Recreational Therapist Uses Wheelchairs to Help Para-Athletes, Veterans with PTSD

Research combines academic excellence for students with service and hospitality to physically, emotionally impaired

OXFORD, Miss. – Whether it’s assisting veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder or physically-impaired persons seeking to improve their quality of life, Jasmine Townsend works wonders with adaptive sports and wheelchairs. An assistant professor in the University of Mississippi’s Department of Health, Exercise Science and Recreation Management, Townsend is strengthening the existing recreational therapy major. The university is purchasing a fleet of 12 custom-built, athletic wheelchairs that Townsend plans to use for classroom instruction, research and future events to raise awareness of para-athletics. “Recreational therapy is a field I’ve worked in for almost 15 years,” said Townsend, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist whose research interests includes influences of family recreation on family functioning, satisfaction and communication, and post-traumatic growth and reduction of post-traumatic stress disorder for veterans through recreation. “Basically, it involves the use of recreational activity to change people’s lives.” While new to the university, Townsend taught RT classes at both Indiana and Brigham Young universities. Adaptive sports include wheelchair basketball, football, tennis and even quad-rugby, also known as “murderball.” “People in wheelchairs are not as fragile as some might assume,” Townsend said. “In murderball, it’s not only OK to bash wheelchairs into each other, it’s also a lot of fun.” Townsend teaches a combined total of 12 students in her “Supervision and Administration in Therapeutic Recreation” and “Assessment and Evaluation in Parks and Recreation Management” courses. Her husband, Jeffrey, is a frequent guest lecturer in her classes. Born with spinabifida (a congenital break in the spine with a hernia protrusion), he has played wheelchair basketball both recreationally and professionally. “The take-away message that I hope students get when I guest lecture in Jasmine’s class is that individuals with a disability need and want the same recreational activities and competitive opportunities as other individuals who may not have a disability,” said Jeffrey Townsend, who also works in UM Athletics with academic support. “We are very excited about the opportunity to bring 12 new sport wheelchairs to the University of Mississippi campus and the HESRM department so that students, faculty and staff can have an opportunity to experience some Paralympic wheelchair sports in a practical, hands-on manner.” In her work with veterans, Jasmine Townsend has found that while the number of veterans returning home as amputees is relatively low, the number who suffer from PTSD is exponentially higher. Working as a research consultant with the Sun Valley Adaptive Sports Center in Idaho, she conducts outcome research on the Higher Ground program, which offers four-day recreation retreats for veterans with PTSD and their significant others. “During the week, these veterans participate in such activities as water skiing, fly fishing, snow skiing and paragliding, after which they are monitored for three years,” Townsend said. “Many of the veterans in our study report using less medication, a higher quality of life and more enjoyment of their families after learning how to use adaptive recreation in their daily lives.” Ultimately, Townsend will lead the therapeutic recreation program toward preparing professionals to enter a promising job market, said Kim Beason, professor and coordinator of park and recreation management. “Over the past months, therapeutic recreation has been featured on the ‘Today’ show as a top 10 college major for lucrative careers, on CNN Money as a best job for saving the world and on as one of the 10 best-paying jobs with a bachelor’s degree,” Beason said. “TR is an excellent complement or alternative for students wishing to work with people in physical or occupational therapy.” The Townsends hope to raise both public awareness of therapeutic recreation and adaptive athletics through special events wherein she and her students would use the sports wheelchairs in demonstrations and activities. The couple also anticipates the time when the Paralympic Games, which always occur two weeks after the Olympic Games, will receive the same level of international attention the former event and its athletes generates. “Obviously my passion and heart is in wheelchair basketball and oftentimes I don’t think the general public realizes that Paralympic sports are played at a very high level, with the same time commitment and dedication given to their chosen sport as their Olympic athlete counterpart,” Jeffrey Townsend said. “Recreational therapy’s not just a job to me – it’s part of everyday life,” Jasmine Townsend said. “I’ve never seen anybody play wheelchair sports and not have a good time. If these activities help introduce people to RT and draw more students into the major, that’s even better.” Townsend holds a doctorate from Indiana University, a master’s degree from Brigham Young University and a bachelor’s degree from Utah State University. Before joining the UM faculty, she worked at both IU and BYU as well as at the National Ability Center in Utah. Townsend’s professional memberships include the Mississippi Recreation and Park Association, Recreation Therapists of Indiana, National Recreation and Park Association and American Therapeutic Recreation Association. She is also a prolific co-author with more than 30 refereed and non-refereed articles either published, printed or in progress. Townsend also has seven grants and external funding totaling $10,000. For more information about the Department of Health, Exercise Science and Recreation Management, visit or call 662-915-5521.