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

Quality Indicators of Inclusive Recreation Programs:
A National Youth Service Example


Kimberly D. Miller is Project Coordinator with Partnership F.I.V.E., University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Antoinette Frisoli is Research Assistant in the Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Anna Smythe is Program Director of the Volunteer Center of Greensboro

Stuart J. Schleien is Professor and Department Head with the Department of Recreation, Parks, and Tourism, as well as Project Director of Partnership F.I.V.E., at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Inclusive recreation programming is slowly, but steadily, becoming a more prominent feature of our local communities. But not every community recreation program adheres to the philosophical underpinnings of inclusive recreation and, therefore, may lack the qualities necessary for the successful inclusion (physical and social) of individuals with disabilities. Physical accessibility and physical integration do not ensure that individuals with disabilities will feel welcomed and accommodated, the salient characteristics of inclusion. What are the qualities that identify a program as both physically and socially inclusive? Outlined here are quality indicators, embedded within the context of an inclusive community volunteer program, that can be used to evaluate a recreation system’s level of commitment to social inclusion. These indicators include 1) administrative support, 2) nature of the program, 3) nature of the activities, 4) environmental/logistical considerations, and 5) programming techniques and methods.

These quality indicators are illustrated in this article through profiling a volunteer program recently implemented through a collaborative partnership of the Volunteer Center of Greensboro (North Carolina); Department of Recreation, Parks, and Tourism of The University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Guilford County Schools; Greensboro Department of Parks and Recreation; and Partnership F.I.V.E. (Fostering Inclusive Volunteer Efforts), a three-year U.S. Department of Education grant initiative.

Day of Service Event

The program under study was a “day of service” event held at a local park for high school students in conjunction with National Youth Service Day (NYSD). This event was viewed as an opportunity to expose youth of varying abilities to volunteering with the hopes of encouraging them to become active, ongoing volunteers for community agencies. While the development of ongoing social relationships was not the key focus of this recreation event, through the event participants were encouraged to become volunteers in their communities in settings where social relationships could develop. Also, social inclusion through ongoing contributions in the community could occur as participants volunteered throughout the year.

Of the 125 student volunteers, 61 had disabilities. Their disabilities included visual impairments, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism, bipolar disorder, and learning disabilities. After an opening ceremony, the student volunteers were divided into smaller, inclusive teams of approximately 15 participants. These groups participated in a variety of team-building activities such as the human knot and hoop pass. Following these warm-ups the teams worked cooperatively on the following service projects benefiting local nonprofit and public agencies:

  • Volunteers assisted the American Red Cross in folding, labeling, and collating a bulk mailing.
  • Youth designed cards and letters to be distributed with groceries delivered to homebound individuals by The Servant Center.
  • Letters were written to active duty soldiers overseas.
  • Volunteers painted birdhouses for distribution to group homes by the Mental Health Association.
  • Information packets were assembled for a parks and recreation day camp.
  • Volunteers prepared a 1,000-piece mailing for the Volunteer Center.

Using these activities and the day of service event as an example, we turn now to the five quality indicators for inclusion in recreation programs.

Indicator 1: Administrative Support

Administrative support of a diverse participant base is essential for inclusive recreation to be successful. Quality indicators in this area include:

  • Mission and philosophy reflect an inclusive approach. Welcoming statements of mission and philosophy appear in all agency literature. For example, “We invite individuals of all ability levels and backgrounds to access our services and programs.” These statements should not be full of legalese and unfriendly language.
  • Adherence to laws regarding serving persons with disabilities in typical recreation programs. Guidelines set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, are adhered to. These laws call for more than mere physical accessibility and integration; they call for programmatic accessibility and social inclusion in the least restrictive environment.
  • Staff training emphasizes innovations and techniques in inclusion, use of on-site community inclusion consultants, etc. Ongoing staff training helps staff to facilitate inclusive programs and demonstrates to staff the level of importance the agency places on inclusive services long term.
  • Documentation of socially inclusive services – interventions and effects. Is the recreation agency simply keeping track of how many participants with disabilities attend their programs (physical integration) through frequency counts? If this is the sole focus of evaluation, there will be little evidence of the quality of the social experience for participants with and without disabilities.

National Youth Service Day’s mission was to recruit the next generation of volunteers and educate the public about the contributions of young people as community leaders. The collaborative planning group ensured that all facilities were physically accessible and in compliance with the guidelines of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The atmosphere was socially and programmatically accessible to all participants. Prior to the event, training was provided to event planners and staff on disability awareness, strategies for barrier removal, and social inclusion. Volunteers were asked to complete a NYSD evaluation, inquiring about the quality of the volunteer activities, their enjoyment levels, and whether they felt included by peers.

Indicator 2: Nature of the Program

Recreation programs must be conducive to individuals succeeding in their participation and reaping multiple benefits beyond winning and losing. The quality indicators in this area include:

  • Program goals reflect an inclusion emphasis. Program goals address ongoing opportunities to participate, skill development, and/or socialization, rather than competition and high-level proficiency in the targeted activity. For socialization goals to be maximized, participants of varying abilities need frequent and regular opportunities to interact in a positive manner. Typically, for social relationships to develop, volunteers will need to spend time together in volunteer and other activities beyond the one-day event.
  • Programs allow for modifications and partial participation if needed. The program’s objective is not to have each individual participate in the same manner, but rather for every individual to participate at his or her own successful level. Adaptive equipment is available to help meet individual needs. Rules of the program are flexible and allow for individual modifications that enhance participation. People should have the opportunity to engage in activities to the maximum extent possible, which sometimes will only resemble the standard activity.

