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  Access Today, Spring 2005 - Special Volume, Issue 18

Living Well in 2005! The Benefits of Leisure for People with Disabilities

By Elizabeth Hall, CTRS,
National Center on Accessibility

A woman pushes another woman in a wheelchair along a trail while accompanied by a man.

Park visitors enjoy a walk on the trail in early spring. Photo courtesy of the National Center on Accessibility.

According to a survey conducted by the National Organization on Disability (2004), individuals with disabilities felt 27% less satisfied with life than individuals without disabilities. Multiple factors affect our feelings toward life satisfaction such as family, community, school and work roles. When individuals do not feel satisfaction with life, their level of motivation to participate and contribute in these areas also decreases. General feelings of poor health may also be a consequence. Individuals with disabilities participate less often in leisure and recreation opportunities.

Since individuals with disabilities are more likely to feel less satisfied with life, we need to explore how participation in leisure activities can benefit and contribute to feelings of satisfaction and overall wellness among this population. While multiple facets may affect satisfaction levels, leisure is a major contributor to feelings of health, wellness and high quality of life.

Leisure is a means through which improvements can be made in areas such as physical, psychological and social wellness. Shank, Coyle, Boyd and Kinney (1996) believe recreation, leisure and play improve quality of life as well as “improve and maintain physical and psychological health and well-being” (p. 190). This paper will explore the benefits of leisure for people with disabilities, barriers to leisure participation and recommended resources for accessing leisure opportunities in your community.


Leisure, Recreation and Play

Leisure is a difficult word to define because of the subjective manner in which theorists define it. Godbey (1985, as cited in Goodale & Godbey 1988), a leading scholar in the field of leisure education, provides a definition of leisure which includes “freedom from” and “freedom to.” “Freedom from” refers to freedom from constraints including those that are cultural influences which the individual may not be aware of. Godbey also refers to freedom from obligations, work or other duties.

“Freedom to” refers to the freedom to do what an individual wants to do. It includes being free of the constraints referred to previously. Thus, participation in leisure activities can result when individuals feel freedom from obligations of work or other responsibilities and when they also feel freedom to choose among select activities. The ability to choose or make choices among a variety of activities can contribute to an individual's feelings of control and self-determination,

“I am going to choose what I will do today.” When individuals with disabilities experience a lack of freedom, self-determination and choice is one approach to overcoming those feelings. Individuals with disabilities should be able to choose how to spend their leisure time, whether it is going to a concert, swimming or spending a day at the park. By letting individuals with disabilities choose for themselves, they are able to feel more in control of their lives and enjoy the freedom to participate in activities they truly enjoy.

Your thoughts:

  • In what areas do you feel obligations?
  • What do you do to experience “freedom from” these obligations?
  • What areas do you feel you are able to choose or make choices?
  • What leisure choices do you make?

Most leisure activities involve intrinsic motivation. Goodale and Godbey (1988) go even further to say that leisure is done so through internally compelling love. This does not mean love for only a person; it can be for a place or an activity. The idea of internally compelling love includes what Godbey and Goodale call pushes and pulls. An individual is pushed by a something he or she desires to avoid and it is pulled by something that he or she enjoys or prefers. This means that leisure can only be comprised of those things that we are pulled to. By acting with this love or passion, it leads to actions which help to provide a basis for faith and which are intuitively worthwhile, which are the next parts of Godbey’s definition.

Your thoughts:

  • What motivates you?
  • What factors push you to avoid something?
  • What factors pull you toward something you enjoy or prefer?

Society exists within a set of morals and values. If something is intuitively worthwhile, then it usually resides within those morals and values. However, some things don’t require such justification, even to ourselves. There are many intuitive feelings that can’t be proven, but this does not make them any less worthwhile.

It also may take several attempts at specific activities to discover what is and is not worth doing. This appears to be a difficult aspect of leisure. While some individuals can at least identify what is worth doing, others cannot. Even those individuals that can identify what is worth doing most often do not end up doing it. Knowing what is worth doing may not be apparent on the first try.

Most individuals do not enjoy activities until they have gained the skills to appropriately participate. Learning such skills may require multiple attempts at the same activity. Leisure also provides a basis for faith. If an individual is truly participating in leisure, they will have faith in their abilities, themselves, the activity and others, if applicable. In this reference, faith includes belief and confidence. This aspect of the definition is closely related to self-efficacy, an important part of leisure.

When the individual has confidence in their abilities to participate in a given task, they will be more likely to enjoy it and will be more likely to be included in Godbey’s definition of leisure. Self-efficacy gained in leisure activities can transfer to other aspects of life. If an individual with disabilities gains confidence through a leisure activity, such confidence may carry over to a school or work setting, thus enabling the individual to become more successful in those traditionally structured environments.

