Park City, Utah, and they're an organization that provides sports and recreation opportunities to individuals with disabilities. Given their location in Park City, they're much more in the outdoor rec side of things, as opposed to the traditional sports like you might find at the lake shore foundation in Alabama.

So, I had a lot of fun spending the summer taking people river rafting and horseback riding and mountain bike riding, all adaptive, working with kids and adults and veterans and everywhere in between to older adults. Just about anybody with any disability can come to the National Ability Center, and we are able to provide those services. So further ingraining it into into my identity to some degree.

And I just couldn't get enough of it. And definitely the research side of things, understanding how these types of services impact people. At the time, I was very focused on understanding the impact for families because I had come out of family and adolescent treatment. So, I wanted to continue looking at that. And I was looking at it from a broader perspective of family recreation, not specific to adaptive sports or any one sport but just more broadly. I signed myself up for a doctoral program, moved myself out to Indiana, and continued that work on trying to understand the impact for a family recreation for families who have kids with autism. My master's degree was focused on families who have kids in adolescent behavioral treatment My dissertation focused on families who have kids with autism and trying to help provide services that they also don't have a lot of access to, especially for the family as a whole.

And so, you know, graduating after my PhD and continuing this life into higher education; as you know, I teach in recreational therapy programs. I'm here at Clemson University. I've been here for seven years. I was at the University of Mississippi for two years before that, and all of that, I have been provided with immense opportunity to build adaptive sport programs where I've been.

Also, a little nugget. I met my husband at the National Ability Center at BYU first, and he himself is an individual with a disability who has spina bifida and is an elite athlete. He's retired now. But he lived that whole life as a collegiate adaptive sport athlete and being on national teams and, you know, aiming for the Paralympics and such. So definitely in those early years when I discovered after sports to also discover it through him has been a really unique opportunity. We've traveled the world to help teach people about adaptive sports, helped teach individuals with disabilities and other countries who are completely unaware of what the opportunities are to help teach them and help provide services and spread the word about what this is outside of the United States. So, he and I've kind of always said, well, wherever we land, for that faculty job, we'll try to build a program. We've since learned that it really takes an alignment of stars and planets, the right people, at the right time, at the right place to make something like that happen. For now, it looks like Clemson has that alignment. And so we are here for it right now.

Dr. Feranmi Okanlami


I mean, that, right, there is a lifetime of education and experience and certifications that bring you to a place where you still say it takes an alignment of stars to really make this happen. And you talk about the fact that even in your own journey, there were times where you started to see the inclusive aspect of this. Because in our world, right now, there's a lot of division. And there are people that want to separate, and they want to operate in silos. But when you talk about that inclusive aspect, you even said that one of these first programs that you saw, there were only three individuals with physical disabilities. So, tell me more about sort of that dynamic and how people can be in this sort of outdoor recreation or recreational therapy world and still see the separate but equal phenomenon play.

Dr. Jasmine Townsend

Right. And I think that even here at Clemson, when we built an intermural program into our Campus Rec, there were still only two people with disabilities playing and, and we are the people like I have kind of always had this idea of if you build it, they will come. And I kind of still think that happens. But if the broader attitude is not inclusive and accommodating, if the buildings are not inclusive, accommodating, the programs are not inclusive and accommodating. People want to come, right. And I think what the faculty of BYU, at the time that I was there, what they were trying to do was to change that culture. Certainly, they had a strong recreational therapy program there. And so they were using that as an educational opportunity for their students to learn.

But then, at just the base level, you should provide that if there's one person at a university with a disability who wants to play sports, there should be an opportunity. It doesn't have to be, oh, well, we'll wait until there's 20 or 50 students here. So it's worth our effort. Oh, my gosh, I hear, maybe not in such explicit words, but that's what a lot of people mean, when they say, we can't support this, or we don't have the resources right now. I think what they're really saying is it's not worth our resources, when it's only one person or two people or three people, right.

