for Adapting Activities in Recreation Programs and Settings
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by Tip Ray, M.Ed., CTRS
We know through research, anecdotal evidence, and personal
experience that people with disabilities benefit greatly when they participate in community
recreation programs and settings. Like their peers who may not have
disabilities, they learn how to make choices, take turns, follow directions,
and share and perform as a team. They learn the same leisure skills
and behaviors-although sometimes at a different pace and in a slightly
different way. From their peers, they gain respect, are appreciated,
are accepted, and, oftentimes, become friends. They learn how to play
and have fun in the same activities and places where their peers hangout,
and play and have fun.
|Fun at Summer Camp at Bradford Woods. Photo
courtesy of Bradford Woods.
We also know, through all the same ways, that people without
disabilities benefit from these interactions. Stereotypes are eliminated,
as people's awareness is heightened and attitudes change. When this
happens in a fun place - like a community recreation center or a
neighborhood ball field -new, more accepting, and, consequently,
more accommodating attitudes and behaviors find their way into other
areas of everyday life - at school, in the workplace, and when a
chance meeting happens at the grocery or in the neighborhood.
|Archery practice at camp. Photo courtesy
of Bradford Woods.
Finally, we know that community recreation agencies will
become more open and inclusive of people with disabilities when
they can see that ALL participants benefit from participating in
leisure activities and settings. While many state and federal laws
mandate equal access to recreation programs and environments, there
is still reluctance and, in many instances, resistance to institutionalizing
fully inclusive practices. Fear of the unknown, past practices,
and uncertainty about "how" to include people with disabilities
into recreation environments are several of the more prevalent obstacles.
With the support and involvement of advocates of inclusion - parents,
teachers, advocacy agency staff, potential participants both with
and without disabilities, as well as concerned and interested recreation
professionals, themselves - obstacles change to opportunities. Attitudes
and practices shift dramatically. Inclusive programs and settings
become the norm.
Including people with disabilities in community recreation
is both a goal and a process. The final outcome of the process is
the goal - i.e., people are, in fact, active and accepted participants
in community leisure experiences alongside their nondisabled peers.
There are many elements of the process that community recreation
providers should consider in their efforts to include people with
disabilities in program activities and settings. In fact, much has
been written about this topic in the past 20-plus years (see References
and Resources section). Suffice it to say that inclusion doesn't
just magically happen. It takes committed people, who apply certain
principles and systematic planning approaches to make certain that
at the end of the day, when the recreation center's light go out,
everyone who has come through the door has had a successful and
enjoyable leisure experience.
Let's believe, for now, that the recreation agency has
provided appropriate outreach to recruit participants with disabilities
into their program offerings, e.g., a summer day camp, craft class,
or sports league. Registrations start to come in and, among them
are several from persons who have disabilities. In the past, these
individuals would have been referred to special or adaptive recreation
programs where specially trained staff would know "what to
do." Times are changing and the new reality is that all program
offerings must be open and accessible. Assumptions are made that
these individuals require a full time aide to accompany and "help"
them. Assumptions are made that costly specialized equipment and
other scarce resources must be provided to accommodate these persons.
Assumptions are made about the value and worthiness of having this
individual in the program - What benefits are there for him or her?
How disruptive will they be to other participants? How much time
will it take from staff (i.e., away from the program and other participants)?
And, so on and so forth. Well, we all know what happens when we
A complete registration form would ask if the prospective participant
has a need for any special accommodations to be involved in the activity.
A common approach is for recreation staff to provide a follow-up phone
call to discuss these needs more specifically. Prior to this call,
staff should have a thorough knowledge of how the activity will be
implemented so that they can provide this overview to the participant
(or parent, caregiver, or other advocate), enabling this person to
detail if and when they may or may not need or desire assistance and
what that assistance may look like. (An excellent, easy to use preprogram
planning process to apply here is the Recreation Inventory for Inclusive
Participation (RIIP) described in Schleien, Ray, Green, 1997.) The
recreation staff may also choose to invite the prospective participant
to the recreation setting where the activity will take place for a
tour and meeting to discuss necessary accommodations. The individual,
or support person, should feel free to take the initiative and make
this suggestion, as well. Face-toface meetings go a long way in changing
attitudes and dispelling stereotypes.
|Horseback riding at summer camp. Photo courtesy
of Bradford Woods.
