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

Recreation Inclusion Today and Tomorrow:
The Role of Policies and Funding


John N. McGovern is Executive Director of the Northern Suburban Special Recreation Association, Northbrook, Illinois.

Tomorrow is here. That statement is a cliché, but it is true. Past efforts to create a society more inclusive and welcoming of persons with disabilities have changed our world. Walk into almost any business and see people with and without disabilities working together. Open the newspaper and see ads that feature people with disabilities because the market recognizes this population as an untapped group of customers. And look around in the settings where you engage in recreation and you’ll notice increasing numbers of persons with disabilities participating in recreation programs and using recreation facilities. Inclusive recreation is happening for a variety of reasons. Two elements that are almost always present are policies that promote inclusion and funds to support inclusion. I’ll talk about both in this article.

Policies That Promote Inclusion

I work for the Northern Suburban Special Recreation Association (NSSRA), a partnership of 12 local governments in Illinois that want to make recreation opportunities available for adults and children with disabilities. These governments didn’t come together by accident. They responded to requests from people with disabilities and their families who wanted recreation opportunities for people with disabilities. The association was established in 1970 and was the first such association formed in the country. Today in Illinois there are 25 such governmental partnerships, serving 164 communities. One thing all these associations have in common is policies about service for people with disabilities. Their policies address five key issues that should be addressed by all agencies involved in recreation services: inviting inclusion, supporting choice, offering preferred service for residents, inviting reciprocal agreements, and reinforcing inclusion with their staff.

First, agencies need policies that invite inclusion in all recreation experiences. Such policies require training for employees on how to welcome and support inclusion; assistance from the community of people with disabilities who can tell staff why inclusion is important from the perspective of those who benefit; and public statements in documents, Web sites, speeches, and publications that support and invite inclusion.

That said, a second issue to be addressed in policy is the support of choice. Some people prefer to be in a recreation experience with people more like them, while others prefer to enjoy recreation with others who are different than they are. Where I work, we heard families and individuals tell us this in the mid-1990s and today we still encourage choice and provide a range of options.

The third policy area is the issue of preferential service for residents of a community. In my metropolitan area, people choose to live in a variety of communities. Some people want lower property taxes so they choose communities with fewer services. Some people want more service and they recognize that more service translates into higher property tax bills. This is the ultimate choice by a family of a person with a disability: service costs money. It disturbs me to say this, but the leaders of some communities across the country will shirk their responsibility to serve residents with disabilities if those residents can drive into the neighboring town and get service. I have seen this in many states in my travels. One way to address this is to ban nonresident participation, or charge very high nonresident fees, or provide preferential treatment for residents (such as early registration). Nonresident policies require a complex review of federal and state law before implementation, but with care, they can accomplish the primary goal of preserving resources for residents and the secondary goal of kick-starting a neighboring community to do the right thing.

The fourth key policy issue is the creation of reciprocal agreements with neighboring communities that have placed an equally high value on recreation services for people with disabilities. Here is how it works. If Town A doesn’t have a gymnastics center but Town B does, and if both communities value inclusion, then a Town A resident should be able to enroll in a Town B gymnastics program. This is fair because eventually, a Town B resident will seek to register in a Town A program. Reciprocity works when both partners want the same thing, in this instance, inclusion.

The fifth issue is that there must be policies that address human resources at agencies and reinforce staff commitment to inclusion. Do job descriptions include a requirement that the employee support inclusion? Is there employee training on how to support inclusion? Do performance evaluation tools ask whether the employee has supported inclusion? Do job titles represent inclusion? These are small steps that make the people who work at an agency aware that inclusion is indeed the policy of the agency and that it is important.

These are just five key issues that must be addressed. Our association has found it necessary to continually review and revise our inclusion policies. We do so because demand changes from time to time, employees change all the time, and what worked in 2001 does not necessarily work in 2003.

Funds to Support Inclusion

Which came first, the policy or the budget? Money doesn’t solve every problem, but without money, few problems get solved. Our association serves an area with a population of 221,000 people. In 1995, we spent about $35,000 in full- and part-time wages to support the inclusive recreation choices of 38 individuals. This year, 2003, we will spend almost $90,000 in full-time salaries and benefits and another $360,000 in part-time wages to support inclusive recreation choices for about 800 individuals. Where did that money come from?

Some of our local governments increased property taxes to pay for support for inclusion. “Poor homeowner” you are thinking. But don’t. In the suburbs in which I work, property taxes on a $500,000 home increased about $3.60 a year. Smaller home value? Smaller annual tax cost. I don’t live in a $500,000 home but if I ever do, I promise I won’t complain about $3.60 on my tax bill.

Some of our local governments increased user fees charged to all users (those with and without disabilities) to pay for support for inclusion. One agency receives about 50,000 recreation registrations annually. Add a $1 surcharge to every fee and voila, $50,000 in funds to support inclusion comes from other program users.

Some of our local governments sought grants to pay for support for inclusion, or we sought the grants on their behalf. This worked well in the early days of our inclusion efforts, but as always happens with soft money, it eventually dries up. This year NSSRA adopted a plan that incorporates our formerly grant-funded inclusion efforts into our regular budget process.

This commitment to funding inclusion in recreation grows out of an appreciation of the positive benefits to communities from including all citizens in community life. The commitment is also consistent with the intent of Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was under consideration, intent related to the rights of Americans with disabilities to have access to community services and programs. Local governments (parks and recreation departments) are hard-pressed to claim they cannot afford the cost of making accommodations to support inclusion. Only the smallest agencies can argue this point successfully. Parks and recreation agencies are best advised to budget extra funds for inclusion support staff, sign language interpreters, and most importantly, an employee who is skilled in disability issues and can assess the need for inclusion supports. In administrative decisions and in court hearings this is a consistent message.

Within NSSRA, inclusion demand continues to rise. However, so does the demand for separate or segregated programs where people with disabilities choose to enjoy organized recreation with others who have disabilities. As long as public parks and recreation agencies support choice, and apply resources to back that policy by offering a variety of recreation options, individuals with disabilities and their families will benefit.

Make it happen. If you, the reader, are a public parks and recreation employee, push for a policy that invites inclusion. Push for training for all employees so they know how to welcome and support inclusion. Push for policies that welcome choice and enable it by having funds follow the choice made by an individual. If you are a person with a disability, tell your parks and recreation agencies that you have high expectations about inclusion. Tell them how you feel when you can choose with whom you enjoy recreation. Tell them that if you need it, you expect support that is appropriate, free to you, and professionally managed.

Inclusion is here to stay. The benefits of inclusion are endless. Celebrate by making an inclusive leisure choice today!