Feature Article - February 2018
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Looking Beyond Physical Limits

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

By Chris Gelbach


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.