Impact Feature Issue on Social Inclusion Through Recreation for Persons with Disabilities

Community Recreation Programming to Facilitate Social Inclusion:
Rules of Thumb


Lauren J. Lieberman is Associate Professor in Adapted Physical Education at State University of New York, Brockport

Individuals with disabilities have alarmingly high unemployment rates and thus have more free time at their disposal than the general population. Over 70% of individuals with disabilities are unemployed and of the 29% who are employed, many do not work full-time jobs (Harris, 1998). There is a need to fill this abundance of free time with functional, enjoyable, fulfilling activities. A natural way to accomplish this is through recreational and leisure activities.

The term “recreation” refers to activities engaged in when an individual is free of educational, vocational, and daily living responsibilities (Smith, 2002). Recreational pursuits not only provide opportunities for meaningful relaxation and enjoyment, they also promote social involvement and self-determination. Self-determined behavior expresses an individual’s personal preferences and interests, and its exercise through recreation strengthens an individual's ability to be “acting as the primary causal agent in one’s life and making choices and decisions regarding one’s quality of life free from undue external influence or interference” (Wehmeyer, 1996, p. 24). Through making choices about and participating in recreational activities, individuals with disabilities place themselves in contexts where they can develop social relationships around shared interests. Without these opportunities for social inclusion and the exercise of self-determination through recreation, the range of life choices for individuals with disabilities is limited.

Reasons for engaging in recreational pursuits may vary. Some of the major reasons individuals with disabilities have reported for engaging in recreation are fun, exercise, meeting others, entertainment, challenge, occupying the mind, or a change of environment (Smith, 1994). When individuals are not engaging in their preferred recreational activities and experiencing these benefits, it’s important to find out why. In recent studies of recreation and individuals with disabilities, the following barriers to participation were found (Lieberman & Stuart, 2002; Lieberman & MacVicar, in press; Tepfer, 2002):

  • Perceived perceptions of others.
  • Inadequate transportation.
  • Lack of self-confidence.
  • The disability itself.
  • Lack of knowledge.
  • Lack of appropriate programming and/or staff.
  • Attitudes of people offering activities.
  • Communication obstacles.
  • Time or money constraints.
  • Accessibility problems.
  • Unavailability of others with whom to participate.

For individuals with disabilities to have recreation choices and be able to access their preferred activities, these barriers must be addressed. The following rules of thumb will assist parents, recreation providers, and consumers in overcoming these barriers and supporting successful recreational programming that will improve social inclusion.

Accessible Facilities

Accessibility can be viewed from a number of perspectives. A facility must eliminate physical barriers through having adequate disability parking spaces, as well as fully accessible entrances, restrooms, activity areas, and so forth. In addition, staff must be able to communicate with persons who have a variety of disabilities, including individuals who are Deaf, and have interpreters available when needed. Staff must be trained so there are no attitudinal barriers, and the environment is emotionally safe; the negative attitude of one or more staff members can impede use for individuals with disabilities. And systemic barriers such as membership and participation rules that do not allow participation of individuals with disabilities must be addressed; examples of rules are specific pre-requisite skills in order to participate in judo, the passing of an eye exam for a scuba diving class, or the ability to swim alone.

It is important to be aware of these barriers and, when they are encountered, work to remove them in order to ensure accessibility for all potential participants.

Affordable Registration Costs

One of the major barriers we’ve found through our research is the cost of recreational activities. Many individuals cannot afford the cost of participation, transportation or registration for special events such as tournaments. Realistically, our programs are expensive to run when considering staff, equipment, space, and processing. There are two ways to cut costs: one is to decrease the program expenses and the other is to assist consumers with the charges.

Program costs can be decreased by obtaining donated, discounted or used equipment. Hiring staff for college credit instead of salary is another good method. Often when a program is associated with a university course the cost of the facility is decreased or waived. When it comes to the cost to the consumers there are several ways to access funding. Some individuals will be eligible for services from organizations such as United Way or the Commission for the Blind. These organizations may have mechanisms in place to support members in recreational pursuits. In addition, some programs have scholarship money to supplement a participant’s registration fee where there is financial need. And, there are many service organizations that are more than willing to support recreational programming for individuals with disabilities such as the Lions Clubs, Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club and Knights of Columbus. Many persons with disabilities can also use community services money to support their involvement in recreation activities.

