Feature Article - February 2016
Find a printable version here

Better Together

Inclusion Strategies for All Facilities

By Joe Bush

When you talk about kids with disabilities, it's very hard to find people that will say no to you.

What really separates Greenberg's oversight is the watersports: sailing, kayaking and canoeing, with bases at the Miami Yacht Club and Oleta River State Park. The program owns 37 sailboats with the help of $250,000 raised with help from the community.

Greenberg said she understands that funding can seem like a daunting challenge, but added that it just takes some effort. Her programs get federal funding—grants that pay for bus expenses, for example—but fundraising in the community targeting businesses and residents is just as, if not more, important.

"The larger our programs become, the more recognition they get, the more community members knock on our doors and say, 'Hey we want to work with you,'" said Greenberg. "The first thing you have to do is you have to know your community and you have to approach them with a valid program and show that the students will be the beneficiaries of the program.

"When you talk about kids with disabilities, it's very hard to find people that will say no to you. This is a very targeted population we really want to assist with socialization and integration into the community."

As with anyone who is committed to inclusive activities, Greenberg gets as much out of it as she puts in. Included in the programming is mentoring, the pairing of able-bodied kids with the disabled.

"I don't know who gets more out of it," Greenberg said of the mentoring relationship. "We have just seen such incredible successes of our children with disabilities within the general population of a school that we know it's because of our physical activities and physical education activities in an inclusive setting. The students are no longer looked at as different, but they're helped along and they sit next to each other at lunchtime. It's an incredible feeling to watch what we have been able to accomplish."

Inspired to Effect Change

While Greenberg's programs stem from her job, personal experience ignites inclusive movements with a different spark. Shane's Inspiration grew from the 1997 birth, and two weeks later the death, of Shane Williams. He was born with spinal muscular atrophy, and when his parents, Catherine Curry-Williams and Scott Williams, searched for a way to pay tribute to Shane, they discovered Shane's disability would have kept him from enjoying playgrounds with other kids. According to the Shane's Inspiration website, "at that time, there were no truly accessible playgrounds in the Western United States."

A year later, the Williamses mobilized friends, family and community leaders to begin the process of building the first universally accessible playground in California. "Shane's Inspiration Playground" opened in Los Angeles's Griffith Park in 2000, and today the organization is responsible for 56 inclusive playgrounds globally, with more than 75 in development.

Shane's Inspiration also branched into education and community outreach programs, serving more than 35,000 children in over 150 schools. In 2013, Shane's Inspiration became a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, with a Commitment to Action that will spread its work to five continents by 2018.

Marnie Norris, director of programs for Shane's Inspiration, said building inclusive playgrounds is only half of the battle, which begins with the first outreach to a community. Attitudes have to be discussed before dollars and cents, she said. Inclusion is as much social as it is physical.

"We started developing programs in 2002, and we really did have that feeling if you build it they will come," Norris said. "What we didn't realize is there's so many barriers in the community—bias and fear, because the social inclusion piece was not at the forefront of schools and communities.

"We didn't see the parents bringing their kids to the playgrounds in the numbers we knew existed in L.A. So we started looking into, what are you up against? What are you afraid of? For them, a true inclusive environment is one where they can feel emotionally included, socially included, and they don't have to defend their kids. They don't have to answer questions. They don't have to fight off people staring at them.

Without modifications, a gymnastics area is a natural for adaptive activity because of its different tactile sensations and fixtures for multiple types of movement.

"So we started a family program just because there's power in numbers. When parents show up together with kids of different abilities, it's going to be easier for them."

Norris said the original programming, a monthly three-hour playdate at Griffith Park, always attracts a crowd, which is welcome to join in. It has had the dual effect of spreading public awareness, and Norris said the programming is copied in other countries with Shane's Inspiration-related playgrounds. These outings led the organization to expand to schools, said Norris.

Shane's Inspiration realized schools couldn't afford to get their kids with disabilities to the parks, so it started providing field trips that brought special education classes to the playground.

"Then we took a step back and realized this is a missed opportunity because as much as they're great places to play, they're critical places to learn, where kids really do learn to interact with each other—kids with vast differences sometimes," Norris said. "They learn to see past the differences and just engage and play."

Shane's Inspiration also takes its message and lessons into the schools, with a 60-minute social inclusion workshop for kids K-12. The mission of the classroom visits is to get the point-of-view of kids without disabilities on the subject of inclusion.

"We start with, 'How do you define disability? How do you feel about disability?'" said Norris. "Nine times out of 10, it's, 'I feel bad, I feel sad.' It gives them a chance to talk through what they really do feel and then we work with them on moving through those misconceptions and we prepare them for a day of play. We give them real-world tools. How do you communicate verbal and non-verbal? How do you shake hands with someone with cerebral palsy? How do you play with someone who has autism?"

A three-and-a-half-hour field trip follows, during which games are played and toys played with. Afterward, the kids are debriefed back in the classroom, with questions like, "What did you learn about you, what did you learn about your buddy, and how did your perception shift?"

"It's a big day," Norris said. "Some of these kids have never interacted with each other before, so it can be a very profound and powerful day. A lot of a-ha moments on the playground where they realize, 'You're not as different as I thought you'd be.' We tell them, 'It wasn't you taking care of a child with disabilities, it was a child with disabilities getting to know you. You gave each other gifts.'"