Woman modifies ninja warrior course for disabled children
FENTON, Mich. (AP) — Lila Oberle, eight years old, has spastic quad cerebral palsy.
She uses a wheelchair for mobility and is nonverbal, but understands everything. Like most 8-year-olds, she just wants to have fun and do the things her friends do. However, that’s not always possible.
“It is nearly impossible to find truly adaptive experiences for our kids when their mobility is severely limited,” Rachel Oberle, Lila’s mom, told MLive.com. “If we go to a park, we’re lucky to find a single swing she can use, and they’re often broken. Places like trampoline parks don’t allow more than one person per trampoline and we aren’t able to let her jump alone.”
Many recreational opportunities for people with disabilities are listed as “accessible,” but often the accessibility feature is a ramp leading up to an activity they can’t really participate in, Oberle said.
“That’s just the way it is,” Oberle said, explaining that she and her husband try to adapt themselves to whatever activity Lila wants to do.
Lately, Lila has been spending time at Tri County Ninja, a gym in Fenton inspired by American Ninja Warrior, the popular TV show in which contestants compete and take on an intense obstacle course designed to test their strength and endurance.
American Ninja Warrior obstacle courses are tough — they’re high-intensity, difficult courses featuring obstacles that most people probably think are only for the most fit, strong and able-bodied people.
It’s hard to imagine that the obstacles or even the ninja gym to be something feasible for a child with disabilities like Lila to ever even experience.
Tegan Roobol, a Howell resident and physical therapist, wants to change that perception.
Roobol works full-time as a physical therapist at Livingston Educational Service Agency, mostly working with kids who have disabilities or who have suffered traumatic injuries, in addition to being a mom to a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. In her free time, she likes to work out at Tri County Ninja.
A few months ago, Roobol was at the gym when she saw the sister of one of her physical therapy students running around the gym and enjoying the obstacle course. She thought to herself, “Wouldn’t it be cool if my student could be here, too?”
Roobol’s student is in a wheelchair and is only able to watch TV for fun after school. Many of Roobol’s students have severe impairments — some of them can’t talk or walk, and there’s very little they can do for themselves, so recreational opportunities outside of school are very limited.
It didn’t seem fair to Roobol that her student couldn’t enjoy the ninja gym, so although she didn’t know exactly what it would look like, she set about figuring out how she could adapt the experience and make it fun for her student.
Roobol had become friends with Tri County Ninja Owners, Megan and Ed McNulty, through American Ninja Warrior competitions. She asked them if she could use some of their space for her adaptive ninja sessions. The McNultys offered to let the students pay a reduced open gym rate for the session. Ed McNulty said he and his wife were really excited about helping Roobol.
“She puts a lot of work into it and gives these kids an opportunity to do a lot of stuff they normally would not be able to,” McNulty said.
Roobol’s student had a blast at the gym, and it quickly became a weekly occurrence. Roobol started asking other parents of children with disabilities if their kids would like to try the ninja warrior gym.
Some parents were skeptical and didn’t think their children would enjoy the gym, according to Roobol.
“The best part is the smiles that you see, and the ones that really surprise you with their abilities,” Roobol said. “You think, ‘There’s no way,’ and they blow you out of the water with the things they’re able to do.”
Oberle said the adaptive program has been amazing for Lila and their family.
“Lila’s friends at school all go to the gym, and something so physical would generally be out of the realm of possibility for her,” Oberle said. “Tegan has allowed Lila to experience the gym, just like her peers, while being properly supported and physically monitored by a professional.”
So what exactly does ninja warrior training look like for children with disabilities?
Roobol uses a wide variety of “adapted” gym equipment to engage her students and meet their needs during their ninja sessions. Large equipment is limited because she borrows most of it from her work, like a large platform swing the children can sit or lay on. Most of the equipment, however, Roobol creates herself, sometimes with the help of her husband.
She made a tabletop climbing board with bright, colorful labeled handholds for her students to grab onto if they’re able, or Roobol helps them by taking their hand in her own. For one of her students who is blind, Roobol made a tabletop peg board with handholds and bells.
The students also utilize a lot of the gym equipment already there, just in an adapted way. Sometimes students can walk or be guided along a balance beam close to the floor, lay or sit on a big wire spool, lay or sit on a trampoline with some bouncy balls. Sometimes, Roobol plays an episode of American Ninja Warrior on her iPad, and the student simply watches the show.
“If that’s what’s fun, that’s fine, it doesn’t have to be what we think of as the ‘correct’ way to do something,” Roobol said. “I just like the fact they’re out of their house in a public setting, with regular people doing normal things.”
Roobol said her sessions with students are still “trial and error,” because each children’s skills vary, and their skills vary from day-to-day. Just because a student may be able to do an activity one week, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be able to do it again the next week.
But that doesn’t stop Roobol. It just pushes her to come up with new ideas.
“With this clientele it’s easy to say, ‘Why does it matter?’ But everything different or new is better than not doing anything,” Roobol said. “If you see the smile on their face you would see why it matters. Listen to one of them laugh and tell me there’s not quality of life. There is. It’s just different from yours.”
Right now, Roobol holds one-on-on adaptive ninja sessions for her students weekly, or whenever she can. It can be hard to coordinate her schedule with the 10 to 15 students who participate, so it’s not uncommon for her to bring her two young children to the gym with her.
Soon, Roobol wants to offer “open gym” sessions with different stations set up, and the child’s family member or friend would help guide them at each station. She’s also been toying around with the idea of creating “competitions” in which one student at a time would be led through an adapted obstacle course while being cheered on by friends and family, which is unlike any experience most of the kids have had.
Roobol has big dreams for the future. She is in the process of creating her non-profit, Overcoming Obstacles: Adaptive Ninja & Climbing. She hopes she will be able to get more equipment made to help people with disabilities, and eventually hire other physical trainers to work with her so more children can be adaptive ninjas.
“I hope that it does turn into something where I can make money without charging families. I don’t want to bill insurance or have parents pay through their nose,” Roobol said. “I just want them to have recreational opportunities for their kids.”
Information from: The Grand Rapids Press:MLive.com, http://www.mlive.com