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

Supporting Social and Recreational Choice-Making By Adults with Disabilities


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

Matt Ziegler is a Project Coordinator with the Institute on Community Integration

How can professionals and family members who provide supports to an adult with developmental disabilities facilitate the individual’s involvement in community recreation activities that are fun for the individual, based on his or her preferences, and provide opportunities to make friends? Over the past 15 years, staff from the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, have worked with adults with disabilities to discover ways that social inclusion through recreation can be supported. The insights gained through this work do not fit for all persons with developmental disabilities but can be viewed as a helpful starting point for exploring what may work with specific individuals.

Planning Participation

It is important to remember that persons with developmental disabilities must be intimately involved in any planning that focuses on developing inclusive recreational and social opportunities. Although individuals may need varying degrees of support, their participation is essential for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, individuals with disabilities are the ones most likely to know what types of activities they enjoy. In addition, they are likely to be able to play important roles in developing needed accommodations. Finally, having control over the activities in which they engage is likely to make them more motivated to participate.

Surveys and Checklists

When working to enhance inclusion, one must remember that many people with disabilities have experienced a limited number of recreational opportunities and may have a difficult time deciding what they want to do. Interest surveys and recreation checklists, whether administered verbally or through an alternative format (e.g., showing an individual pictures of various recreational activities), can be quite valuable in narrowing down the scope of alternatives from which persons will select. Staff or family members can create such surveys, taking into account what they already know about the person’s recreation preferences and activities available in the immediate area. Creating a “recreation resource log” is an additional way to increase the likelihood that persons will access the activities they enjoy. Individuals can create such a log themselves or together with family members and/or professionals. The log need not be complex and could include the types of activities in which a person currently takes part, how often these take place and last, costs, necessary supports, accessibility, opportunities available for the development of social relationships, and the extent activities are enjoyed. A log of this nature can be used in the future to help figure out new activities a person might enjoy and to successfully plan for them.

Roles for Family and Professionals

Closely tied to the participation of persons with developmental disabilities in recreational activities is the involvement of professionals and family members who support this outcome. Organizations that provide supports to individuals with disabilities must make sure that their staff is trained to function adequately in the role of bridge builders. This means not only taking advantage of available recreation opportunities but also creating opportunities where none exist and knowing how to facilitate the initiation of social interactions in the context of recreation settings. Family members must develop a knowledge of the individual’s strengths as well as support needs and be both willing and able to honestly communicate these to program staff prior to their family member beginning a program. Both staff and family must reconsider the idea that their primary role is to “protect” the person whom they support. This “protection” often results in individuals with disabilities not being allowed to face any risks or challenges, inadvertently serving as a barrier to participation.

Service Plans

One of the most critical things that must be considered when attempting to enhance recreational inclusion is to make sure that goals and objectives for recreation and inclusion have been included in any individualized plan the person may have (e.g., Individualized Service/Habilitation Plan, Individualized Education Program) and that methods for achieving these goals are developed and implemented. This makes inclusion just as important a piece of a person’s overall supports as any other and increases the likelihood that resources will be available.

Likes and Dislikes

People tend to be more likely to become friends with persons who are enjoying what they are doing. When considering the types of recreational activities in which individuals desire to take part, it is important that persons with developmental disabilities be supported to think carefully about what they like to do before joining a program. Individuals will have a better time and be more likely to make friends when engaging in activities that they find interesting. It’s especially important to make sure that people don’t fear things that they may have never done to such an extent that they always select the familiar. Unless individuals have tried an activity, it’s difficult to tell if they will like it. Most recreation programs don’t expect new members to be experts at an activity and allow individuals to take part in or observe what they do without the need to first join. This enables people to get an idea as to what an activity is all about.