But this whole separate but equal concept of while you can have it, but it'll be different from what we do, or no, we want it to be together. And the same thing. If you're offering recreational sports to students on campus, you should offer that to all students on campus. And it doesn't have to be their own League, it can be an inclusive opportunity where everybody plays together on an equal field. And it's okay that somebody who doesn't have a disability, doesn't know how to use the sport wheelchair, we will teach you.

Dr. Feranmi Okanlami

But Dr. Townsend, the Special Olympics exist already. So why are you reinventing the wheel and creating this new adaptive sports thing? Can't we just partner with Special Olympics and have the same outcome?

Dr. Jasmine Townsend

Great question. I think what we're talking about is two different wheels. The Special Olympics is for individuals with intellectual cognitive disabilities, the Paralympics is for individuals with physical disabilities.

And so adaptive sports is more like an umbrella term to both of those and two kind of entities that live under that umbrella. So, two wheels of the same car, trying to go to the same place of opportunity and equity for people with disabilities to have the same chance to participate in these activities that develop good life skills they develop.


 know, sportsmanship and teamwork and dedication and perseverance and, and, and, and, and and I can talk forever about the benefits, right? But if the opportunities aren't there, regardless of what your disability is, then the chance don't exist to develop those skills and those characteristics.

Dr. Feranmi Okanlami

You know I was an All-American athlete in college. And I talk about the opportunities that sport afforded me throughout my life. When we think about this, and we talk about the disparities that exist for individuals with disabilities, when individuals living with disabilities don't have the same opportunities that they're able-bodied peers have, we are essentially perpetuating this inequity. Because if you already are behind, and then the same resources that exist for individuals that are able-bodied don't exist for you, you just continue to fall further behind. And so that's where, you know, I learned about the Clemson Life program recently. Tell me a little bit about the Clemson Life program, and a particular young man that you have had as part of your program with this.

Dr. Jasmine Townsend

Sure. The Clemson Life program, actually, I think it's more broadly called the Life program and that there are various universities who have a chapter. I might not be explaining it extremely well, because I don't work in the Life program. But our university has a chapter called Clemson Life. And it's a life skills educational training program for college aged individuals with disabilities - mostly intellectual and cognitive disabilities. And the Clemson Life program is set up in such a way that those students live on campus. They live in the dorms. They enroll in this program. It's not a degree granting program, like a bachelor's degree or similar, it is a certificate program. And these students learn very important life skills across the range of life skills, right? So, work-related skills, nutrition, recreation, and leisure skills.

They do take classes, and all that are situated within their functional abilities. A lot of those classes are built into the Life program. And occasionally they are able to take the more typical classes, but not working toward a degree. So, I believe the Clemson Life program has 40 students in it.

And oftentimes, they're paired with other Clemson students, like a buddy system, to have a peer who helps you get to class, helps you when you get on campus to help you navigate campus, and figure out where to go and have a daily schedule, that type of stuff. So, we do have one student in the Clemson Life program who actually just graduated this last year. He too has Spina Bifida. And he was in in that Clemson Life program and also is on our wheelchair tennis team - the Clemson wheelchair tennis team - and a really unique opportunity for him to be able to participate in our team. He is a natural athlete and had some adaptive sport opportunities a little bit here and there as he was growing up.

Not a ton though. And that's a maybe another avenue for conversation here. Living in a rural area in a southern state and what is available and not available, but when he came to Clemson nothing existed here, there was nothing available in Campus Recreation for him to do. There was nothing available in anything for him to do recreationally. And we worked with Campus Rec, my department, my lab, worked with Campus Recreation, to build intramurals into adaptive intramurals, and he came up and started playing and that's how we met him and come to find out he is a student in the Clemson Life program. When the opportunity came to build our winter tennis team, he was our first student athlete and has continued to remain involved with our team even though he's graduated and thinking of USTA for having a progressive way to build teams and allowing affiliate players because without that, then we can lose our athletes when they graduate.

