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

Social Inclusion Through Recreation:
What's the Connection?


Brian Abery is a Project Director at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Joyce has a large number of social relationships that she has developed at work. She spends time with these individuals 40 hours a week on her job, eats lunch and takes breaks with them, and joins them after work to shop or eat out at local restaurants. When asked to identify those people who comprise her social world, she gave the names of 16 individuals who were not related or paid to provide her with supports. Unfortunately, Joyce reports that she does not experience a strong sense of social inclusion. When she is out in the community people don’t seem to notice her much or they actively avoid getting into conversations. While none of her co-workers has ever refused her when she asks to go along with them after work, explicit invitations for these activities are rare.

Natalie, on the other hand, is able to identify only three individuals, other than family members and support providers, in her social network whom she calls friends and sees regularly. One of these individuals is a woman she identifies as her best friend whom she met in an aerobics class at the “Y.” The other two are neighbors whom the residential staff supporting Natalie felt she would connect well with because of similar interests. Natalie reports that while she does not often do anything special with these people, she feels extremely close to them because they sit and talk, go on walks together or share their mutual interest in doll collecting. Walking in the community with Natalie one gets the impression that everyone knows her. People wave from the other side of the street as they pass by, the cashier at the grocery store chats with her when she makes purchases, and everyone seems to know her at the community center and coffeehouse. When asked, Natalie indicates that she feels a strong sense of belonging and connectedness.

What factors led to the different social inclusion outcomes experienced by Joyce and Natalie? Why does Joyce not experience a sense of inclusion while Natalie does? Because of its highly personal, individualized nature, social inclusion is more complex than the number of friends one has or how often they are seen. What we do know about this critical outcome is that those persons who report that they are socially included talk about feeling a sense of belonging, actively participating and experiencing a presence in the community, and being able to engage in activities based upon their personal preferences.

There are a number of differences between Joyce and Natalie’s situations that may explain their different social inclusion outcomes. The one that stands out the most, however, is that while Joyce spends little time engaged in recreation and leisure activities within the community, Natalie regularly attends an exercise program at the local “Y” and is supported by residential staff who actively searched for and found persons in the neighborhood who have similar leisure interests with whom she could connect.

Unmet Social Needs

Experiencing a sense of belonging entails individuals having a valued and varied set of social relationships – relationships that they have developed with persons whom they choose, with whom they believe they have something in common, and who choose them. People who experience social inclusion do not tend to have homogeneous social circles, but rather ones that contain a variety of people. Some individuals may be friends or associates with whom they primarily engage in specific activities and rarely see outside of these endeavors. Others may be seen in a variety of settings and provide the individual with a number of different types of social support. A sense of belonging is also associated with people feeling that they are accepted for who they are with all their faults and shortcomings as opposed to what others would like them to be. Individuals with disabilities of all ages, unfortunately, often do not experience a sense of belonging. In many cases, they have few opportunities to meet peers with common interests or preferences. Often they do not see persons with whom they desire to establish social relationships in more than a single context or setting, and face life in a society that, while quite good at pointing out the challenges they face, typically overlooks the gifts they offer.

A sense of presence in the community is often also missing for persons with disabilities. Participating in and experiencing a presence in the community can best be described as having full access to those activities you desire or prefer and having people acknowledge your presence in a positive manner. An acquaintance waving to you in the hall, stopping by your work space to have a short chat, or merely nodding his or her head when you pass on the street all contribute to feeling that your presence is appreciated and acknowledged. Individuals with disabilities often experience life without being recognized in the community or acknowledged in a positive fashion. Closely observe how persons with disabilities are reacted to in public settings and you will find that people typically do one of three things. In some cases, they appear to purposefully avert eye contact, possibly hoping that if they don’t acknowledge the person they will not have to interact. In other instances, the acknowledgment is negative as people make disparaging comments or jostle the person with a disability when they don’t move quickly enough through a door or across a street. The third common response is an initial over-zealous greeting, without the pursuit of ongoing, deeper interaction.

Being able to engage in recreational activities that reflect their personal preferences is another component of social inclusion that is absent for many individuals with disabilities. The specific activities one prefers and enjoys may remain stable for many years or change quite frequently over time. The important thing is that they are personally chosen or selected by the individual rather than others and based upon his or her preferences. Persons with disabilities often do not get to participate in community activities on the basis of their personal preferences for a variety of reasons. In some instances, the activities they prefer are simply not available to them because they are not accessible due to transportation difficulties, a lack of funding, or inadequate supports. At other times, the activities in which they engage appear to have been selected by others not on the basis of the personal preferences of the individual with a disability, but rather on the basis of how convenient they are for others (e.g., parents, staff) or because they do not present any “risk” to the person in question.

On the basis of available research, it is quite clear that the social circles of persons with disabilities are often quite different from those of their peers without disabilities. Smaller social circles composed primarily of family and paid professionals are typical for all ages. Relationships developed in one setting often do not generalize to others. As a result, less intimacy or emotional closeness, and greater instability in social relationships, tend to differentiate the social networks of persons with and without disabilities.

Hindrances to Inclusion in Home, School, and Work Settings

Social inclusion is associated with a wide variety of factors including our personal characteristics; where we live, work, and go to school; and what we do in our leisure time. Some residential organizations that serve adults with developmental disabilities have developed programs to enhance the inclusion of the people they serve. Schools are moving toward increased inclusion of children with disabilities within general education settings. More persons with disabilities are finding jobs through inclusive supportive employment programs. Such efforts, however, are often not enough. Children and adults with disabilities, although physically included, remain socially isolated from their peers and fail to experience the sense of inclusion we all desire. School-age children with disabilities, for example, are often included in regular education classes during the school day, and eat lunch and take recess with their peers without disabilities. However, they are often not involved in extra-curricular activities, typically fail to get invited to the sleep-overs and other parties of non-disabled peers, and spend much of their evenings, weekends, and vacations with few opportunities to interact with children without disabilities.

