Feature Article - October 2007
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Therapeutic Recreation Embraces All Abilities

By Dana Carman

Programming with purpose

When discussing therapeutic recreation, two things come into play, literally: specific programming and inclusion services. Specific programming includes programs designed only for those with disabilities. Some examples are adaptive swimming, bowling, wheelchair basketball or tennis, social functions such as dances, or outings to shows or athletic events.

Often these programs are designed by certified therapeutic recreation specialists (CTRS) and led by them as well. Parks and recreation departments that have a dedicated therapeutic recreation division and staff (usually CTRSs are on staff) will meet to go over their community's needs, design programs and assess those programs along with the participants.

Inclusion services are also part of therapeutic recreation and, in recent years, are a very big part of what therapeutic recreation—and the ADA—is all about.

Beyond the fact that it's mandated by law, inclusion services provide those with disabilities the same freedom of choice in opportunities afforded to everyone else, Kazin said. "Inclusion allows that person to determine their own interests and destiny," she explained.

"I believe all people, regardless of ability, should have the opportunity to choose to participate in recreation that is available to the general public," said Linda Heyne, CTRS and associate professor and chair of therapeutic recreation at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y. "The key to therapeutic outcomes in recreation is to build upon people's interests, strengths and preferences. When people have the option to choose their own recreational activities, they are naturally motivated to work on therapeutic goals and outcomes."

While many parks and recreation departments around the country offer specific programming for people with disabilities, some still don't offer it at all. Fewer offer inclusion services.

Many therapeutic recreation specialists agree that regardless of whether a community offers separate programming for the disabled population, they should have inclusion services. And not just for the benefit of those with disabilities.

"As much as people with disabilities benefit from inclusive recreation, I have found that people without disabilities often benefit even more," Heyne said. "As people without disabilities learn to interact with people with disabilities, it is exciting to see them overcome their fear and awkwardness, learn acceptance and even advocate for inclusion. This is where the real social change of acceptance and tolerance occurs."

Kazin agrees. "It's the way the world works," she said. "It's not typical to only see one kind of people."

Aceves said that she sees inclusion most with kids programs. Summer camps are especially popular for all kids and are the area where inclusion is most requested.

It depends on the program, but when a request for inclusion is made, the child or adult's needs are assessed to determine whether or not the child or adult needs an inclusion specialist, also sometimes referred to as an inclusion aid. The inclusion aids are not necessarily CTRSs. While CTRSs will assess the child or adult, inclusion aids are trained staff who may be students studying therapeutic recreation, special education, occupational therapy or physical therapy. They may be interns or people who have had previous experience working with those with disabilities, possibly in a clinical setting.

Other accommodations may also need to be made for inclusion. "We've done things like widen changing benches or added a changing bench in a bathroom," Kazin said. "We've added handrails to both sides of our stair rail."

In Maryland, Montgomery County Recreation Department's Therapeutic Recreation Division requests what it refers to as "mainstreaming companions," who may be other people within the community who work with the department regularly. For example, for a person with a hearing disability, the division contracts with an interpreting company.

"Some of the classes may be harder," Charlie Butler, recreation specialist with Montgomery County's Therapeutic Recreation Division, said of always finding an appropriate mainstreaming companion, "like if someone wanted to do personal training and weight lifting, it may be more difficult to find someone that has the experience to help the instructor, but most of the time we'll try to work out something to be able to mainstream it."