However, a critical question remains to be answered:
"If we do not want to get caught making inappropriate
assumptions when making decisions about the types and need for specific
program and activity adaptations, what principles can help guide
Consider that adaptations are normal strategies we all
create to enhance our participation in the many activities of our
daily lives, including our leisure lives - e.g., putting on sunglasses,
hat, and sun screen while at the beach; carrying a water bottle
to quench our thirst; wearing headphones while listening to our
portable cd player; changing into exercise clothes before our jog.
Adapting and modifying our approach to our leisure life has become
instinctual, intuitive, and, frankly, normal. However, because of
adaptations work or don't for people with disabilities, we just
need to apply our thinking process a little more thoughtfully and
systematically. Ironically, you'll find that more often than not
the adaptations you design will look familiar to those you may have
implemented for yourself and others at some other time! When considering
what adaptations to make, if any, there are several categories one
- Materials and Equipment
- Sport specific vs. standard wheelchairs;
- Shoe orthotics for runners;
- Braille and audio cassettes;
- Foam vs. solid balls and Frisbee disks;
- Batting tees;
- Paved vs. natural surface trails;
- Protective eyewear/ goggles vs. regular glasses;
- Fat crayons vs. regular crayons;
- Accessible play structures;
- Soap bar vs. wood for carving;
- Using an electric cart vs. walking a golf course.
- Rules of the Activity/Game
- Allow two-handed basketball dribble;
- Allow holding volleyball before throwing it over the net;
- Lowering the net; allow double bounce for tennis, ping-pong;
- Allow alternate ID - not driver's license - as collateral
to check out leisure materials;
- Having a "no strikeout" rule for baseball;
- Move closer to a target (archery, horseshoes);
- Having a pusher to run the bases.
- Procedural/Skill Sequence (i.e.,
rearrange component or typical steps of an activity or way of
- Dress in exercise clothing at home vs. locker room;
- Come earlier to class;
- Put food item in oven before turning oven on;
- Perform activity after observing others;
- Staff comes out from behind the high service counter to
talk with and register prospective participant;
- Staff calls/ meets with prospective participant prior to
program to assess possible accommodations;
- Uses a volunteer advocate or older sibling to assist with
- Gets credit for partial participation (i.e., doing what
- Cooperative groups take the place of individual performance
in art class;
- Implementing a school developed behavior modification program.
- Facility/Environmental (architectural)
- Upgrade/ retrofit facilities (bathrooms, doorways, ramps,
play structures) to enhance accessibility;
- relocate class to an accessible building;
- trim overhanging and intruding branches on a hiking trail;
- installation of an adjustable basketball backboard;
- a unisex changing room is designated.
Principles of Adaptation
The following represents tried and true principles when considering
the need for and types of adaptations necessary to assure that individuals
with disabilities are given every opportunity to have equal access
to and benefit from their participation community recreation activities.
(Schelein, et al., 1995; Schleien, Ray, Green, 1997; Wehman &
Schleien, 1981) Addressing each will make certain that recreation
program planners and activity leaders are addressing the real needs
of participants with disabilities. It's easy enough to do when one
cares about the process and the outcome!
Many people with disabilities lead very independent lives and require
very few additional accommodations and supports to participate in
leisure activities and environments beyond those typically employed
by most. Take the opportunity to review with prospective participants
the nature of the activity and allow them to tell you "I can
do this" or "I can't do that-here's what I need to assist
me." Use this as a basis for discussing specific adaptations
and other possible accommodations.
|A day at the beach. Photo courtesy of Bradford
Additionally, some providers fail to provide modified
environments as required by state and federal accessibility laws,
thereby limiting the choices and opportunities for people with disabilities.
They never see people with disability in the recreation settings,
thus assuming (there's that word again!) they aren't interested
Consider this corollary:
"Adapt when needed to increase a person's participation,
success, and enjoyment."
Here are some examples:
Roger, a state park administrator, budgets thousands of dollars
to pave all the trails in his park to make them "accessible"
for the few users he sees who have disabilities. He doesn't realize
that most of these users really prefer a more natural trail that
offers some challenges to navigate.
|Arts and crafts. Photo courtesy of Bradford
- Lindwood Recreation Center upgrades its facilities. The building
meets accessibility guidelines. Unfortunately, planners forgot
that people with disabilities might like access to the playground
- The city parks department conducts a community-wide
survey to determine the need for special recreation programs before
allocating scarce resources to hire staff and duplicate services.
The survey finds that people like what's currently being offered.
