Inclusion Strategies for All Facilities
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey of 2013, almost 8 percent of American children up to the age of 17 have a disability. The vast majority of them are between the ages of 5 and 17, prime playing and socializing years that for many are bereft of both because of the lack of easily accessible inclusive places to interact, play, and engage in recreational and sports activities.
The situation is changing because of organizations like Shane's Inspiration and Unlimited Play that not only help communities understand the physical and mental importance of exercise and stimulation, and interaction and socialization for their disabled members, but that also help with fundraising and project management.
Some manufacturers are recognizing the need for specialized equipment designed for playgrounds, pools, climbing facilities and fitness facilities. Professional staff who care deeply for the work are applying their expertise to use science in the pursuit of providing enjoyment and improved health and quality of life for those with disabilities, children and adults.
Establishing a Baseline
Almost 8 percent of American children up to the age of 17 have a disability. The vast majority of them are between the ages of 5 and 17, prime playing and socializing years.
The U.S. Access Board is a federal agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities through leadership in accessible design and the development of accessibility guidelines and standards for the built environment, transportation, communication, medical diagnostic equipment, and information technology.
It established guidelines for recreational facilities and play areas as an addition to the American with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines. When the ADA took action in 1990, there were no special requirements for recreational facilities or play areas, said Peggy Greenwell, the board's training coordinator and expert on recreation accessibility, in a recent interview. (Greenwell retired from the organization in December.)
Greenwell said the board's initial focus began with a review of the guidelines already established for other buildings and facilities, examining how they might be applied to recreational facilities.
"Throughout the process, there was concern that providing access might change the different experiences that recreational elements and facilities provide," she said. "For example, people questioned how you could make a roller coaster accessible or a slide in a playground accessible without significantly changing the experience.
"The end result includes guidelines that require designers and operators to provide access to a variety of accessible elements and reflects a careful balancing of the various needs and interests. A minimum level of access in recreation facilities was established with room for innovation. The Board is committed to maintaining the accessibility guidelines for recreation facilities that will reflect changing technologies and innovations in the future."
Building on Success
Many of the players in the burgeoning recreational accessibility "industry"—the organizations, manufacturers and programmers—insist that simply meeting ADA mandates is not enough. Much of their work is with municipalities, and one of their initial challenges is convincing community officials and residents that money should not be an obstacle.
It's a matter of the heart and social justice, not the pocketbook, according to Jayne Greenberg, district director of physical education and health literacy for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
"We have to do it," she said. "It's not a choice of 'Will it cost more money?' It's doing the right thing. If playgrounds are going to be built, they have to be built with inclusion in mind."
Greenberg's purview is all physical education, not specifically inclusive, for a huge public school district. Since 2000, the program has not only extended into the communities it serves—the district's accessible golf is played on public courses—it has innovated into areas beyond adapted activities like climbing and playground use and into adapted sports, such as wheelchair basketball, power soccer (special wheelchairs have bars that "kick" the ball), goal ball (for the visually impaired, using a ball with bells inside) and wheelchair tennis.
"Any sport can be modified," said Greenberg, whose program also partners with Special Olympics. "As long as the students are engaged and active, that's our goal. Sometimes the equipment doesn't have to be modified at all.
"Sometimes it's just a matter of opening up your mind and saying the student is capable of learning how to use this equipment. We have wellness centers with kids using treadmills and they program their own and they go at it."
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.'"
Fit for All
The fuel for Nate Hendrickson's efforts in adaptive physical education is a sister with cerebral palsy. Hendrickson, the operations director for TNT Kids Fitness and Gymnastics in Fargo, N.D., is heavily involved with the nonprofit's inclusive programming, hired specifically for its adaptive business.
In an attempt to differentiate itself from a nearby competitor, the facility decided to use its space to help people with disabilities. Hendrickson said without modifications, a gymnastics area is a natural for adaptive activity because of its different tactile sensations and fixtures for multiple types of movement.
"I believe what gymnastics facilities offer individuals with special needs along with the able-bodied is it is the woods that the human body is genetically inclined to move through," he said. "Up, down, over, around and through. You have to navigate certain textures and surfaces.
"Individuals with special needs have very limited opportunities to move in those dynamic ways; many are asked to walk down a hallway, standing upright, or in wheelchairs for 80 percent of their day. In our facility, the spring floor gives them a little jump. There's core balance work. Bars for hanging and grasping. Balance beams of different widths. The more we can get kids to push and pull and land on things, there's more opportunities for communication between the body and the brain."
TNT has an occupational therapist on staff, and through collaboration with United Way, which helps fund the program, partners with 21 different schools. He said 28 different classrooms visit for a total of 173 different individuals per week for programming. Autism is the most prevalent disability, he said, followed by emotional behavior disorders. There's also students with cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome, and Tourette's syndrome.
Hendrickson believes the programming should take a multi-dimensional approach.
"Physical therapy, occupational therapy, mental-emotional health, speech and language pathology, special education," he said. "You have to have a holistic approach, interpret and understand that when you connect all those dots you're more likely to interpret and understand than judge and label."
The last part is important when it comes to training existing staff to help with the adaptive programming, he said. TNT is helping another facility adopt its model of staff training, Hendrickson said. It also opens its doors to local students of occupational and physical therapy programs.
"Investing in staff is sending them to training, allowing them to become educated so they are able to take on the challenge of it," he said. "Are they passionate about it? Do they want to make a difference? If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism. If you've met one person with cerebral palsy, you've met one person with cerebral palsy. They're all so different to a certain degree. They all fall in those categories of learning. You have to understand yourself, your programming."
It's such a positive, everyone-cheering-for-one-another atmosphere, by the end of the day, everybody has a great feeling of we're doing something positive here.
Hendrickson said TNT does have some equipment modifications, such as wider footholds and handholds, as well as specialized swimming equipment for adaptive activities. For example, for swimmers, a judging platform features 20 high-intensity, calibrated LEDs on the leading edge to provide a visual cue that is simultaneous with the audible start horn at the beginning of each race. This allows athletes with hearing disabilities a start that is equal to that of the other athletes.
According to Anne-Marie Spencer, vice president of marketing and communications for the manufacturer that provided much of TNT's adaptive equipment, the product was designed and developed by a research and development team in response to customer feedback and the knowledge that there are several hearing-impaired athletes at all levels of competition participating in non-segregated swimming meets.
Luke Day, assistant director for aquatic events and operations at University of Minnesota Recreation and Wellness, has used the system for Paralympics events. He also has tweaked the system, putting extra strobe lighting in just the lane or lanes of the hearing-impaired athlete.
Day said any and all accommodations are worth it in a soul-stirring way. He remembered doing exit interviews with staff who had experienced hosting NCAA Championships in 2011 and Paralympic events.
"I ask their highlights and lowlights," he said. "Both said their favorite event was the 2013 U.S. Paralympics Spring Swimming Nationals. The feel at that event is so different. It's such a positive, everyone-cheering-for-one-another atmosphere, by the end of the day, everybody has a great feeling of we're doing something positive here.
This is beyond one athlete vs. another athlete. Those athletes are competing against each other but they're also competing with each other, and everybody is supporting one another."