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Community Integration Report

Supporting Children and Youth with Disabilities in Integrated Recreation and Leisure Activities

by Pam Walker and Bonnie Shoultz, Center on Human Policy

Children and youth with disabilities need opportunities to enjoy recreational and leisure activities with others their age who do not have disabilities. (Schleien & Ray, 1988). Parents and children have always known the importance of integrated activities. Ask any group of parents, and they will tell you about informal ways - often creative and ingenious - in which children with disabilities have been involved in neighborhood play.

This involvement may require some thought and commitment on the part of parents or children, as when a family installs a swimming pool and invites everyone over for swimming parties, or when a group of children reinvents a child's wheelchair for use as a "car" in their games. Spontaneous play and friendships within the neighborhood are often some of the most cherished experiences for any of us, whatever our abilities.

Organized recreational activities are another important experience for children. Too often, children with disabilities do not get to participate in sponsored activities (such as Scouting, sports, dances, art classes, and camping) with nondisabled children their age. Often, needed support is not available unless a children their age. Often, needed support is not available unless a parent provides it (Walker, 1990). However, many agencies are now looking at how to provide this kind of support, as opposed to support for activities limited to children with disabilities. This article will explore some of the components of support for such participation, including a) supports based on a value or belief in integration for all, including children and youth with severe and multiple impairments; b) supports that promote social interaction and friendships; and c) supports that are both individualized and flexible.

Integration for All

Efforts to provide support for integrated recreational experiences must be based on the belief that integration is possible for all children (Lord, 1981). Agencies and individuals providing support must accept the challenge of figuring out (along with the child with disabilities, the family, friends, and others who know him or her well) how best to promote participation and interaction, and how to help make this possible.

As long as children who are seen as having severe or complex disabilities are not provided support for integration, all children are vulnerable to a return to segregation. However, accepting the challenge of integration for all will mean more and better opportunities for children whose disabilities are viewed as mild or moderate.

Supports that Promote Social Interactions and Friendship

Friendship are vital to a happy life. Therefore, integration must include a social as well as a physical dimension. Recreation and leisure activities allow people to have fun, relax and meet others who share similar interests and may become friends. Often, however, when people with disabilities attend activities in integrated settings, they experience little or no social interaction with the people around them.

To promote interaction, someone may need to provide support to get the child involved with other children and to create opportunities for friendships to grow (Walker & Edinger, 1988). There are a number of ways to accomplish this.

  • Involvement with other children. The persons providing support should, where possible, get to know the nondisabled children, engaging them and providing a connecting link between these children and the child with disabilities. Such a facilitator should not be seen as the person who relates only to the child with disabilities.
  • Modeling for others. The person providing support should be aware that his or her interactions with the youth with disabilities can serve as model for other children and adults. This may be particularly important in assisting others in areas such as communicating with the person, and responding to behavior that does not appear appropriate to the activity.
  • Backing off. Often, interactions occur without any involvement of a support person. At times, in fact, the presence of an adult may inhibit interactions, and it may be necessary to "Back off" and let things happen on their won (Savard, 1988).
  • Interactions in the context of activities. It is essential to observe the interactions of others in the setting. For instance, what types of interactions occur, and at what times? Some activities are more conducive to getting kids together than others. The person providing support must notice and promote opportunities for interaction, even if that means revising plans for teaching skills to allow for spontaneous play. Not all interactions are verbal. Cheering together, sitting together and watching an event, and working as a team to build something are examples of nonverbal interactions.
  • Opportunities for friendship. Integration is no guarantee that friendships will develop between children. However, integrated leisure and recreational activities, given adequate and proper support, can provide many opportunities for children to have fun, get acquainted, develop friendships, and experience increased bonding in neighborhoods, schools and communities.