Resources are allocated to train existing staff on disability
awareness, upgrade accessibility in facilities, and to purchase
some adapted materials for possible use in the regular athletic
leagues. A contingency fund is set up to hire activity aides and
sign language interpreters, when needed.
Adapt on an individual basis
Be certain that adaptations, which are considered and
designed for an activity, are, in fact, relevant for a particular
participant. Oftentimes, recreation programs purchase modified or
specialized equipment (e.g., beeping balls for persons who are blind)
or hire extra staff in anticipation and assumption of its need by
prospective participants with disabilities. It's good to be prepared.
However, these can be costly additions and, as such, programmers
want to justify the expense by assuring its use, whether it's totally
necessary or not. In addition, stereotypes and attitudes about certain
types of disabilities create a mindset in programmers that certain
adaptations are always needed. Conversely, make certain that activity
adaptations and specialized equipment or acceptable alternatives
is available when needed. Foam Frisbees, batting tees, and activity
aides may be acceptable substitutes, which allow a person with a
disability an opportunity to play alongside his peers. Make them
available, when needed.
A portable ball ramp was purchased for the bowling league. Sarah,
a wheelchair user, registers for the league, but there is no discussion
about her accommodation needs. She shows up for the first event
and the recreation staff automatically sets up the ramp on the
alley for her use. She says she's happy they have that option
for her, but goes on to explain that she can bowl just fine without
Challenge course. Photo courtesy of Bradford Woods
The climbing wall. Photo courtesy of Bradford Woods
- Timothy is a youngster with cerebral palsy, which affects his
gait and motor control, registers for summer camp. His parents
are told that an activity assistant will be assigned to assist
this youngster in all parts of camp. Mom, upon hearing what the
activities will be, says thanks, but patiently explains that her
son is quite capable of participating in camp without the assistance
of an aide because many of his school friends have offered to
help when necessary. She says it would be nice if an aide can
assist him in the locker room as he prepares for and completes
the swimming activity.
- David, an adult with a hearing impairment, contacts the recreation
program office to express his need for a sign language interpreter
while attending the upcoming park planning board presentation.
The office communicates with him via the TTY. Staff anticipated
the need and has already hired two interpreters for the evening.
- Melissa's dad tells staff that she may need some extra assistance
in the arts and crafts class. The art teacher designs the class
so that students can participate in cooperative groups, thereby
helping one another finish their projects.
View any adaptations as temporary
Consider adaptations as transitional until the person
can learn the skills and behaviors to participate in the standard
or typical way. Some modifications, like use of a wheelchair, dog
assistant, or prosthetic device, may always be necessary. However,
prevent people with disabilities (or the recreation staff!) from
becoming unnecessarily dependent on these adaptations, thereby further
limiting future options and opportunities for this person to enjoy
these activities in more inclusive settings.
- Stephanie, a young woman with physical disabilities,
has been attending swimming classes under the guidance of a certified
therapeutic recreation specialist ever since her accident. Her
confidence, strength, and skills have improved. She says she's
ready to join the YWCA so she can continue swimming, as well as
meet other people. (Special recreation programs should serve as
stepping-stones to more inclusive opportunities.)
- Jill, the Adaptive P.E. instructor, has been teaching kids
how to play volleyball. For now, they are using beach balls and
are permitted to hold the ball before tossing it over a lowered
net. As skills improve, she begins to introduce more of the standard
rules and equipment. After all, her mission is to teach kids how
to play games like this when they go out into the "real world."
- Because of Bobby's repeated misbehavior during a weekly crafts
program, it was requested that one of his parents attend to help
intervene when needed. They did so. Later in the year, Bobby was
registered for another crafts class. Recreation staff requested,
once more, that one of Bobby's parents come along. With the cooperation
of Bobby's parents, his school teacher and the recreation staff,
a behavior program successfully used at school was implemented
that would eliminate the need for the parents to be there.
Adapt for Congruence
Any adaptations or modifications should make sense, not
only for the person using them, but to others observing their use.
Unique or exaggerated adaptations and modifications, i. e., those
which may not be usually seen or experienced by non-disabled participants,
may have an unintended consequence of further limiting the inclusion
and acceptance of the person with a disability. They may just seem
too "weird" or more importantly to youngsters, unfair.
In fact, they help reinforce stereotypes about disability and underscore
how different "these people" are.
