Feature Article - October 2010
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A Welcome Inclusion

Invisible Disabilities Get Hands-On Attention

By Kelli Anderson

A little appreciation goes a long way—sometimes all the way to the press room. For the Access and Inclusion Department in the City of Boulder's park district in Boulder, Colo., appreciation for a job well done often finds its way into the local and regional news.

"We're the feel-good stories in the paper," admitted Colleen Fitzgerald, recreation administrator for the parks and recreation department. "Every two weeks something comes up. One of the things I always say is that we're the good PR."

And while getting good press is a good thing, sometimes what the public doesn't see is what's most appreciated.

"We had a new parent with an 8-year-old son with an (autism) spectrum disorder in a gymnastics class call us because she was so excited," Fitzgerald said. "The other parents noticed that their kids were getting two teachers instead of one and were thrilled, but hadn't realized that the additional teacher was there to assist her son. Instead, what they saw was a staff person working with all the kids, and it was a positive experience for everyone. We're proud that the other parents didn't know—we try to work hard on that."

For millions of Americans who struggle with the social/emotional challenges associated with "invisible" disabilities—ADHD, bipolar disorders, spectrum disorders and sensory integration disorders, to name a few—being different isn't always apparent. Statistics show that one in four Americans is struggling with various forms of mental illness, according to recent figures by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Md.

"They are huge in number, and we don't recognize them with a disability and, therefore, have different expectations because they look 'normal,'" said John McGovern, president of Recreation Accessibility Consultants in Hoffman Estates, Ill. "We assume they'll function 'normally.'"

Needing help to navigate the social and emotional world many of us take for granted, this is a population for which inclusion—the prime directive of the 20-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—can be so ideal, but whose effective implementation is among the least understood.

Thankfully, a growing number of park districts, organizations and resources are making practical help for those with invisible disabilities a successful part of their programming as well. Best of all, when done well, these same strategies, teaching methods and management styles improve the recreation experience for everyone.