Clemson faculty, students travel to Thailand to promote inclusive recreation for people with disabilities
John Gautsch boarded a plane to Thailand, but it was “Big Boy” who returned to Clemson. Gautsch, a senior recreational therapy major at Clemson, is a large man even in his home country, but he suspects the nickname may have also referred to his personality. He hopes, anyway.
Physical strength and a warm personality are a potent combination for someone bound for a career in recreational therapy. When Gautsch made his way into the pools of the Institute for Physical Education in Chiang Mai to provide instruction for adaptive sport swimming, it’s no wonder people followed him in.
“When I look back on this experience, the people were my favorite part,” Gautsch said. “We were there to work and we worked hard, but it’s not difficult when everyone around you is treating you like a long-lost friend.”
One of those individuals was a 45-year-old former competitive swimmer who hadn’t swam in 20 years due to a car accident that paralyzed her from the waist down. Gautsch and other Clemson students were there to train Thai physical education students to help people like her discover sports that they might otherwise not participate in because of their disability.
For swimming, Gautsch says the key is giving people more and more independence and being creative in playing to their physical strengths. He and the Thai students helped her successfully transfer to the pool, and they either held her up or used various floats to help her acclimate to the water again.
“Once she was comfortable, she said she wanted to work on her butterfly stroke,” Gautsch said. “By the end of the day I’d say she was swimming at a competitive level with it.”
Clemson provided content knowledge on adaptive sports to more than 40 physical education teachers over the course of six days in Thailand. During the final phase of the program, coaches and students from Clemson oversaw Thai coaches as they put their new knowledge to the test with approximately 40 people with disabilities from the surrounding Chiang Mai area. In addition to swimming, coaches and students covered soccer, tennis, goal ball and archery.
The adaptive sport coaches and representatives from Clemson delivered the program to further develop adaptive sport programs in the country while promoting inclusion in recreation. In addition to providing coaching skills, the program helped to shape coaches’ perspectives on people with disabilities by expanding awareness of their potential. According to Jasmine Townsend, the assistant professor of recreational therapy at Clemson who led the trip, the work on attitude in addition to skill building was crucial to building a successful and sustainable program.
“We didn’t come into Thailand as outsiders presenting an absolute right and wrong approach to adaptive sports; we were there to get professors and students thinking about their attitudes while facilitating a conversation,” Jasmine said. “Talking to a person with a disability without pitying or being patronizing should be the first priority.”
Thailand’s adaptive sport evolution
Jasmine and her husband, Jeff Townsend, have had a long history with adaptive sports development in Thailand. This trip was the sixth for Jeff, who served as the tennis coach in the program but has delivered instruction in the past on wheelchair basketball. Jeff grew up with Spina bifida, a birth defect in which his spinal cord failed to develop properly.
Jeff has had an interest in a variety of sports, but he has played wheelchair basketball in Utah, Indiana and Illinois as well as internationally. His involvement in Thailand adaptive sports sprang from his working relationship with Meeche White, former CEO of the National Ability Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing sports activities for people with disabilities.
Jeff coaches a junior wheelchair basketball team in the Greenville area, Roger C. Peace Rollin’ Tigers, which is the only junior team of its kind in South Carolina. He said his experiences in Thailand have allowed him to see what he does under a completely different light.
“Thailand has taught me to coach more for enjoyment,” Jeff said. “These clinics aren’t about competition, they’re about bringing content knowledge and learning the game. It has helped me become a better coach.”
Jeff said he has seen the country’s attitude toward adaptive sport improve as rapidly as its capacity to host it. The institute is willing to entertain the idea of adaptive sports and open portions of its new facility to adaptive sports programs.
The work that White and coaches like Jeff have done over the years has played a vital role in preparing the coaches for success with adaptive sports. The Thai coaches still need the coaching content knowledge and the motivation to continue developing adaptive sports, but Jeff sees just as much if not more of a need to affect attitudes in the country toward those with disabilities.
“One of the major hurdles is helping the general population see that a person with a disability has something to offer,” Jeff said. “The classroom content Jasmine introduced is meant to encourage coaches and students to see the person and not just the disability.”
The ultimate game of telephone
Pulling those classes off wasn’t as easy as putting together a curriculum and delivering a lecture. Jasmine developed multiple classroom activities before making a preliminary trip to Thailand in October 2017. When she met with the institute’s leadership, she discovered that one of its 17 campuses already had a fully developed adaptive sports curriculum.
That particular campus was responding to a growing need in its part of the country, which had endured civil unrest for years. Due to military and civilian injuries from devices such as landmines and improvised explosives, there was a concentration of people with disabilities in the area.
The fact that work had already begun in the country luckily gave Jasmine a place to start; Thai professors could sit at the wheel while she helped navigate topics. The next few months of planning saw her reassess her approach while overcoming language barriers.
“It was the worst case of playing telephone ever,” Jasmine said. “My emails went to them, got translated, were passed around for a response, translated again and then sent back. And this happened until we settled on having a frank discussion about what was currently available to classes and how to spread it around the country.”
When Jasmine reached the classroom, she was joined by an interpreter and nearly 50 individuals who wanted to hear what she had to say. The group was made up of many of the institute’s campus representatives and Thai Paralympic Committee members.
She said the group was open to taking on a different thought process when it came to people with disabilities, and several professors asked if she could return to their specific campus. Many stayed after the initial classes to participate in the coaching sessions with Clemson coaches and students.
“That’s when I started seeing the impact of what we were doing,” Jasmine said. “I felt that I reached these 45 professors, but they’ll be able to influence the thought process of hundreds more physical education students.”
Spring break well spent
While Jasmine worked to effect change on the macro level, Gautsch and Jeff were working with one individual at a time. Jeff said he saw the usual group of students that took to the training because they had experience with a child or family member with a disability. What was different, however, was the general interest in the sessions from everyone else.
Meanwhile, the one they called “Big Boy” was barely able to take it all in. Between the coaching sessions and spare time spent absorbing Thai culture, Gautsch was hooked from day one. During the last portion of the trip, he was able to take a step back and help oversee the physical education students as they worked directly with people with disabilities. He was impressed by the coaches’ progress after only a few days.
Gautsch will intern at the National Ability Center in Utah before graduating in August. He said his experience in Thailand not only confirmed that he pursued the correct course of study at Clemson, it has given him confidence as he begins his internship and takes the first steps in his career.
“It was like all the information I gathered and hard work I put in over four years was all applied in one week,” Gautsch said. “I couldn’t have imagined spending spring break anywhere else.”
After Gautsch got off the plane in the U.S., he had no less than 15 new friend requests on social media, all from Thailand students. He made an impression on many people, but none more than the 45-year-old former competitive swimmer. According to Jasmine, she made a point to have the American consulate deliver a message to Jasmine and her team.
“Her message read that ‘it was the first time in 20 years she felt freedom,’” Jasmine said. “I mean—that’s what it’s all about, and that’s just one person. Regardless of translation issues or logistical bumps to make the trip happen, that’s the kind of thing that makes it worth it.”
The six-day program was delivered in partnership with the National Ability Center and funded through anInternational Sports Programming Initiative cooperative agreement through the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs’ Sports Diplomacy division.