Individualized and Flexible Supports

Individualization and flexibility means that the types of support should be based on the needs of the particular child, and should be adaptable, taking into account the child's changing needs (Schleien & Ray, 1988; Walker & Edinger, 1988). Key elements of individualized and flexible supports include the following:

  • Getting to know the child and teen. This is a first and most important step in the process. It is important to see support as occurring within the context of a relationship. In this context, determination of the most helpful kinds of supports, and which strategies will work best with this young person, is likely to take time.
  • Teaching needed skills. Skill acquisition, while important, needs to be balanced with other aspects of social interaction, and should not determine the exact nature of the child's participation in an activity. Several points need to be made:
    a) Skills must be learned within a context, not in isolation (e.g., not just using basketball drills, but learning basketball within the context of a game, with rules and regulations, teamwork, etc.);
  • b) Skills and behaviors indirectly associated with an activity are important (e.g., learning to cheer for a team on the sidelines with teammates or to celebrate a team victory, as well as learning the game);

    c) Children need varying amounts of time to learn new skills, routines and activities.
    Adapting activities/partial participation. Use of adaptations and partial participation allows all children to take part in a wide range of activities (Baumgart, et al., 1982). One type of adaptation is a change in the nature of an activity, with an emphasis on cooperation vs. competition.
    The types of adaptations used may serve as models for others in the activity, who may imitate and/or come up with new or different ways to involve the child.

  • Offering help only when needed. Too much support, particularly by an adult, can create barriers. The child may not learn what is needed in the setting or activity, and others may not get involved or learn how to help the child. It is important to be conscious of a child's needs for direct support and to know when to back off.

Over time, all children, including those with the most severe disabilities, can be assisted with needs for greater participation in activities and more interactions with others. The assistance does not necessarily require people who are specially trained in developmental disabilities or recreation (Schleien & Ray, 1988). While the "experts" may help provide direct or indirect support or consultation, what is needed is: People who know the child, or who are willing to get to know the child well; enthusiastic people knowledgeable about the particular activity; people who are willing and able to involve themselves with everyone in the activity, not just the child with disabilities; and people who are committed to the person with a disability, and to facilitating his or her participation and integration. AS with integration, development of spirited commitment often takes time, and will only occur as people get to know children and youth with disabilities, learn ways they can participate and interact with others, and recognize the benefits for all people in the activity or setting when children with disabilities are assisted with participation (Schleien & Ray, 1988).

Resources: Where Can I Learn More?

Here are a few references on supports for integration. Each of these will lead readers to many other excellent materials.

Baumgart, D., Brown, L., Pumpian, I., Nisbet, J., Ford, A., Sweet, M., Messina, R., & Schroeder, J. (1982). Principle of partial participation and individualized adaptations in educational programs for severely handicapped students. Journal of The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 8(3), 71-77.

G. Allan Roeher Institute (Eds.) (1988). The pursuit of leisure: Enriching lives with people who have a disability. Downsview, Ontario: The G. Allan Roeher Institute. Write to The G. Allan Roeher Institute, 470 Keele Street, Kinsmen Building, York University, Downsview, ON M3J 1P3, CANADA.

Lord, J. (1981). Participation: Expanding community and leisure experiences for people with severe handicaps. Downsview, Ontario: The G. Allan Roeher Institute (address above).

Rynders, J. E. & Schleien, S. J. (1991). Together successfully: creating recreational and educational programs that integrate people with and without disabilities. Association for Retarded Citizens of the United States, P. O. Box 1047, Arlington, Texas 76004. $12.50 including postage.

Savard, C. (1988). Taking part in the dream. In G. Allan Roeher Institute, (Eds.). The pursuit of leisure: Enriching the lives with people who have a disability (pp. 39-42). Downsview, Ontario: The G. Allan Roeher Institute.

Schleien, S. J., & Ray, M. T. (1988). Community recreation and persons with disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Strully, J. & Strully, C. (1985). Friendship and our children. Journal of The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, (10(4), 224-227.

Walker, P. (1990). Resources on integrated recreation/leisure opportunities for children and teens with developmental disabilities. Syracuse, N.Y.: Center on Human Policy (COST: $2.35 plus 10% for postage and handling). Please write to Rachael Zubal, Center on Human Policy, 200 Huntington Hall, Syracuse, NY 13244-23450 or call (315) 443-3851.

Walker, P. & Edinger, B. (1988). The kid from Cabin 17. Camping Magazine, May, 19-21.

This article was prepared by the Research and Training Center on Community Integration, Center on Human Policy, Division of Special Education and Rehabilitation, School of Education, Syracuse University, with support from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, through Cooperative Agreement H133B00003-90. No endorsement by he U.S. Department of Education of the opinions expressed herein should be inferred.

Reprinted with permission from ARC at
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