Your thoughts:

  • What activities do you participate in that make you feel confidence in your ability?
  • Have you ever participated in an activity that you were not very good at to start?
  • Then the more you participated, the better you got?
  • How did you feel as your skills and ability started to improve?
Children climb on playground equipment while parents watch seated on a park bench.

Parents watch their children on the playground. Photo courtesy of the National Center on Accessibility.

Leisure, recreation and play are all very different concepts. The word recreation literally means to re-create one's self. Historically, recreation was meant to restore and refresh individuals for work. Today the word recreation conjures up the image of playing sports and having fun while temporarily forgetting responsibilities and duties. Recreation is an activity or experience chosen freely for fun and enjoyment (Bullock & Mahon, 1997). Play, however, is an activity chosen freely by the participant with a specific beginning and end. The outcome of play is uncertain, yet during play, rules and order can be established and learned. Children gain social skills as a result of play. Adults can also beneft from play; stress and chaos can be forgotten and order can be restored. An important component of play is the respect of opponents regardless of who wins or loses (Goodale & Godbey, 1988). Rieber (1996) believes play to be voluntary, intrinsically motivated, involving physical activity and having a make-believe quality.



Benefits of Leisure

A benefit of leisure is a positive and beneficial change in an individual as a result of leisure participation. A benefit can include simply maintaining a level of functional independence which would have otherwise declined without leisure interventions (Mannell & Kleiber, 1997). Before identifying the benefits of leisure, the barriers should be mentioned.

Barriers to Leisure

Many individuals with disabilities aren't given freedom regarding their leisure or recreation activities. Many individuals without disabilities have developed a passion for a particular leisure activity; individuals with disabilities should have the same opportunity to form such feelings. Project GAIN (Golf: Accessible and Inclusive Networks), a program through the National Alliance for Accessible Golf, is a community based program which utilizes golf to facilitate community inclusion (n.d.).

One stroke survivor, a participant in Project Gain, stated “I can't talk enough about this program. It's fantastic… the friends I have made. I now play golf at least once a week. I couldn't do anything before but now I know I can. I think it's a fantastic program. We need more.” When individuals with or without disabilities lack the autonomy or freedom to participate in leisure activities, quality of life and degree of wellness begins to diminish. Participation in what the individual perceives as a meaningful experience or activity can contribute to feelings of wellness.

Individuals with disabilities often face increased constraints to participation in leisure and recreation. Attitudes, inaccessible environments and a limited understanding of possibilities prevent individuals with disabilities from benefiting from leisure and recreation. Health and physical functioning are the biggest barriers to leisure for individuals with disabilities (McCormick, n.d.).

Transportation, money and time are also identified as barriers. Architectural barriers are slowly receding with the assistance of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) enacted in 1990. The ADA provides individuals with disabilities civil rights protections and guarantees equal opportunity. Society, however, is slower to change. The stigma of having a disability, especially a disability others can see, still exists. Attitudes have been slowly changing by educating the public about disabilities.

Unfortunately, individuals with disabilities are less likely to be involved in community recreation programs when stigmatizing attitudes are present (West, 1984). Identifying barriers or constraints to leisure is the first step to overcoming them.

Your thoughts:

  • What constraints prevent you from participating in leisure activities?
  • How do you or can you overcome such barriers?

Cooper, et al (1999) states that disability can cause deterioration in physical functioning which can lead to even further decrease in physical activity, or “a cycle of deconditioning” (p. 143). The National Health Interview Survey (2004) found that in the first six months of 2004, less than 35% of adults regularly participated in physically active leisure time activity. Since only one-third of people without disabilities are physically active, one can imagine how few individuals with disabilities are physically active.

The physical benefits of leisure have a significant amount of supportive research. Santiago , Coyle and Kinney (1993) conducted a study utilizing an exercise group and a non-exercise (control) group. They discovered that the exercise group made sweeping improvements in functional capacity while the non-exercise group exhibited declines. Physical activity does not have to be strenuous.

Passive activities can also be utilized. Yoder, Nelson and Smith (1989) utilized a cooking group which improved range of motion for participants. Participating in leisure or recreation which involves physical activity helps contribute to overall increased wellness. Regular physical activity decreases the risk for health problems such as obesity and heart disease. Physical benefits can include:

  • Decrease in blood pressure
  • Decrease in heart rate
  • Increase in bone mass and strength
  • Increase in lung capacity
  • Reduction in incidence of diabetes
  • Increase in muscle strength
  • Increase in sense of well being
  • Increase in flexibility, balance and coordination
  • Improvement in immune system (Ayvazoglu, Ratliffe & Kozub, 2004; Academy of Leisure Sciences , n.d.).

