Looking Beyond Physical Limits

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


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.

Partnering to Learn

To get a better sense of various disabilities and how to serve people with them better, it is helpful to partner with various groups in your community that offer specific expertise. These can include groups such as the Autism Society of America, Autism Speaks, the Arc, United Cerebral Palsy, the National Association for the Deaf, the American Foundation for the Blind, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Special Olympics and the National Center for Learning Disabilities, among others.

According to Erica Chua, accessible community outreach event coordinator for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, such partnerships have been vital to her organization's inclusion work.


"The partnering has been really big for us," Chua said. Getting input from people dealing with different kinds of disabilities to hear about their experiences and needs firsthand has also been essential. "If you have a parent or participant that has a disability or sensory issue or is on the autism spectrum, or whatever it is you are working to accommodate, have them share their perspective," Chua said. "It provides a little more compassion and an understanding of what the barriers are preventing them from attending an event or program. It's also easy to do, and usually very inexpensive, if there's any cost associated with it. So that's a great place to start."

Miller additionally recommends reaching out to occupational therapists in your community. "A lot of those guys—and I'm one of them—can give very good talks," Miller said. "They know a lot about disabilities. They have a background in pediatrics as well as mental health. They have a really good background for providing information to local, state and national parks and rec managers."

At Portland Parks and Recreation, the AIR (Adaptive and Inclusive Recreation) program also builds knowledge through educational efforts that include behavior trainings that help staff understand the behaviors related to different disabilities, as well as training in avoiding escalation and conflict resolution. "We don't only do those trainings for our inclusion staff," said Jane Doyle, the city recreation coordinator who heads the program and has a background in therapeutic recreation. "We do those for all Portland Parks staff, too."

Goldman additionally noted the importance of going beyond staff education as part of the learning process. "Education is great, but in the end, actually getting your hands dirty and providing inclusion is the best way to learn," Goldman said. "More practical experiences in working with people with a variety of disabilities will make staff more comfortable and get them to understand the value of providing inclusion. Reach out to other places near you that provide inclusion support and go shadow them. If there are not parks and rec programs, see if you can observe in a school. Talk with professionals who have experience, and observe people being included."

Programming Potential

At Boulder Parks and Recreation, Goldman is one of five certified therapeutic recreation specialists on staff who lead the Exciting Programs Adventures and New Dimensions (EXPAND) program, which has the vision of helping people with disabilities participate fully in community recreation and leisure activities that enhance quality of life and foster respect for diversity and acceptance of all. The program works with participants with diagnoses that include:

  • Autism
  • Blindness/visual impairments
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Emotional/behavioral disorders
  • Epilepsy
  • Deafness/hearing impairments
  • Learning disabilities
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Physical disabilities such as spinal cord injuries, spina bifida or paralysis
  • Psychiatric disabilities

The program gives participants the option to take part in specialized programs created specifically for people with disabilities, inclusive programs open to anyone who meets the minimum requirements to participate, and drop-in opportunities at recreation centers that allow patrons to bring an assistant into the facility for free if the individual requires assistance to be independent.

In addition to camps, sports for people with physical disabilities, and programs for people with mild traumatic brain injury, EXPAND also offers a peer mentor program that allows youth ages 10 to 16 without disabilities to make friends and participate in recreation or leisure opportunities with peers who have disabilities.

Portland's AIR program serves a similarly broad set of participants through a wide variety of programs that include sports, fitness classes for teens and adults, dance classes, bingo, music classes, creative arts courses, cooking classes and a variety of one-day excursions.

Doyle noted the importance of providing a variety of program options to meet the needs of the broadest range of participants. "Make sure you're not just offering a wide range of opportunities, but also locations within your city," Doyle said. "If you have classes in the far east side, make sure you're doing activities in the north side too, so you're not missing an area in the town."

As the AIR program has expanded, it has also focused on making sure to reach participants at different age ranges, from kids to teens to adults to seniors. "Most of our participants have cognitive, social or emotional disabilities," Doyle said. "Probably a third of the participants in our trips are seniors with developmental disabilities." Newer programs have grown out of the success of earlier ones, with an increased emphasis on teen programs developing as some participants have aged out of popular youth programs.

Event Accommodations

At specific events, a variety of simple and low-cost accommodations can help participants with various intellectual and developmental disabilities have a more enjoyable experience. In Minneapolis, Chua cited the department's success using calming boxes at events and programs as one example.

"The boxes are mobile and you can even use a fishing tackle box," Chua said. "It just might include a few things that provide sensory stimulation for someone who might be on the autism spectrum or just someone who needs to take a timeout." These items could include some silly putty or slime they can manipulate in their hands, a soft ball with rubber spikes on it, or other similar items that can provide some sensory stimulation to help calm them down.

Expanding on the idea, the park district got a grant from NRPA to start implementing a 10-by-10-foot calming tent that serves as a quiet space where people can retreat during an event. The spaces will include amenities such as a trampoline, swing chair and bean bags to give people a chance to calm down when they need to before heading back to the event. "That's such a huge part of events and programs—offering places and ways for people to take a break and de-escalate if they do find themselves getting overwhelmed," Chua said.

Whether it's for patrons on the autism spectrum or those with sensory disorders, the department has also focused on trying to make the events consistent in their timing, setup and execution. "For example, our movies and music series happens every single day of the summer," Chua said. "So having it be the same schedule, the same type of announcements, brings a predictability to it and people know what's going to happen."

To accommodate people who have disabilities that make them sensitive to loud sound, amplification is kept below a certain decibel level, and people are informed of that before the event.

Funding for Inclusion

In addition to fostering understanding and better programming, partnering with various organizations can also lead to funding opportunities. "To partner with organizations locally that serve people in several different communities, whether it be a hard-of-hearing community or the autism spectrum community, has helped us because they've helped to provide training, resources and even funding in some cases," Chua said.

In Portland, the AIR program has grown on a fee-for-service basis without grants, with the exception of funding for a community living program for seniors with developmental disabilities that is funded by the state.

For costlier initiatives, it may be better to focus on realizing a vision rather than hitting a budget number. "If you start with a budget in mind, you can be limiting yourself in what you end up with," McConkey said. "The reality is that if they are embarking on a project that's going to serve a wider range of this broad base of people with disabilities, the funding comes from non-traditional sources." Instead of civic funding, for instance, support could come from foundations, grants, private contributions and in-kind contributions. "We've seen in community after community that funding comes out of the woodwork and they are able to achieve their vision, even though it seems monumental in the beginning," McConkey said.

But the larger vision is not about a single project, and making strides toward realizing a community that is more inclusive for all can start with a single step. "It's really just starting somewhere. Choosing one thing, seeing how it goes. If it goes well, continuing that and building upon it," Chua said. "But the more I learn and the more events and programs we do, the more I realize there's still a long way to go in making sure that we're designing things that are as accessible as they can be for the greatest number of people."