Dr. Feranmi Okanlami

So, I want to juxtapose that young man with someone who you also have a close relationship within you. You said that this individual is retired. However, the outcome of the 2021 USTA collegiate wheelchair tennis national championships would beg to differ. So, could you tell us a little bit more about your husband?

Dr. Jasmine Townsend

Sure. His own athletic background as well? Sure. My husband Jeff Townsend is, as you alluded to on our winter tennis team as well, and he has a long background of collegiate and elite level participation in adaptive sports. He is a wheelchair basketball player.

And so he was born with Spina Bifida. He is fairly you know, mobile when he wears braces; he did not have a wheelchair until he was in his teens because he didn't need one. In fact, he went to an assembly at his high school and the local adult wheelchair basketball team -  The Wheeling Jazz – came to his school and did an assembly and that's the first time he learned about adaptive sports. He was like 13, which seems crazy.

And so, he walks down there and he's the only kid in school with a disability. He walked down to these athletes at the end of the assembly and said, “how can I do this?”  And they said, you need to get a wheelchair. And so it took them about a year to raise the money to buy that wheelchair. And so in the meantime, he was just like loaner chair trying to come out and play with them. And then he got his own custom chair and started playing with them. And two years later, he was recruited to the University of Illinois to go on scholarship to play wheelchair basketball there. And so he did that there and did his bachelor's and master's degree.

 During his time at Illinois and also in that time period, you know, very quickly, a natural athlete to very quickly rose to the top; he was able to qualify for national teams and be a part of Team USA throughout his career and has maintained that involvement. As we've, as he's aged, and we've moved around the country and those things he's played for the whatever the local team is there. So, when we were living in Indiana for graduate school, he was playing for the RHI Pacers. He played for the Wheel and Jazz for a number of years. And, and so he's continued that and, again, we all age, right, it all impacts our bodies in different ways. It's impacted his body as well. Basketball is definitely getting to be very physically demanding as we've approached the 40s, the age of 40s.

And so as tennis kind of emerged as a possibility at Clemson, and we realized again, that USTA provided an avenue to build a team, really from nothing. By allowing affiliate players, he's affiliated with the university, and so he was able to be on our team. And so he's playing a strategic role on our team by helping to build the team. He's not in it for the glory or the trophies or anything like that. In fact, all those trophies sit on the desk in my office as our wall of fame for our Clemson wheelchair tennis team.

He's doing it to build the program. And we say this repeatedly, he's doing this for Marson.

Dr. Feranmi Okanlami

 It sounds like you say, if you build it, they will come. But first, trying to build something takes some special people having the ability to continue pounding the pavement. But then it also takes people knowing what you're even trying to build. So, can you talk a little bit about some of the challenges that you faced, as you've been trying to then create these opportunities for students and student athletes at Clemson?

Dr. Jasmine Townsend

Sure, you know, and we've, there's challenges everywhere. So, some of the things that we faced here at Clemson, we also faced when I was a graduate student in Indiana, and I wanted to do some adaptive sport activities. And I got pushback on that because the chairs might ruin the floors. Same pushback I got at BYU when we wanted to do something. Well, it's a hassle to deal with all of these chairs. Where are we putting all these chairs? You know, so a lot of the same questions when we first started here is - what is going to be the impact of those sport wheelchairs on our basketball floors? Okay, so lets, I'll educate you, right, a ton of education. Where are we going to store the chairs? I'll explain to you how we're going to do that. How are we going to pay for this? How, where are you going to find these athletes? Those are a lot of the questions I'm getting.

And I think, just maybe, the biggest barrier that we faced, mostly here at Clemson. But you know, there are pieces of it everywhere. It's just… people just don't know. And I'm having to do a lot of education. This is a thing. This is a collegiate sport. Let me show you the dozen, two dozen or so other universities that have programs as well. Oh, my gosh, I didn't know, right. And this university has multiple sports, how are they able to sustain that? So I appreciate that, in some ways, that we're a small kind of industry in the collegiate after sports, because I can call people up at other universities like yourself, or Brent Harden at Alabama and say, how'd you do this? How do you do this? And I'm getting information from them that I can take directly into building our program here at Clemson. A lot of mentorship, and answer the questions from the leadership at our university when they're trying to understand is this something that we should do?

