When you consider the stereotypical images of cheerleaders versus those with special needs, it may be difficult to see any common bonds. But over the past decade, cheerleading has served as a means of establishing lifelong friendships, as well as being a life-changing event, for many special needs athletes.
U.S. All Star Federation (USASF), the leading authority in competitive cheerleading, describes a special need as “Intellectual disability: 1. A condition characterized by impairment of skills and overall intelligence in areas such as cognition, language, and motor and social abilities as identified by an agency or professional, or 2. A cognitive delay, as determined by standardized measures such as intelligent quotient testing or other measures that are generally accepted within the professional community.” Special needs cheer teams are typically comprised of athletes who have a variety of disabilities; some may even have physically disabilities that leave them wheelchair-bound. But out on the cheer floor, it seems all of these limitations disappear, and the most evident thing about these athletes is their heart, spirit, and dedication. Physical and developmental disabilities simply become an afterthought.
The goals and the routines are largely the same for special needs cheerleading teams. A special needs routine is required to contain the same elements as any other competitive cheer routine. Special needs athletes must jump, dance, tumble, and stunt. Additionally, the goals of learning to work as a team, building self-esteem, and pursuing success also remain constant. But for many special needs athletes, competing with a cheerleading team fulfills not only a dream, but knocks down many barriers they may had never thought possible. The grueling multi-faceted competition routines have been credited with helping many special needs athletes overcome many limitations associated with their disabilities.
The journey of many special needs teams and athletes is well documented on the internet. Simply search for the term “special needs cheerleading,” and hundreds of results will be generated. I recommend that everyone takes the time to watch at least one special needs routine (hundreds are posted on forums such as Youtube). The dedication and determination of these athletes is humbling to say the least. These athletes are a testament to the phrase “you can do anything you put your mind to!”