Unfortunately, individuals with disabilities tend to live a sedentary lifestyle (Ayvazoglu, Ratliffe & Kozub, 2004). Leisure is an ideal way to engage such individuals in physical activity. Since leisure includes autonomy and self-determination, it provides individuals with opportunities to choose activities they enjoy and participate as they desire. Again, leisure provides freedom to individuals with disabilities that may otherwise be lacking from life.

Emotional Benefits of Leisure

Emotional as well as social benefits can come from engaging in physical recreation. Leisure benefits individuals both emotionally and psychologically in many ways. The emotional psychological benefits of leisure are slightly more difficult to prove with research. Although less scientific evidence exists, there is substantial belief that these benefits exist and considerably enhance the lives of individuals as well as benefit society as a whole. Participation in leisure activities can lead to increases in:

•  Happiness

•  Life satisfaction

•  Morale

•  Self-concept

•  Self-esteem

•  Perceived sense of freedom

•  Independence

•  Autonomy

•  Self-confidence

•  Leadership skills

•  Tolerance/Understanding

•  Problem solving skills (Mannell & Kleiber, 1997; The Academy of Leisure Sciences, n.d.).

This is not an exhaustive list of benefits. The emotional benefits of leisure can vary depending on the individual. The benefits for older retired adults will differ from a single parent with two children and a full time job.

Economic and Environmental Benefits of Leisure

The economic benefits of leisure are more obvious than the emotional or physical benefits. When individuals spend money on leisure pursuits, they benefit the economy. Travel and tourism are massive revenue generators. Travel and tourism can also benefit the environment. One reason cited for preservation of environmental areas includes the opportunity for recreation. Outdoor recreation is a booming industry and while they provide services to individuals within the outdoors, they also are conscious of their presence in such a natural environment. Most agencies make a conscious effort to preserve and protect the outdoors as much as possible.

Social Benefits of Leisure

Leisure provides an opportunity for socialization, as most individuals pursue leisure activities with others. When individuals experience adventures or engage in activities together they become bonded from such shared experiences. Social cohesion and integration can also occur. According to Indiana University Professor, Bryan McCormick (personal communication, November 17, 2004 ), social support systems such as family and close friends are beneficial regardless of level of stress. According to Schleien, Ray and Green (1997) participating in recreational activities for individuals with disabilities is crucial in “successful community adjustment” (p. 1). Socialization also helps individuals to learn and maintain appropriate social skills and abilities. Socialization is crucial for childhood development. Through socialization, individuals can also learn acceptance of others who are not like themselves. Inclusive recreation is an optimal method for individuals to gain acceptance.

Inclusive Recreation

Individuals tend to gravitate and socialize with other individuals who are similar to themselves. Inclusive recreation programs offer opportunities for individuals to socialize and participate together in non-threatening environments and activities. Inclusive recreation takes place when individuals of all abilities participate in a recreational activity together in an attempt to decrease barriers to leisure by utilizing adaptations and programming accommodations. By leveling the playing field, the opportunity for social acceptance is greater (Devine &Wilhite, 2000).

Inclusion is crucial especially for children. Children with disabilities sometimes face their greatest difficulties due to social isolation, not to their disabilities. Children learn from one another and when children without disabilities are exposed to children with disabilities at a young age, they are more accepting of others and each individual's unique abilities. Inclusion helps individuals with disabilities to feel as if they fit in and are part of the community. It facilitates the process of individuals with disabilities becoming role models (Schleien, Ray & Green, 1997). It may also motivate in a way that parents or caregivers cannot. During play, children with disabilities often imitate the behavior of individuals without disabilities which can be highly motivating. Inclusive recreation provides individuals with disabilities:

•  Opportunities for interactions

•  Friendships

•  Peer role models

•  Communication skill

•  Physical fitness

•  Self-esteem

•  Stress-management

•  Reduces loneliness

•  Develops leisure skills (FPG Child Development Center, 1997).

Special recreation is recreation programming which provides special accommodations for individuals with disabilities. Due to the unique abilities and needs of individuals with disabilities, such programs are usually segregated from groups without disabilities (Bullock & Mahon, 1997). Recreation for individuals with disabilities does not have to be limited to “special recreation” or recreational programming specific to individuals with disabilities. Such programs should be utilized as a stepping stone to inclusion. Inclusive recreation provides adaptations for the activity so that individuals of any ability can participate.

