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

Strengthening Relationships and Bodies:
Social Inclusion Through Recreation


Richard R. Owen is a Rehabilitation Medicine Physician in Eden Prairie, Minnesota

In 1940, at age 12, I contracted polio. Muscles in my legs and torso were paralyzed and then left weakened, and I was no longer able to stand or walk unsupported. Ten months later, and two months after I had begun standing and walking in braces and on crutches, my family went on a vacation into the northern Ontario wilderness. Within a few hours of arriving at Mongoose Lake at Mile 78 on the Algoma Central Railroad, my crutches slipped on a mossy log and I fell into the lake. That immersion was my reintroduction to the wilderness and reinclusion in a favorite family activity. That early return to a challenging physical activity helped me overcome many of the misgivings I had about my “limitations” and more quickly reintegrate into family life, public schools, and society.

Before my disability, I had enjoyed baseball, football, biking, and exploring with other children in the neighborhood. In the early 1940s, there were no organized adapted athletic programs in the schools or in the parks to allow me to continue these physical recreation activities, so until the 1970s my athletic and recreation endeavors consisted of swimming, canoeing, and camping with my family. Between 1946 and 1949, wheelchair sports were introduced in this country largely as a result of World War II and returning veterans who had been injured in the war. The University of Illinois and the Veterans Administration were largely responsible for initiating these programs, and the Stoke Mandeville Games in Great Britain drew international attention to wheelchair athletics. Wheelchair athletics opened opportunities for recreation and social connection for me before I needed to use the wheelchair for everyday mobility. Drawing on my professional experience as a rehabilitation medicine physician, starting in 1970 I served as an examiner and classifier of wheelchair athletes who were competing. Then in 1972 I became a competitor as well as classifier. I learned a valuable lesson in my first wheelchair track competition in 1974 at The Quad City Games in Iowa. In the 100-yard dash, I was in third place approaching the finish line. I raised my arms as a victory sign. As I did so, two racers passed me. I finished fifth. One of my teammates on the Rolling Gophers shouted, “Hey Doc, don’t celebrate until you cross the finish line.” I have not made that mistake again. I went on to compete in wheelchair basketball and wheelchair softball.

Wheelchair athletics teaches balance, coordination, strength training, and teamwork. There are a number of entry levels. For instance, in wheelchair basketball, there is recreational basketball as well as nationally competitive teams, and a number of universities have wheelchair basketball programs that encourage young athletes. Wheelchair games facilitate social integration at all levels of disability. The community recreational wheelchair sports program can be made available to people with a wider variety of abilities and disabilities than formally sponsored organized teams. In Eden Prairie, Minnesota, we started a wheelchair basketball program in the Parks and Recreation Department managed by the Adaptive Recreation Specialists. The direct supervisor is a high school student with an interest in adaptive recreation. The exercise is excellent. It is fun to have a workout that includes maintaining skills. I would like to have more sports chairs available for able-bodied individuals to further expand the circle of inclusiveness.

In 1990, I was invited to join the board of directors of Wilderness Inquiry. This organization had been created 12 years earlier with the idea that people of all ages, backgrounds, and levels of ability – including people with disabilities and chronic illness – could experience outdoor activities in wilderness areas with proper planning and staffing. The group experience in a wilderness setting was designed to achieve a special feeling of camaraderie for the participants, who were integrated groups of persons with and without disabilities. Wilderness Inquiry had staff training that was as wide ranging in its content as the participants were diverse in their ages, skills, and levels of ability. The mission statement sounded worthy. My professional involvement in rehabilitation medicine, my physical disability, and our family’s love of nature and camping seemed a good fit with this organization, so I joined the board.

My disability by then was becoming more of a handicap and I was using my wheelchair more for travel as well as recreation. The first Wilderness Inquiry trip that I took, in which my wife also participated, was to Lake Yellowstone in 1993. The trip leaders were two young people trained by Wilderness Inquiry. The 11 participants ranged in age from 10 to 68 years of age and came from New York, New Jersey, Ontario, Wyoming, and Minnesota. We gathered around a campfire at Grant Village on the first night in Yellowstone National Park. We were asked to introduce ourselves and give one or more expectations we might have for the eventual outcomes of the trip into the Yellowstone back country. Our focuses for outcomes were mainly in the areas of safety, fun, nature, and traveling in this magnificent park. As we paddled out into Lake Yellowstone in the voyager canoes the next day, we quickly learned of the cooperative effort involved, the pleasure in getting to know people, and the great skill of our Wilderness Inquiry trip leaders. Our first wilderness campsite was in a lovely setting in a burned out area with wildflowers, lush vegetation and fallen trees. It was delightful as a shared experience to wake up the next morning, on July 21, 1993, to frozen water in the water jugs and a reluctant camp stove. The weather, the area, and nature’s varied wonders were awe-inspiring. Underlying all of the fun, excitement, and challenge was the growing sense of community within our group. Shared concern for one another in the daily activities of setting up camp, preparing meals, cleaning up, loading and launching canoes, and talking around the campfire fostered strong social connections with our new friends. One exciting evening after dinner, we watched some of our group members fish for cutthroat trout. Hummingbirds visited the camp. Two otters swam by slowly with their heads and shoulders out of the water looking amused. Two mule deer walked into the campsite. A 10-year-old boy from Brooklyn said, “This is too much. I don’t know where to look first.” We shared his thrill. At our final meal together, we talked once more about what our expectations had been. We had canoed together for seven days. We had seen everything we had hoped for and more. Beyond our expectations, we shared the magical sense of achieving affection for one another. The Wilderness Inquiry mission was fulfilled. That success has been repeated on numerous occasions since then for us.

Social inclusion through recreation has for me been interesting and rewarding. Exercise incidental to recreational activity builds muscles, increases balance and skills, and burns calories. It provides the pleasure of meeting a variety of people from all backgrounds yet with shared values and interests. My family’s ability to reach wilderness areas and share the beauty and the adventure wilderness offers has provided us with the opportunity to continue our lifetime love of nature, camping, and canoeing. Sharing campsites, camp meals, and campfires with a diverse group of individuals is an extraordinary way to achieve social integration. This is enhanced by a staff trained in group dynamics, teamwork, assistive devices, negotiated assistance when necessary, and wilderness lore and responsibility. Today, our Wilderness Inquiry adventures continue to enrich the lives of myself and my wife with friendships, memories, pictures, and anticipation of future wilderness experiences.