Program goals for NYSD were for high school students with and without disabilities to have the opportunity to volunteer in an inclusive atmosphere. In this manner, volunteers could demonstrate that everyone has a contribution to make in their community regardless of ability level. Emphasis was placed on every team member contributing to the volunteer activities in which they were engaged. For example, the goal of the American Red Cross mailing activity was for every student to play a role in the folding and labeling process, not the completion of a certain number of mail pieces. Despite the emphasis on social inclusion versus productivity, the student volunteers completed this task in less time than the nonprofit agency had anticipated.

The NYSD planning group discussed the notion of “flexible” and adaptable programming prior to the event. When it was discovered that a student who could not read or write and had limited verbal communication was mistakenly placed in a group that was writing letters for soldiers, this student was inconspicuously reassigned to a group preparing a bulk mailing, where she successfully folded letters.

Indicator 3: Nature of the Activities

Participants with and without disabilities need access to activities and programs that are considered appropriate for their peer group, as well as consistent with their personal preferences. Quality indicators include:

  • Activities are age-appropriate, functional, and have lifelong learning potential. Teenagers participate in popular teen activities rather than elementary-level ones regardless of their level of cognitive functioning. Participants engaging in activities that are not age-appropriate will become socially isolated from their peers.
  • Activities occur in many places and during different times of the day. This increases the likelihood that skills developed during recreation participation will generalize to other settings. It is necessary for people to learn a broad range of social, motor, cognitive, and leisure skills that their peers use in various environments. In this way, one will become better prepared to deal with the various leisure opportunities he or she has throughout the day.
  • Activities allow for personal challenge and participant choice. Participants with disabilities are allowed the dignity of risk, the opportunity to challenge oneself, instead of only having access to contrived environments that allow for minimal risk or a chance for failure. Participant choice is provided to help individuals acquire skills that they may choose to pursue when they have free time.

According to national statistics, 59% of American teenagers (ages 12 to 17) volunteer their time to improve their communities (Hamilton & Hussain, 1998), and thus volunteering is a popular activity for teens across our nation. All service projects offered at NYSD were typical of volunteer activities offered to teenagers in local nonprofit agencies. The opportunity for students to participate in volunteer activities outside of their schools encouraged them to learn new skills in novel community settings.

Indicator 4: Environmental/Logistical Considerations

A well-planned inclusive program is dependent on several factors, including its ability to accommodate a wide range of people and alterations to plans. Quality indicators in this area are:

  • The program is physically accessible, affordable, and easily modifiable. The recreation agency has completed a survey that assesses the physical accessibility of its facilities and programs. A written plan is developed to address any accessibility issues noted, and funds are allocated appropriately. Sponsorships or scholarships are available so that individuals on limited incomes, which often include individuals with disabilities, are not excluded.

Through grants, sponsorships, and donations, the NYSD event was implemented at no cost to the participants. In addition, the school system provided student transportation to the event. The modifiability of the program was clearly demonstrated when inclement weather forced the cancellation of outdoor volunteer activities. Since the entire park where the event was held was architecturally accessible, activities were easily moved from an outdoor shelter into an indoor facility.

Indicator 5: Programming Techniques

Programmers must sometimes alter their teaching and facilitation strategies to help participants have successful experiences. Quality indicators include:

  • Ongoing assessments are conducted of participants’ recreation needs, preferences, abilities, relationships, and enjoyment levels. Individual needs, preferences, and abilities change and, therefore, should be continually assessed. Communication and collaboration between administrators, programmers, participants, family members, and care providers is essential to ensure that necessary adaptations and modifications can be made as needed.
  • Inclusion techniques, such as cooperative learning, task analysis, and companionship training are used regularly. Cooperatively structured activities – those requiring every member of the group to contribute to the best of their ability toward the desired goal in order for the group to succeed – are emphasized over competitive and solitary ones. Activities that are cooperatively structured are more welcoming to all participants, whether they have a disability or not. Task analysis is used to outline all of the essential skills and steps to successfully participate in an activity. The task analysis is also used to “flag” needed supports for the individual. Companionship training is used to prepare individuals to be accepting of and interact socially with others.
  • Appropriate involvement of unpaid (volunteer) or paid partners is available. Volunteer partners/trainer advocates are recruited to provide supports so that all individuals are successful in programs. When volunteers cannot be readily recruited, the hiring of paid trainer advocates is an option. However, not all individuals with disabilities will require a peer partner to be successful.

The implementation of the NYSD event required the collaboration of several key players. Program planners teamed with teachers, parents, students, nonprofit organizations, a volunteer center, a parks and recreation department, inclusion facilitators, and disability advocacy groups in order to implement the successful inclusive event. All activities for NYSD were cooperatively structured. Students were placed into small groups to complete assigned tasks. For example, students formed cooperative groups to write letters to American troops in Iraq. The students who did not feel comfortable writing gave ideas to their partners who then completed the letters. An inclusion facilitator noticed that a student with a visual impairment was in close proximity to a nondisabled student, but was working with her teacher to complete the birdhouse painting task. The facilitator asked both students if they would work together. The students were observed interacting and painting the birdhouses together for the next 30 minutes, as the student with a disability was holding the paintbrush while the other student-guided her hand.


Recreation programs should be assessed using the quality indicators discussed above. It is when all recreation programs, including one-day events such as the National Youth Service Day, are held to these standards that socially inclusive programming will become the norm rather than the exception. The event described in this article was planned with these quality indicators in mind, and staff and participants alike attributed the success of the event to adherence to many of these qualities.


  • Hamilton, M., & Hussain, A. (1998). America’s teenage volunteers. Washington, DC: Independent Sector.