The benefits of inclusive recreation are not limited to the individuals with disabilities. Individuals without disabilities benefit from inclusive recreation as well. Staub and Peck (1994) identified benefits for individuals without disabilities participating in inclusive educational classrooms. While these benefits are targeted towards the classroom, they can be applied in recreation and leisure settings. They stated that inclusion helps to decrease fears in the differences between children with disabilities and children without disabilities. When individuals become more aware of their own biases and stereotypes and more comfortable with others who are different, individuals with disabilities become more accepted into the group or community.

The second benefit identified by Staub and Peck (1994) is one of social cognitive growth. When non-disabled students assisted individuals with disabilities, the non-disabled individuals demonstrated positive feelings due to assisting others. The non-disabled students also became tolerant of others as they started to become aware of the needs of the students with disabilities. Instead of labeling others, the students without disabilities began to accept all peers.

Thirdly, the non-disabled students had increases in self-esteem due to their relationships with individuals with disabilities. Not only have benefits in self-esteem been noted, but also in the areas of self-concept and social cognition (Schleien, Ray & Green, 1997). Some non-disabled students serve as role models in teaching capacities which help to develop leadership skills. The prejudices of non-disabled students for individuals different from them are diminished and growth in moral and ethical principles occurs. The non-disabled students often become advocates for individuals with disabilities. Finally, the non-disabled individuals and the individuals with disabilities develop meaningful and long-lasting friendships as a result of their relationships together. The benefits observed in students are to a greater or lesser extent also applicable to nonstudents and adults as well (Staub and Peck, 1994).

The leisure benefits for individuals with and without disabilities are diverse and numerous. Recreation and leisure provide fun and enjoyment while benefiting individuals socially, emotionally, psychologically and physically. Even though not all benefits available from leisure and recreation are listed within this paper; enough are shown to demonstrate how appropriate leisure activities are needed in all of our lives. For individuals without disabilities, participating in recreational or leisure activities inclusively provides many benefits that may not be apparent at first glance. For individuals with disabilities, leisure is a means to pursue freedom and independence while improving quality of life. Physical activity can benefit individuals not only physically, but psychologically and socially as well. Keep in mind that physical activity does not need to be strenuous but includes passively active experiences. Leisure can be a vehicle to provide all individuals with a better quality of life and help achieve a sense of satisfaction with life. People with disabilities can especially benefit from leisure when utilized to maintain or improve their current level of functioning. Leisure can help bridge the gap of what is sometimes lacking within work, social or home settings. Leisure is one facet in the path to optimal wellness. Leisure is important for all people, but especially for individuals with disabilities.

Finding Leisure Interests

Local communities hold a wealth of untapped resources to locate leisure interests. Simple items such as the local newspaper, entertainment guides, bulletin boards and radio stations can provide ideas and locations for recreational opportunities. Visitor's centers and Chambers of Commerce often are sources of brochures, pamphlets and other information in each town. Local libraries also often have brochures or bulletin boards for local events and information.

Your thoughts:

Use the resources listed below to identify 5 leisure activities or programs in your community.








Each week, over the next 5 weeks, select one activity or program to explore. After participating in the activity or program, how did you feel:






What are some ways you can include leisure activities as part of your regular schedule?




Leisure can benefit individuals socially, mentally, physically and emotionally. Even economic and environmental benefits exist. Most individuals within society can readily identify benefits of leisure and recreation. Leisure can affect specific areas of life such as interpersonal relationships, family life, learning in school and even work.

National Center on Physical Activity and Disability (NCPAD)

NCPAD provides several articles on various sports for individuals with disabilities. In addition, the NCPAD searchable database lists a number of recreational programs and organizations. Search the database for programs in your community.



Local Park and Recreation Departments

City parks and recreation departments often distribute program guides advertising their classes and activities. More and more, city parks and recreation departments are utilizing inclusive recreation programming. Check the yellow pages of your phonebook under “recreation” or “city government” to locate your local park and recreation department. Be sure to ask about inclusive recreation when contacting parks and recreation.