These outcomes should not be surprising given the nature of most residential, school, and employment settings. Residential programs are typically too under-funded and under-staffed to effectively support individualized social inclusion. Residents typically venture out into the community in relatively large groups rather than as individuals who take part in the specific activities that they desire. School and work environments are normally far too structured to support the development of the types of social relationships upon which social inclusion is based. Other than a short lunch period, most middle and high school-age students today have little opportunity to socially interact with their peers. What settings are available to effectively support the social inclusion of persons with disabilities? One group of settings that have only recently been tapped for enhancing social inclusion are recreation programs.

Finding Inclusion in Recreation

Recreation and leisure programs possess a number of characteristics that make them good places to start facilitating the social inclusion of persons with disabilities. Some of the characteristics of these settings encourage the development of skills and attitudes/beliefs on the part of persons with and without disabilities that promote the development of social relationships. Others provide opportunities for the development of relationships, opportunities that may be missing or severely limited in other aspects of the lives of persons with disabilities.

First and foremost, recreation and leisure programs bring together children or adults who have similar interests or preferences, one of the main factors in the selection of friends. One takes part in a canoeing and kayaking program because one likes canoeing and kayaking or participates in a soccer league because soccer holds special interest. Think about your own social circle and what brought you and your friends together. If you are like most people, you have common interests and in many cases, these have more to do with recreation and leisure preferences than political or religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, work roles, or any other set of factors. In addition, recreational programs are contexts into which most people voluntarily enter for fun and enjoyment as opposed to fulfilling obligations (e.g., financial). This creates a mindset that is much more conducive to the establishment of a wide variety of social relationships than school or employment situations. Recreational participation also allows for the development of interests that may not have previously existed. If one hasn’t had the opportunity to experience rock climbing, horseback riding, or kayaking, then it is difficult to determine whether these activities are preferred by the individual. Taking part in a variety of recreation and leisure endeavors allows a person to “experiment” and develop an interest in one or more activities in which they share a passion with others.

A second characteristic of many recreation programs that supports the development of social relationships is that they are ongoing, allowing persons to meet and interact with each other over an extended period of time. One rarely develops social relationships with individuals with whom they interact on only one occasion. But when interactions take place over a prolonged period they provide an opportunity for those involved to discover commonalities and what each can bring to a potential relationship. This is especially important for many persons without disabilities when they interact with persons with disabilities. The lack of knowledge about disabilities characteristic of most members of the general population makes it unlikely that they will initiate social interaction when in the presence of persons with disabling conditions. One common misconception about individuals with disabilities regardless of age, for example, is that they do not have similar interests as persons without disabilities. While this couldn’t be further from the truth, it nevertheless inhibits individuals from viewing peers with disabilities as potential friends and acquaintances. Ongoing social interaction within the context of recreation programs in which participants both with and without disabilities express high levels of interest does much to dispel this notion.

Participation in recreation and leisure programs also possesses the potential to facilitate participants in developing personal capacities, attitudes, and beliefs that support inclusion. The cooperative nature of outdoor recreation programs and the collaboration necessary to play on a successful softball, soccer, or basketball team, for example, assist participants in acquiring and refining skills such as teamwork that support inclusion. Participation in recreation and leisure programs also allows persons to challenge themselves within a relatively safe environment to an extent that they may not have experienced before. Such challenges, which involve taking some risks, support the development of self-confidence, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and the ability to effectively advocate for oneself. All of these outcomes play a potential role in an individual successfully developing and maintaining the type of social circle that engenders feelings of social inclusion.

It is important to note that participants both with and without disabilities in recreation and leisure programs are potentially changed by the experience in ways that support social inclusion. Participants with disabilities have the opportunity to develop new capacities and interests and to refine their social skills as they interact with and observe individuals who might typically not play a large part in their lives. Persons without disabilities discover that their peers with disabilities have abilities and gifts; similar interests, goals, and dreams for the future; and the capacity to establish and maintain reciprocal relationships. Through participation in inclusive recreation, the opportunity exists for participants to explore and cast aside myths and misconceptions about persons with disabilities and connect with each other as people who happen to be passionate about similar leisure activities.

It should be remembered, however, that while all recreation and leisure programs have the potential to facilitate social inclusion, not all necessarily fulfill this promise. Organizational attitudes and beliefs supportive of inclusion and the right of persons with disabilities to access the same programs as their peers without disabilities are a prerequisite. Direct service staff who have a knowledge of and experience working with persons with disabilities, as well as a passion for inclusion, are also a necessity. The ability and willingness of staff to make necessary accommodations and adaptations are a direct result of this knowledge, experience, and passion. Parents, families, and guardians also play a role as they must accept the fact that persons with disabilities need to be able to select the specific recreation and leisure activities in which they want to become engaged themselves and that involvement in just about any program carries with it some risk.

While representing only a part of the “inclusion puzzle,” recreational programs carried out by organizations that truly understand what social inclusion entails, provide adequate supports and accommodations, and are staffed by individuals who accept and celebrate diversity in all of its forms provide an opportunity for persons with disabilities to take a step closer to fulfilling their dreams of full inclusion within the communities in which they live.