And how are we going to go about doing it?  And while there have been barriers, they haven't been like full stop barriers. You can't do this. It's just a bump in the road. And we work our way over it, around it, through it by gathering information from other institutions and how they are doing it and paving the Clemson way to what works at Alabama, might not work at Clemson.

So definitely trying to educate a lot of people about what collegiate adaptive sports is and why it's important. I don't want to be the person who has to pull out legislation to explain why we have to do this. But I do know that is sometimes that difficult part, because we all know that we're coming upon the 31st year of the Americans with Disabilities Act and as we are trying to get institutions to understand one of the opportunity, but to the obligation that we have to provide these equitable opportunities.

Dr. Feranmi Okanlami

You know, sometimes that's when we get into some of these stickier conversations. How do you navigate those conversations without seemingly trying to bite the hand that feeds you? All while asking them to give you more food at the same time.

Dr. Jasmine Townsend

That is a good question. So, I'm not originally from the South, but I've picked up some Southern-isms. And one of them that I like to use, and I talked to my husband about this a lot, because we have different personalities on this, or approaches to this, is that you can catch more bees with honey than vinegar. I'm honey, he's vinegar.

So I think that I try to kind of take the perspective of -  let me teach you first about what this is, and then tell you why you need to do it - instead of just bursting through the door, pouring that vinegar on there and saying, you're gonna get sued if don’t do this, this, this, right, because that then, people are responding, defensive, defensive, defensive, and they feel like they're being forced to do something that they, one don't know about to, you know, aren't really sure is the right thing. And a lot of people are not aware of the legislation. So, I'm taking much more of the honey education perspective and trying to give people the benefit of the doubt that they don't know, they should know, but they don't know. So let me bring it to your attention. And I'll even have a plan for how we can do this. Work with me, I will do the work. I mean, you're gonna have to work with me on it, but I'll do the heavy lift. But help me get there. You know, and that's the approach I've taken. I know there are times where vinegar is needed. That's part of the recipe. And sometimes, it is an important part of the recipe. And I'll do it if I have to.

Dr. Feranmi Okanlami

Well, it looks like what you've been cooking at Clemson is starting to make its way onto people's plates, because people know what you are doing. You're doing a wonderful job. As you mentioned, you ended up coming out with a 2021, tier two singles national champion. And I think it's important for people to know that this isn't something that happens overnight, that even if it's something that people are just learning about, people have been doing this work for a very, very long time. Now, what we try to do here is we try to challenge each listener to think about what it is that they can do within their own sphere of influence. And while your sphere seems to be quite large, you have clearly made an impact in each institution that you've been in.

So with respect to adaptive sports, what do you think we can then say to other people, because while this is going to be new for some, how can people in their own communities do something to then expand opportunities for adaptive sport, and inclusive recreation within their communities, even if they don't know where to start?

Dr. Jasmine Townsend

 I think being an advocate, with and for people with disabilities is the way to start. And that means asking questions, sometimes asking hard questions. When you go to your local, you know, community, your city, parks and rec department, and you sign your kid up for a little league. And you notice that there are no adaptive opportunities, and you happen to know somebody with a disability, ask about it. And oftentimes, people with disabilities don't know how to advocate for themselves. And I understand that there are a lot of reasons why people disabilities don't advocate for themselves.

And one of the things I try to do as a recreational therapist educator is to help teach my students how to help people become better advocates, but we are advocates with them, right? If we notice disparities, we need to point those disparities out and do something. That's how I think we can do something which is call attention to again, that educational piece of you know, get them with honey and not vinegar. Hey, you don't have any opportunities for kids with disabilities, why? And that doesn't necessarily mean that you have to be the one to turn around and provide those opportunities, because that might be outside your scope of expertise or knowledge. But the people working in those organizations should know. And they have access to potentially employees or partners at universities who have the ability to help figure out how to do that.

