Empowering people with disabilities
September 6, 2016
Larken Marra, left, entered the School of Physical Education and Tourism Management with a clear career goal.
As a sports management major, Larken Marra had set her sights on becoming the first female general manager of an NFL team. But after volunteering at PETM’s Adapted Physical Activity Clinics, she soon found she was drawn to an entirely different career path.
Turning a connection into a career
As an APAC volunteer, Marra helped people with disabilities participate in physical activities adapted to their needs. Under the direction of associate professor Katie Stanton-Nichols, she worked with participants in the Motor Activity Clinic and the Ability Fitness Clinic, two of the three clinics that make up APAC.
Marra, who grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and moved to Indianapolis in high school, had felt a connection with people with disabilities ever since childhood, when she got to know a friend’s brother who had cerebral palsy. As she worked with APAC participants, she realized that she wanted to turn that connection into a career.
“I found that my true calling was working with people with disabilities,” she said.
A new path
After her experiences with APAC, Marra decided she wanted to pursue a career as a physical therapist. She changed her major from sports management to exercise science and planned to enter physical therapy school after completing her bachelor’s degree.
But again her path took a different turn. She wasn’t accepted into physical therapy school, so she had to explore other career options. As she contemplated what to do next, a new opportunity presented itself: Katie Stanton-Nichols, the clinic director, had a graduate assistant position available. So Marra decided to remain at PETM to pursue a master’s degree in kinesiology with a specialization in disabilities.
Focusing on abilities
As Stanton-Nichols’ graduate assistant, Marra serves as program coordinator of the Motor Activity Clinic and the Ability Fitness Clinic. The two clinics are the lab portion of an upper-level kinesiology course in which students learn about different types of disabilities and interventions. Each student, along with volunteers, works one-on-one with a participant for six weeks.
In the Motor Activity Clinic, kids ages 4 to 18 who have disabilities work on their basic motor skills in the gym and the pool, while the Ability Fitness Clinic provides physical fitness programming for young adults with disabilities. Both clinics focus on participants’ abilities and what they can do.
Becoming an advocate
During Marra's time with the clinics, she has grown close to the participants and their families and has become an advocate for them. One participant in particular, a boy with cerebral palsy, has had a strong impact on her. It was her experience with him that inspired Marra to pilot the Advanced Motor Activity Clinic to serve young people ages 14 to 20 who are transitioning out of the Motor Activity Clinic.
The boy, who began participating in the Motor Activity Clinic around age 5 or 6 and is now in his mid-teens, uses a wheelchair and has a visual impairment. But at the clinic, he has the opportunity to demonstrate his abilities and show off what he can do.
“You get him in the pool, and he turns into a whole different child,” Marra said. “Every day he surprises me with what he’s capable of.”
A tight-knit community
Though being a grad student is different than being an undergraduate, Marra said, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed: the faculty’s commitment to students.
“As much support as I got as an undergraduate, I feel like I get even more as a grad student,” she said. “They care so much, and they want everyone to succeed. They’re our advocates.”
She’s also grateful for the tight-knit community of PETM graduate students, many of whom are friends from her undergraduate program. The bond among PETM graduate students is unlike that of any other graduate program at IUPUI, Marra said: “You work as a collective group, and you succeed as a family.”
Helping kids with disabilities shine
Marra says that one of the best parts of being a PETM student is the opportunity to get hands-on experience outside of the classroom -- experience that will translate to the real world. And during the summer of 2015, she added to her resume as she worked with iCanShine, a nonprofit organization that promotes physical activity for people with disabilities.
As part of the organization’s iCanBike program, Marra and a bicycle technician traveled around the country holding weeklong camps to help people with disabilities learn to ride bikes. Together the two held camps in Milwaukee, St. Louis, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and several other cities.
At the camps, they provided five 75-minute training sessions each day for five days, with the goal of getting participants independently riding on two wheels by the end of the week. They also helped adapt bikes for each rider’s own needs.
After she completes her master’s degree, Marra plans to earn her Ph.D. in adapted physical activity. She hopes that someday she’ll be able to lead the Adapted Physical Activity Clinics. Her vision is to expand the clinics by adding full-time staff, operating them year-round and offering more sessions per week.
Another possibility she’s considering is launching similar clinics in another city where there’s a need for adapted physical activity. But whatever career path she pursues, Marra is committed to changing perceptions of people with disabilities. She wants to empower them so others see them as individuals, not objects of pity.
“I don’t care how much money I end up making,” she said. “It’s about seeing these individuals learn and grow and adapt in a world that’s not necessarily designed for them.”