Thinking Broadly

It’s all too frequent that persons supporting individuals with disabilities reach the conclusion that there are few if any opportunities available for inclusive recreation within their community, or that the resources are not available to support it. In most areas, however, there are a wealth of recreation opportunities that are under-utilized. Professionals and families can draw on existing community resources to find appropriate avenues for recreational inclusion. The Arc, People First, associations for blind and visually impaired persons, and Centers for Independent Living all have newsletters and/or compilations of programs and services in the areas they serve. Contacting the local parks and recreation board or community education agency and asking them what programs they offer, which community organizations are most active, and if they are equipped to serve individuals who may need support takes no more than a few telephone calls and has the potential to pay large dividends. For persons who are participating in the Medicaid Waiver program, investigating whether funding is available to defray the costs associated with recreational supports is well worth pursuing as is the recruitment of volunteers if staff are not available to provide supports.

When people think about recreation, they often think of nothing beyond competitive sports. But there are many activities out there for people who are not interested in competition. If individuals like the theatre, joining a community playhouse can provide them with an opportunity to meet people with similar interests even if they don’t act themselves. Helping out painting scenery or building props will bring persons into contact with others who have similar interests. If individuals are interested in singing, joining a church or community choir can put them into regular contact with persons who get enjoyment out of this activity. If people have an interest in an activity but need to learn more about it, community education classes can be an excellent way to accomplish this as well as meet people. Such courses are offered on a wide variety of topics ranging from bird watching to kayaking to building your own snowshoes.

Joining a community or volunteer group, such as a local Jaycees or Kiwanis Club, and serving as a volunteer for community activities is another excellent way to meet new people. Community organizations are always looking for new members and are especially pleased to have individuals interested in working to make their community a better place. Faith communities are also often overlooked as places to recreate and meet new people. Religious organizations often have singles groups, social action committees, environmental groups as well as many other opportunities for members to get together outside of services.

Regular Participation

If recreational pursuits are going to help people make friends, it’s critical that such activities take place on a regular basis. It is therefore important to consider how often a program or activity meets before a person decides to join. If a program meets two to three times a week or even once a week over a longer period of time, persons with disabilities will get a chance to know other people and others will get an opportunity to know the individual. This will make it much easier to establish friendships. Activities that take place on a more infrequent basis or are short-term, while valuable from a purely recreational standpoint, are unlikely to lead to an enhanced social inclusion.

Supports and Adaptations

Once one has decided on a recreation program in which to take part, it is important to ensure that program staff know what supports or adaptations, if any, are needed and how the person with a disability prefers them to be provided. This is information that should be provided to recreation staff before starting the program. If one is able to meet prior to beginning a program, it is also a good time to ask what participants need to bring with them and the skills they are expected to have.

Social Interaction

After starting a recreational activity, it is important for persons with disabilities to introduce themselves to others who are taking part. Exchanging information about interests goes a long way in helping to establish relationships. Sometimes, this can be done by the individual with developmental disabilities. In other cases, however, those supporting individuals with disabilities may need to assist them in introducing themselves and exchanging information about areas of interest. Discussions about similar areas of interest can occur while taking part in the program, such as when canoeing with a partner. Some recreational activities, however, don’t provide a chance for this activity. In these cases, inviting fellow participants to have a cup of coffee or a pop immediately after the activity might be necessary in order to get to know them better.

Making New Opportunities

Making the best use of available resources, providing ongoing opportunities for participation, and supporting persons in selecting activities most likely to lead to social relationships all have the potential to enhance inclusion. In some situations, however, it is possible that nothing of interest to the person is available, schedules do not mesh, or other barriers prevent the use of existing resources. Situations such as this, however, are not a reason to give up. In the movie Field of Dreams, the main character, upon questioning the feasibility of building a baseball field on his farm, hears the phrase, “If you build it, they will come.” He listens to this message, builds the ballpark, and is amazed at how it draws people from all over the country. In a similar manner, if few opportunities exist for recreational inclusion, families and staff need to create them. Scheduling an open-house for a residential program, organizing a block party, or hosting a holiday gathering or Super Bowl party are just a few activities that have the potential to bring persons with and without disabilities together. Although creating opportunities for inclusion where none have existed before is not easy work, in a manner similar to that experienced in the movie, you are almost sure to find that “if you build it they will come.”