And so asking the questions and pointing it out, is sometimes the first step and something that's fairly easy, although I do understand that a lot of people don't, don't want to be the people to rock the boat. But man, if we don't rock that boat, it's just never going to go anywhere. It's never never going to happen. So asking questions and pointing things out. We don't change, it's never going to change.

Dr. Feranmi Okanlami

And then earlier on, you talked about the issue with the number of students, the number of individuals with disabilities in communities. Have you run into the discomfort that some able-bodied people feel? When getting into a sport chair and trying to play adaptive sports? Some feel as though they are then being offensive? By playing an adaptive sport? How do we change that dynamic and that stigma, and let people see adaptive sports as truly an opportunity for everyone to participate together rather than seeing it as a separate sport just for individuals with disabilities?

Dr. Jasmine Townsend

That's a great question and something I talk with my students about a lot, because how do we kind of navigate that, that dynamic of is this me taking advantage of the situation or anything like that? One thing I have noticed is that, again, this might be unique to Jeff, but he is so great at teaching people about adaptive sports, about disability. And he is a wonderful advocate, self-advocate and advocate for other people. And so when we've provided opportunities for this inclusive involvement in adaptive sports, and see mainly there are people who don't feel comfortable, he's just like, “get in the chair, come on over there. Let me teach you some things. And I can do those same things. This is how you strap down the hip straps. This is, you know, don't stick your fingers in the spokes.” It's one thing for me to say that, but it's very different for him to say that and it comes across differently as an individual with a disability telling somebody without a disability that it's okay to get in a chair and play. In fact, I can't play with you unless you don't. So please get in the chair. It's not offensive, it's, it's the best thing that you can do, because then we can all play.

 I try to communicate that to people. He does it better than I do. And so if people who played sports are willing to kind of communicate that way with other people, I'm sure that it would help kind of bring down the discomfort with that.

Dr. Feranmi Okanlami

Dr. Townsend, you have hopefully opened our listeners eyes and ears to recognizing that there is scholarship behind recreational therapy and adaptive sports, that you have built a career around this, that you have even had the love of your life participate in the highest levels in this. And this is something you do not just professionally, but also personally. You've demonstrated how it can span the gamut from something like the Life Program that's taking individuals getting a certificate program, who also need and deserve access to sport, all the way to a Paralympian who is going to then go to the highest levels. You've talked about the inclusive nature of this, and how everyone deserves to have access, and how we can do it together. And you've acknowledged some of the barriers that may exist, but that with a little bit of honey, and sometimes some vinegar, we can really, really make something that will be appealing to a lot of people.

So I thank you for the work that you have been doing for a long time. I am honored to call you a colleague and a friend. And I'm looking forward to seeing what individuals like Dr. Townsend, Dr. Brent Harden at Alabama, and lots of other people around the country are doing right now. That with a little bit of visibility and support, hopefully will expand across the country. Any parting words that you have for our listeners right now?

Dr. Jasmine Townsend

No, other then “Get out there and play!”

Well, and Go Tigers.

Dr. Feranmi Okanlami

 Okay, well, we'll that slide.

Thank you for joining us on Equal & Able. We hope you will tune into subsequent episodes as we continue to bring in leaders to engage in thoughtful and challenging conversations about what each of us can do to demonstrate how everyone is equal and able. 


Dr. Feranmi Okanlami is a partner and spokesperson for Guardian life. And Dr. Jasmin Townsend is an associate professor from Clemson University. This equal enable podcast is for informational purposes only. Individual situations may vary, and the information contained herein should be relied upon only one coordinated with individual professional advice. speakers are not endorsed by guardian or Clemson University and the opinions stated or their own. They are not intended to give investment, legal or tax advice and that should not be substituted for regular consultation with your investment legal or tax professionals. This podcast does not constitute an offer or solicitation of a product or service. 

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