Feature Article - March 2004
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Play With a Purpose

Understanding therapeutic recreation and how it can work for you

By Elisa Kronish


While the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates a certain level of accessibility and carries a kind of "I have to do this" connotation, therapeutic recreation takes accessibility into a different realm and evokes more of a "I want to do this" attitude. And besides the depth and breadth of benefits for participants of therapeutic recreation, there are plenty of positive outcomes for your facility as well. To help you get over some of the hurdles to developing a solid and successful TR program at your facility, here are some common concerns (read: obstacles, objections, gripes, etc.) and the solutions to making it all work.

Concern #1: It's too much trouble.

Solution: When considering adding or enhancing a TR program at your facility, the key is to form partnerships. If you have the resources but lack staff and participants, try expanding your view beyond your own front doors, and you'll likely find what you need. In one instance, the Fairfax County Department of Community and Recreation Services wanted to offer an adaptive aquatics program for people with disabilities, but they don't manage their own pool. So every week, they borrow other facility pools—three in fact.

"We have no standalone facility of our own, so we run programs wherever we can find space," says Sara Mumford, branch manager for the Fairfax County Therapeutic Recreation Services. "We're savvy at finding resources, so our costs are pretty low."

Another Fairfax TR program takes advantage of summer vacation at area schools. The county runs four different types of summer camps for people with disabilities and uses nine different schools to do it.

Getting the school principal on board to accommodate the campers for a summer can sometimes be a challenge, Mumford says. "But after they've had us there once, they always invite us back," she says.

Recreational therapists who work out of a clinic often need a place to bring their clients, and you can provide it.

"Anyone working in a medical setting needs to be clued into the recreational opportunities in the community," says Laurie Jake, ATRA communications coordinator and past president. "These folks running incredible [TR programs] need to have these people referred to them."

Your budget might flinch when you consider the cost of hiring a specialist, but you don't always have to hire a full-time staff member.

"You might just need to work with a CTRS in your area on a consulting basis to simply help show you how to adapt your programs," Jake says. Also, depending on the type of facility and program you run, a little research and some determination might just earn you some government or private foundation funding to help mitigate your financial outlay.

"It helps to have a partner like us, unless the facility can have a full-time staff member," says Johnson, whose partnership with Baltimore's Downtown Sailing Center brought more clients to a facility that already owned accessible boats. "The sailing center doesn't have the bigger picture in terms of knowing what each individual needs. But the sailing center is good at what they do in providing the facility and sailing staff."

Johnson knows the therapy, and the Downtown Sailing Center knows recreation. Merging the two made perfect sense—and a lot of happy campers.


Trouncing therapeutic recreation naysayers, a national research project sponsored by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research published a document entitled "The Benefits of Therapeutic Recreation: A Consensus View." The American Therapeutic Recreation Association sums up the findings in four key points.

1. Recreational therapy services are an effective means for improving physical, cognitive, social and emotional functioning.

2. Recreational therapy services develop the skills needed to enhance functional independence for community living and to promote a higher quality of life for the individual and their family.

3. Recreational therapy services provide individuals with disabilities mechanisms to prevent declines in physical, cognitive and psychosocial functioning and as a result reduce the need for health care service.

4. Recreational therapy services reduce secondary disability and associated higher health costs.