Programming Inclusion for Hidden Disabilities
By Kelli Anderson
Twenty-two years ago when we heard words like "ADA," "inclusion" or "disability," our attention toward and our solutions for those in the disabled community focused primarily on those with physical challenges. Since that time we have made strides toward making our facilities accessible and making accommodations to our programs when and where needed. In the past few years, however, our understanding of this community has broadened to include those we wouldn't ordinarily recognize at first glance as needing any special help or accommodation: those with hidden disabilities.
Learning how to successfully include those with hidden disabilities (those with social, emotional and cognitive challenges such as autism, ADHD or mood disorders) into our programs is a process many are still trying to navigate, but for those who are doing it well, it is making a life-changing difference to more than just the child with a disability. It's changing whole communities.
In fact, those recreational facilities that have embraced this can-do challenge report that positive effects are stellar. Typical kids begin to see their peers with special needs as just "kids" like themselves; they stop noticing the differences—the whole purpose of inclusion—and even become advocates for them not just within recreational programs, but in the halls of their schools and on the streets in their neighborhood.
Moreover, the very accommodations made to recreational programming that help make it successful for inclusion (like more visual cues, using whiteboards and more structure) turn out to be an improvement for the whole program. In short, when it is done right, inclusion benefits everyone.
For the staff at the City of Eugene Recreation Services in Eugene, Ore., who greeted 7-year-old Ethan and his stuffed chipmunk Alvin each morning this past summer, it was business as usual. But for this young boy with autism spectrum disorder and his mother, Laura Dahill, it was anything but usual. For Ethan, to end each day of summer camp with a smile on his face was incredible.
"I am very appreciative of the City of Eugene for making inclusion a priority," Dahill wrote in a thank you letter to the mayor of the city. "Because it makes its recreation programs accessible to all people in the community, regardless of abilities, my son is able to enjoy the same wonderful summer camp as his twin brother. It is wonderful to live in a city where programs and activities are already in place to accommodate the needs of a diverse population."
However, happy inclusion stories like Ethan's owe a great deal of their success to difficult beginnings. When Diane Bubel's 13-year-old son with autism wanted to participate in a summer program like her other children, the only program available was over an hour away. She decided there had to be a better way to give families like hers more choices and the chance to experience a life fully immersed in community.
What resulted was The National Inclusion Project, an organization that encourages and facilitates community inclusion. By using successful training models that are now widely used by YMCAs, JCCs, Boys and Girls Clubs of America and other recreational organizations, The Project is helping tens of thousands of children successfully experience recreation and positive relationships with their peers for the first time.