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Feature Article - February 2018

Looking Beyond Physical Limits

Creating Inclusive Environments & Programming for People With Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities

By Chris Gelbach


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 19 percent of the U.S. population had a disability in 2010. While a large focus of inclusion efforts in parks and rec and fitness environments has traditionally been on physical disabilities, developmental disabilities are also common among people of all ages. In fact, according to the CDC, about 15 percent of children ages 3 to 17 have a developmental disability.

Given these trends, how can sports, fitness and recreation facilities take these common, yet less obvious, disabilities into account and offer programming that helps people of all abilities feel included? Many experts have helpful guidance to share, and a growing number of communities have implemented successful efforts that provide a roadmap for effectively addressing these issues while creating recreation, parks, sports and fitness environments and programming that are more welcoming to all.

As Lori Goldman, recreation supervisor for therapeutic programs at Boulder Parks and Recreation notes, parks and recreation departments can play a critical role in enhancing the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. "As we become adults, most people have the ability to recreate independently or to sign up for group activities," Goldman said. "But many people with developmental disabilities have a difficult time with this task. This can lead to a lot of isolated time alone watching TV and snacking. But we are social beings. The human spirit wants to connect with others."

Creating facilities and specialized programs with these audiences in mind can have a tremendous impact in helping people with developmental disabilities enjoy better health and wellness and greater enjoyment of life.

Addressing Your Community Needs

According to John McConkey, market insights manager for a Delano, Minn.-based playground manufacturer that has done significant work on inclusive play, one way to get a sense of your community's needs is through an ability demographic.

"Similar to the socioeconomic demographic of the community, the ability demographic allows them to identify the percentage of people with physical impairments, with intellectual disabilities, with sensory disorders, cognitive disorders and autism," McConkey said.

If the results show a high percentage of kids on the autism spectrum, for example, it can help you shape your play spaces to address their needs in ways that current facilities are not. "You learn things from that population, that they need things like full enclosure or fencing to make sure if a child with autism gets overstimulated or overwhelmed and goes into fight-or-flight mode, they don't turn and run and disappear," McConkey said.

Lucy Jane Miller, the director of the STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder and a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado, Denver, stressed that it's important to understand the diagnoses relating to various disabilities. While children with autism need fencing or constant supervision, some children with sensory processing disorders may get overwhelmed very quickly with playground equipment, open spaces and loud noises.

"They have to understand the diagnoses," Miller said. "It's not really about the disorder. It's about the behavioral symptoms that occur because of the disorder. You have to look at it functionally."

For example, kids that are oversensitive to movement need equipment that doesn't move very much, according to Miller. Sensory cravers, on the other hand, need things that go fast but are still safe. And many playgrounds lack built-in small spaces where kids who want to can get away and be alone when they feel the urge.

"Most playgrounds, play spaces and play environments don't have places to get away and still be a part of the playground," Miller said. "So you don't get turned away until you've acted out. We need spaces for kids that they can go to when they start to feel overwhelmed."

Miller addressed the additional importance of developing an understanding of the brain and neurology, including learning about the eight sensory systems and how play environments can help develop them. These include the traditional senses of vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste. They also include the lesser-known proprioceptive (sensations from the muscles and joints), vestibular (sense of head movement in space) and interoceptive (sensations related to internal organs) systems.

"If you understand just a little bit about the brain and neurology, it can help you," Miller said. "Looking at the characteristics of equipment is important, but it's more important to look at what do the kids in your center or city or school need? What's missing from what you have?"

In addition to building these capabilities, Miller stressed that all children benefit from environments that enable social participation while building their self-regulation and self-confidence.

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