Impact Feature Issue on Social Inclusion Through Recreation for Persons with Disabilities
Supporting Inclusion in Community Recreation:
Perkins School for the Blind
Individuals who are deafblind are often not included in recreational activities. The Perkins School for the Blind’s Deafblind Program gives deafblind students the knowledge and skills to be included into community recreation programs and be able to participate in activities with their same-age peers. Benefits of this participation include social experiences in the community, an increase in awareness of recreational opportunities within the community, a feeling of community involvement, and an increase in the level of perceived self-confidence and self-worth. When individuals with disabilities participate in the same activities and routines as their age peers, they gain a sense of normalization. And every time a student with a disability walks or rolls into a community center and independently uses the facility just like everyone else, it breaks down some barriers about what people with disabilities can do. These are just some of the goals the founding parents of Perkins envisioned for program participants when the Deafblind Program was founded in the 1880s.
Setting Up the Community Recreation Program
Though the roots of the deafblind program go back many years, the modern program works with individuals with varying degrees of vision and/or hearing loss. The program’s mission is to help our students reach their greatest potential using their existing vision or hearing. To fulfill this mission, Perkins employs the services of a very diverse and dedicated group of professionals. This interdisciplinary team includes classroom teachers; houseparents; program aids; vocational and independent living specialists; computer, low vision and mobility teachers; health services staff; psychologists; social workers; behavioral and educational specialists; speech, physical and occupational therapists; audiologists; adapted physical education teachers; and parents. It was the hope of program designers that the students would learn and benefit from the experience and continue using what they learned in the program after they graduated from Perkins. We wanted to teach our students in the community recreation program all the necessary skills, confidence, and self-esteem to successfully participate for a lifetime.
One of the first steps to set up the program was to set up a meeting with all relevant parties. The meeting involved the community recreation facility director, fitness director, aquatics director, and sports and recreation director, as well as our adapted physical education staff. With many topics on the agenda, communication was imperative so that the desired outcomes were easily attainable. We discussed the need for in-service training for community facility staff. A large majority of their staff had never seen or worked with the unique population that would be coming to their facility. Elements of the inservice included discussions on behavioral issues, modification of activities, communication strategies, disability awareness, and disability sensitivity training.
When talking to community recreation facility staff about our students it was necessary to protect student confidentiality. Anyone interested in starting a program of this nature must contact students’ legal guardians prior to disclosing names, identifying features, and any medical, behavioral or emotional problems of particular students. We found it necessary to talk about some of the unique characteristics that recreation staff would see. The rationale for this was to ensure the safety of our students and recreation facility staff, as well as any other community members that might be in contact with students.
There were many medical considerations that needed to be discussed and planned for prior to the implementation of the deafblind community recreation program. They included the following medical considerations, which can sometimes be overwhelming for community recreation staff if not explained appropriately:
- Joint instability
- Axio Atlanital instability (very common in students with Down syndrome)
- Muscular conditions
- Eye conditions
- Orthopedic impairments
- Heart/lung abnormalities
- Self-injurious behaviors
Because of their seriousness and potential for injury, it was necessary to discuss self-injurious behaviors in detail. Self-injurious behaviors can be very difficult for staff to understand, especially if the student has limited cognitive or communication skills. The onset can be from any number of reasons, including fear of a new environment; lack of ability to express discomfort, likes, or dislikes; or for no apparent reason. Self-injurious behaviors can range from pinching or slapping themselves to hitting their heads on objects. It was imperative that the safety of the student be a priority, so action plans were put in place on how to handle any situation that might arise. We recommended that any individual working with a student that exhibits these types of behaviors take a certified CPPI (crisis prevention and physical intervention) program.
One of the best strategies for supporting successful recreation participation is knowledge. We have found that knowing students’ unique needs is imperative. By understanding student needs, as well as likes and dislikes, the environment can be shaped to help facilitate a positive experience. A few examples are:
- Knowing what type of environmental factors will result in a negative experience for a student, and minimizing exposure to them. For instance, knowing that bright lights may cause discomfort for a student who is sensitive to sunlight, or that too many people around a child who is easily over-stimulated can trigger undesirable behaviors, is useful in selecting workout areas.
- Using familiar staff during the transition from one activity to another.
- Having a “relax” area for de-escalation of undesirable behaviors.
We have also found that the modification of activities is very useful in successfully including our students in a community recreational setting. Modifications include:
- Increasing or decreasing the time for a given activity.
- Changing the rules to make them easier to follow or more developmentally appropriate.
- Modifying the space needed to participate in different activities.
- Including different textured, colored, or sized equipment.
- Changing the location of the activity to limit external distractions.
The use of a total communication system within the program has also been very beneficial to the students. A total communication system can include the use of gestures, sign language, tactile sign language, Mayor Johnson pictures, symbols, verbal communication as well as expressive communication. Any of the above-mentioned communication methods can be used independently or combined as long as the student gains an understanding of what’s expected.
The use of peer tutoring within the inclusive environment has also been a very valuable tool for successful inclusion. Training peers in the community to work with our students helps both the student and peer in increasing skill and increases acceptance and inclusion.
Facilitating Transitions Between Settings
It is important to do everything possible to help increase students’ positive feelings about activities in new environments. There are many different strategies that we use to help facilitate a successful transition between settings. This transition process starts in our own facility where we try to simulate the new environment in a setting that fosters success and helps ease the anxiety of students. We start by making the routines as similar as possible to the recreation environment prior to participation in the new environment. For example, we have students change clothes in a different but controlled environment, or have them use the same equipment that they will be using in the new facility. We may also use the same order of activities as they’ll experience in the recreation facility, such as walking, then a sitting water break, then to the next activity. We have found it very helpful to our students as well as recreation staff to have a few “dry runs.” Our students get ready to go to the recreation facility, then go through all the routines that they would normally do in the community facility. We walk through the facility showing them where everything is, have them meet the facility staff, walk them into where they will change, show them the pool, bathroom, climbing wall, etc. They really benefit from walking through and tactually touching and exploring each piece of new equipment that they will be using. Making tactile maps also helps facilitate independence within the new environment. These tactile maps can be simple with glued yarn on the back of cardboard, or very elaborate with braille, pictures, and symbols. The more comfortable the student is in the new environment, the better the chances of success.
The majority of students in the recreation program are transition-age and soon will be leaving Perkins, so we teach them the skills to participate in recreation activities in their adult lives in a variety of settings. We start our students in activities matched to their present level of fitness and recreation experience, and gradually increase the level of difficulty. For many, this means beginning with a flexibility program, then moving on to using the treadmills, stairmasters, and recumbent bikes. After the students feel comfortable using some of the fitness equipment, we move on to using resistance equipment. We start using one or two machines that we know our students understand how to use. After they gain mastery over the machines, we make sure that each subsequent piece used is a little bit more challenging, but never to a point that they feel discouraged or frustrated. We also expose students to the aquatics center and the indoor rock-climbing wall.
Through the Perkins Deafblind Program, we have found that everyone benefits when individuals with disabilities are included in community recreation programs. With positive energy and persistence, all students with disabilities can and will reap the benefits from recreation participation.