Staff Training

One of the major barriers to including persons with disabilities into community recreational activities is the lack of training of the staff (Lieberman, & MacVicar, in press). Local university professionals, parent groups, local disability support groups, or grantee organizations can train staff in working with recreation participants who have disabilities. This can open many doors for individuals of all abilities.

Major topics that should be covered include but are not limited to specifics of certain disabilities, contraindicated activities associated with specific disabilities, methods of ambulation of specific participants, communication styles of specific participants, and lastly, modifications and adaptations that will benefit all participants. A recent study indicated that even sports that were adapted elicited a high degree of enjoyment and skill attainment by participants with and without disabilities (Kalyvas & Reid, 2003).

Program Variety

Individuals with disabilities are as heterogeneous as the able-bodied population. Recreation programs need to offer a variety of activities. The programs offered in the community do not have to be specifically for individuals with particular disabilities; such individuals can be easily incorporated into activities designated for able-bodied participants.

When including participants with disabilities it is important that modifications are made when necessary. A modification can be anything from no step in step aerobics to two bounces in a tennis clinic. The most important rule when modifying activities is including the participants with disabilities in planning the intended modifications. By asking them about their specific needs for an activity you are ensuring ease of access and supporting self-determination.

In order for an individual to be self-determined we also need to ensure offering preferred activities when possible. Offering activities of interest will ensure adequate numbers of participants and will also increase attendance during the entire program offered. Along the same lines it is important to offer activities that promote socialization such as dancing, team sports, adventure-based activities, aerobics, crafts, and lifetime leisure activities such as fishing.

When offering new programs it is extremely important to have a manageable start and end dates. For example, if Eric is trying karate for the first time and the program is six weeks long and he enjoys it, he will sign up again and feel like he is successful. If Eric does not enjoy the program and it is eighteen weeks long and he stops coming after five weeks due to lack of interest or enthusiasm, he will perceive that he “quit.” If programs are kept to six to eight-week sessions individuals can “stick them out” and be finished instead of “quitting.” If an individual likes it enough they can just sign up for another session that is a reasonable length. Conversely, if one of the goals of a recreation program is to enhance social inclusion, sessions must last long enough for participants to establish relationships.


A major barrier that continues to appear in all our research is adequate transportation. There are several solutions to the transportation issue. When setting up programs in which individuals who attend may have limited transportation, try to utilize locations near public transportation, and establish activity times around the days and times that public transportation is most available. Another option is to assist in setting up carpools. Administrators can take down the names of individuals who need rides and share them with participants who are transporting themselves. In this way, individuals driving can choose if they want to transport those who have no transportation. A final option is to offer a discounted activity price to a friend of the individual who needs a ride in order to bring them both into the program.


Access to community recreation programs is desired by many individuals, including those with disabilities. The barriers faced by individuals with disabilities are often multilayered as opposed to singular (Lieberman & Stuart, 2002). By following some of these general rules of thumb, recreation providers may increase access to wonderful experiences for all individuals in the community. It is up to all parties involved to create an environment that fosters participation, self-determination, and social inclusion for everyone.

  • Harris, L. (1998). Americans with disabilities still face sharp gaps in securing jobs, education, transportation, and many areas of daily life. SEE/HEAR, 3(4), 5–7.

  • Kalyvas, V., & Reid, G. (2003). Sport adaptation, participation, and enjoyment of students with and without physical disabilities. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 20, 182–199.

  • Lieberman, L. J., & MacVicar, J. (n.d.). Play and recreation habits of youth who are deaf-blind. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness.

  • Lieberman, L. J., & Stuart, M. E. (2002). Recreation preferences and barriers for adults with deaf-blindness. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 96(10), 724–735.

  • Sands, D. J., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (1996). Self-determination across the lifespan: Independence and choice for people with disabilities. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.

  • Smith, T. B. (2002). Guidelines: Practical tips for working and socializing with deaf-blind people. Burtonsville, MD: Sign Media Inc.

  • Tepfer, A. (2002). Socialization into sport of elite blind athletes. In Unpublished masters thesis. SUNY Brockport, Brockport, NY.

  • Wehmeyer, M. L. (1996). Self-determination as an educational outcome: Why is it important to children, youth and adults with disabilities? In D. J. Sands & M. L. Wehmeyer (Eds.), Self-determination across the lifespan: Independence and choice for people with disabilities (pp. 17–36). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.