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

Solving Organizational Barriers to Inclusion Using Education, Creativity, and Teamwork


Linda A. Heyne is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Therapeutic Recreation and Leisure Studies, Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York

Barriers to Inclusion

At Ithaca College, I teach a course on inclusive community leisure services in which we devote one full week to a discussion of potential organizational barriers to inclusion and how to overcome them. I begin the lesson by informing the class that barriers to inclusion tend to fall in one of four categories: attitudinal, administrative, architectural, and programmatic. I then ask the students to work in small groups to enumerate all the potential obstacles to inclusion they can imagine. Together, we generate long lists of possible barriers. What follows are the most prevalent ones found in agencies:

  • Attitudinal barriers. Inclusion is a frame of mind as much as a matter of practice, thus attitudinal barriers may be the most difficult to overcome. Attitudinal blocks may take the form of misconceptions, stereotypes, or labeling. A tradition of segregated recreation programs can set a pattern that perpetuates isolation. If staff have little exposure to people with disabilities, fear of the unknown may cause them to resist inclusive services. Further, staff may not understand the concept of inclusion and what it represents in terms of people’s rights and opportunities.
  • Administrative barriers. Agencies may lack outreach networks, staff trained in inclusive practices, adequate transportation, and funding for coordinated services and individual supports. Boards of directors and administrators may not understand inclusion well enough to support it. Administrators may also mistakenly presume that inclusion means complicated and expensive liability arrangements.
  • Architectural barriers. Curb cuts, ramps, automatic door openers, elevators, braille signage, telecommunication devices, and similar accommodations (or the lack thereof) send a message that people with disabilities are or are not welcome. While social inclusion is difficult when facilities are physically inaccessible, it can be accomplished, and architectural barriers should never be used as an excuse to deny participation.
  • Programmatic barriers. Serving people with varying abilities may also raise programmatic concerns. There may be no single point of contact for inclusive services. Program staff may not have accurate information about disabilities nor experience teaching people with differing abilities. Staff may not know how to provide inclusion supports such as individual needs assessments, environmental inventories, behavioral teaching techniques, adaptations, or specialized equipment. And the activities offered may not be a good match for persons with some types of disabilities.

Creative Solutions

After my students identify potential barriers to inclusion, I again ask them to work in small groups to brainstorm potential solutions. These young adults preparing for careers in leisure services and therapeutic recreation prove time and time again their creativity in generating fresh solutions to problems that have impeded the progress of inclusion for decades. Below are some of their ideas in relation to the four categories of barriers:

  • Attitudinal solutions. When it comes to changing attitudes, one person can make a difference; when a recreation staff member has inclusive attitudes and behaviors, other staff as well as participants will follow. Among effective ways to demonstrate inclusive attitudes are challenging stereotypes by speaking up when someone uses derogatory language toward a person with a disability or persists in having low expectations, using “person-first” language (e.g. “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people”), and knowing and showing appropriate ways to interact with people with varying abilities. The attitudinal change also comes about when individuals participate in inclusive recreation programs from an early age; inclusion then becomes a natural part of life for participants.
  • Administrative solutions. Employing individuals with disabilities in administrative roles can be an important step toward removing administrative barriers to inclusion. Educating staff and boards of directors about the meaning and practices of inclusion, and enlisting their commitment to inclusive practices, is also necessary. An advisory council can be organized to guide and monitor inclusion, and recreation agencies can network with local disability advocacy groups to publicize recreation programs and learn about supportive services and funding opportunities.
  • Architectural solutions. When designing facilities, agencies should plan in advance for use by people with mixed abilities, recognizing that universal access supports use by all people (e.g. a ramp is handy for those pushing baby strollers, hauling items, or wanting to take it easy on their joints). Persons with disabilities should be involved in designing architectural modifications to an existing structure to ensure that accommodations are functional. Agencies can submit grant proposals to fund accommodations such as elevators, ramps, paved pathways, and lifts to bring an old building up to code.
  • Programmatic solutions. Hiring a certified therapeutic recreation specialist or certified park and recreation professional provides a trained recreation professional on staff who knows how to facilitate inclusion. Training staff about disabilities and inclusion techniques, conducting personalized assessments, and offering individualized instruction and accommodations for participants also help remove programmatic barriers. Participants with disabilities, or parents of children with disabilities, can suggest accommodations and provide information on communication, positioning, behavior, and similar concerns.

How Agencies Can Support Inclusion

The positive results of this group work, and my own experience as an inclusion facilitator and researcher, give credibility to the idea that agency personnel can apply a similar problem-solving approach to the removal of inclusion barriers. With this in mind, I propose a five-step approach that agencies can take to support inclusion:

  • Step One: Believe in inclusion. Understanding inclusion as a heartfelt value is foremost in providing services that truly welcome all members of the community. Inclusion implies that all people deserve respect, appreciation, and acceptance. Inclusion also means everyone has the opportunity to take part in community social and recreational offerings.
  • Step Two: Educate yourself about inclusion practices. Many excellent materials on inclusive recreation are available today. In addition to purchasing materials, agencies can invite an inclusion specialist to provide training on inclusion principles and practices. Effective social inclusion techniques include disability awareness orientations, peer partners, and cooperative learning.
  • Step Three: Identify inclusion barriers. Each community’s circumstances are unique, so it is important that people name the local barriers that stand in the way of inclusion. An advisory council of participants, parents, community members, and agency staff would be well-qualified to identify and prioritize obstacles.
  • Step Four: Take a creative, problem-solving approach to generate inclusion solutions. Approach each obstacle through a brainstorming technique. Think creatively about potential solutions, and initially refrain from criticizing anyone’s suggestion. Involve people with diverse perspectives, and focus on possibilities. Consider how networking, teamwork, and collaboration can move your initiative forward.
  • Step Five: Choose a solution and persevere until the barrier is removed. Select the most effective and realistic solution to each barrier, and develop a plan to implement it. Document your plan in writing, set a timeframe, and identify the people responsible for getting tasks done. Identifying specific outcomes – for example, scheduling staff training, building a ramp, securing funding for interpreters, or paving pathways at camp – will help you track successes.


The effort devoted to the removal of organizational barriers will be rewarded many times over as people work together to support inclusion. People with varying abilities will gain opportunities to live to their fullest potential, and each member of the community will find a greater sense of understanding, value, and belonging.