State park and recreation affiliates



National Recreation and Park Association



National Recreation Areas

Local, state and national parks offer many accessible trails and outdoor experiences. The National Park Service lists accessibility of parks on their website and can be contacted by phone for information regarding accessible recreational activities. www.nps.gov



With over 2,500 locations throughout the United States , the YMCA is the largest non-profit community association in America . Each YMCA offers a unique blend of programs and services, from childcare to art and fitness classes. YMCA's can be found under "Exercise and Physical Fitness Programs" in your yellow pages. Or, use the following link to find a location near you: www.ymca.net


Similar to the YMCA, the YWCA offers wellness and recreational programs geared more specifically towards women and children. Find a YWCA in your area by checking the yellow page listings in your local phone directory or search the YWCA web site. www.ywca.org

Boys & Girls Clubs

The Boys and Girls Club of America youth organization provides children with structured programs in arts, education, the environment, recreation, leadership, and health. With 3,400 locations, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands , the Boys and Girls Club of America has served more than 4 million boys and girls. Check the yellow pages under "Youth Organizations and Centers" or go online to search for the nearest club. www.bgca.org/clubs

Special Olympics

Joining Special Olympics can be a good opportunity for socialization and increased physical fitness. Many local chapters offer a variety of activities from swimming to track and field. www.specialolympics.org

National Wheelchair Basketball Association

If an individual with a disability has identified a specific leisure interest, some associations can be located for those activities. For example, the National Wheelchair Basketball Association or a local team is an option for an individual who enjoys wheelchair basketball. www.nwba.org

For additional resources

To locate additional leisure opportunities in your community or nationally, read “What to Know Before You Go: The Big Questions to Ask Before Arriving at Your "Accessible" Recreation Destination” by Susan Ostby and Jennifer Skulski, National Center on Accessibility, www.ncaonline.org/monographs/13questions.shtml

About this Monograph

These materials were developed by the National Center on Accessibility for the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability under sponsorship of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About the Author

Elizabeth Hall, CTRS is a master's student at Indiana University specializing in therapeutic recreation. She received her undergraduate degree in therapeutic recreation from Indiana University as well.


Academy of Leisure Sciences . (n.d.). Benefits of leisure . Retrieved December 20, 2004 , from http://www.academyofleisuresciences.org/alswp7.html


Ayvazoglu, N.R., Ratliffe T. & Kozub F.M. (2004, Nov/Dec). Encouraging lifetime physical fitness. Teaching Exceptional Children 37 (2), 16-20.


Bullock, C.C. & Mahon, M.J. (1997). Introduction to recreation services for people with disabilities: A person-centered approach. Champaign , IL : Sagamore Publishing.


Devine, M.A. & Wilhite, B. (2000, Fall). The meaning of disability: Implications for inclusive leisure services for youth with and without disabilities. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration 18 (3) 35-52.


Cooper, R.A., Quatrano, L.A. , Axelson, P.W., Harlan, W., Stinement, M., Franklin , B., et al. (1999, April). Research on physical activity and health among people with disabilities: A consensus statement. Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development 36 (2), 142-153.


FPG Child Development Center . (1997). Quick notes, inclusion resources for early childhood professionals . Carrboro , NC : University of North Carolina .


Mannell R.C. & Kleiber, D.A. (1997). A Social Psychology of Leisure . State College , PA : Venture Publishing.


McCormick, B.P. (n.d.). People with disabilities – national survey of recreation and the environment . Retrieved December 20, 2004 , from National Center on Accessibility Web site: http://www.ncaonline.org/rec-leisure/nsre.shtml


National Alliance for Accessible Golf. (n.d.). Project GAIN . Retrieved January 8, 2005 , from http://www.accessgolf.org/projectgain/index.shtml


National Center for Health Statistics. (2004). January – June 2004 national health interview surveys . Retrieved on December 18, 2004 from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/about/major/nhis/released200412.htm


National Organization on Disability. (2004). S urvey of Americans with disabilities. Washington D.C. : Author. Retrieved on December 18, 2004 from http://www.nod.org/content.cfm?id=1537


Reiber, L.P. (1996). Seriously considering play: Designing interactive learning environments based on the blending of microworlds, simulations, and games. Educational Technology Research & Development 44 (2), 43-58.


Santiago , M., Coyle, C. & Kinney, W. (1993). Aerobic exercise effect on individuals with physical disabilities. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 74 , 1192-1198.


Schleien, S.J., Ray, M.T. & Green, F.P. (1997). Community recreation and people with disabilities: Strategies for inclusion (2 nd Ed.). York , PA : Maple Press Company.


Shank, J.W., Coyle, C.P., Boyd, R. & Kinney, W.B. (1996). A classification scheme of therapeutic recreation research grounded in the rehabilitative sciences. Therapeutic Recreation Journal 30 (3), 179-197.


Staub, D. & Peck , C.A. (1994, December). What are the outcomes for nondisabled students? Educational Leadership 52 (4), 36-40.


West, P.C. (1984). Social stigma and community recreation participation by the physically and mentally handicapped. Therapeutic Recreation Journal 26 (1), 40-49.


Yoder, R., Nelson, D. & Smith, D. (1989). Added purpose versus rote exercise in female nursing home residents. American Journal of Occupational Therapy 43 (9), 581-586.


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