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

From late April through mid-October, Baltimore's Inner Harbor is abuzz with budding and seasoned sailors who depart from the Downtown Sailing Center. Gazing at the scenic vista, you wouldn't realize that some of the sailboat occupants are people with disabilities.

It was the Sailing Center's Access-Ability program that interested Katrina Johnson, executive director of the Camping and Therapeutic Recreation Program of the League for People With Disabilities at Camp Greentop. In spring 2003, Johnson approached the Sailing Center to help her host an event for people with disabilities and their friends and family.

"It was a rainy day, but almost 40 people showed up," says Johnson, whose aptly titled Sailing Saturday Spectacular was so successful that it exploded into two full sessions of sailing classes in fall 2003 and will probably lead to additional sessions in 2004.

The growing interest in such programs isn't surprising. After all, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, nearly 20 percent of the population 5 years old and up are regarded as having a disability. With people living longer, that number is predicted to rise, which, in turn, will likely generate more need and appeal for recreational therapists and therapeutic recreation, like accessible sailing.


Two national organizations represent and support recreational therapists: the American Therapeutic Recreation Association (ATRA) and the National Therapeutic Recreation Society (NTRS), along with a separate certifying agency, the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification, which awards the credential of Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS). Although there is some hair-splitting over the difference between the expressions "special recreation," "therapeutic recreation" and "recreational therapy," the common use seems to favor therapeutic recreation (TR), meaning basically, recreation with a purpose.

"Our role in therapeutic recreation is to assist individuals with disabilities in maximizing their self-sufficiency and independence through recreational activities," says Evan Braff, division supervisor of the Therapeutic Recreation and Teen Services at the Fairfax County Department of Community and Recreation Services in Fairfax, Va. With its more than 35 programs for people with disabilities 3 years old and up, Fairfax County covers a lot of ground.

"If somebody has a need, we provide recreation for them," Braff says.

Recreation doesn't operate alone in the rehab field, though. Therapeutic recreation has historically been used in combination with other therapies, such as occupational and physical therapy. But TR includes that play component that other therapies just can't match.

"It's more fun, and you're focusing on something other than one foot in front of the other," Johnson says.

David R. Austin, professor at Indiana University and co-author of the textbook Therapeutic Recreation: an Introduction, describes the differences among common treatments this way: "Physical therapists have become mobility therapists; occupational therapists have become upper-body specialists; and therapeutic recreation is more holistic, more psycho-educational or psycho-social. It deals with the whole person and uses that person's strengths in interventions."

Whether individuals have a long-term or temporary disability, a physical, emotional or cognitive disability, therapeutic recreation can provide a goal-oriented, engaging way to achieve rehabilitation or to improve their lifestyle.