- Ann wishes she could sit with the other parents
on the sidelines instead of being the only parent, except the
coach, helping her daughter, Molly, hit the ball and run the bases
during the T-Ball league. Mom feels embarrassed and the other
kids don't really understand why their parents can't help them,
too. Eventually, Dennis, a young, energetic high school student,
assumes this one-to-one role, plus helps coach the other kids.
Molly and her teammates think this is "pretty cool."
Mom thinks so too as she cheers along side the other parents.
- Simon has severe cerebral palsy which causes him to drool a
lot. At his home, terry cloth towels are tied around his neck
to help keep his clothes clean. When he wore these out into the
community people who he didn't know thought they were bibs; just
like babies wear. Now he chooses from a variety of bandanas he
collects on his travels.
Adapt for Availability
Adaptive equipment, materials and support provided in one recreation
environment may not be readily available in another comparable environment.
Consideration should be given to assuring that materials and services
(e.g., activity aides) purchased aren't so specialized that the participant
using these adaptations don't have their options and opportunities
limited to using them in only one setting.
|Photo courtesy of Bradford Woods
In addition, several companies sell specialized equipment
especially marketed to the disability community. Unfortunately,
because of the specialization in both types of material, as well
as the target customer, these products are quite expensive and difficult
to obtain. The average person may not be able to purchase these
Program planners should keep these issues in mind when
suggesting and designing adaptations. If children learn how to play
a game or sport using modified equipment at the neighborhood center,
parents should be able to purchase these same games and sports materials
at local discount retailers, plus have the know-how to modify them,
if necessary. People should know that if they decide to take an
art class at community education sites at different locations across
the city, adaptive materials and support would be available. It
does no good for people to become dependent on one location to meet
all their leisure and recreation needs. After all, the true essence
of the leisure experience is to be able to choose confidently among
many alternatives. People want to know that wherever they go and
whatever they choose to do, they will have the support they need
to be included and successful in this experience.
The parks department is sponsoring a bowling league at the Stardust
Bowling Lounge. They purchase a tubular steel bowling ramp in
case it's needed by a person with a disability. Because they think
bowling is a great activity, recreation staff has an agreement
with the bowling alley management to keep the ramp and provide
it for the use of any community member who has a need for it.
|Photo courtesy of Bradford Woods.
- A school has several activation switches they purchased from
a local company to assist persons with severe physical disabilities
to operate such items as a cd player, popcorn machine and battery
operated toys. They have a cooperative agreement with the recreation
department, which allows these, along with other expensive, adapted
equipment to be used during school vacations.
- Wilderness for All, Inc. (WAI) provides adapted canoe trips
on the local waterways. They have designed some very specialized
equipment to assist persons with disabilities to sit securely
in the canoe. Jim, a past WAI participant, has an opportunity
to go on a trip with some co-workers. He really could use this
adapted seating system, but it's not sold anywhere and WAI will
not loan their seating system for fear of a lawsuit. Jim can't
go with his friends. Adapting and modifying recreation settings
and programs is a typical and viable approach for addressing the
unique leisure needs and situations of all prospective recreation
participants - especially people who have disabilities. Because,
in the past, we have relied predominately on specialized staff
to address and meet the leisure needs of people with disabilities,
there is uncertainty about how to create programs that assist
people with disabilities to have a successful, enjoyable, and
truly inclusive leisure experience. Changing laws, new technology
and increased awareness require recreation providers to be more
inclusive in attitude and actions. Recreation programmers are
encouraged to continue to approach the task of addressing the
leisure needs of people with disabilities as they Photo courtesy
of Bradford Woods would with any other participant - professionally,
patiently and with an open and imaginative mind. The goal, after
all, is the same - the provision of quality recreation programs
and environments for all members of the community - including
people with disabilities. Best wishes and good luck!
About the author
Tip Ray is an author, practitioner, and consultant focusing
on inclusive and therapeutic recreation the past 20+ years. He is
active in outdoor pursuits - canoeing, backpacking, bird watching,
jogging, cross- country skiing. He is a certified official for the
sport of biathlon and will work at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympic
Games. You can contact Tip at: email@example.com.
Resources & References
Rynders, J. & Schelein, S. (1991). Together Successfully:
Creating Recreational and Educational Programs that Integrate People
with and without Disabilities. Arlington, TX: ARC-US.
Schelein, S., McAvoy, L., Lais, G., & Rynders, J.
(1993). Integrated Outdoor Education and Adventure Programs. Champaign,
IL: Sagamore Publishing.
Schelein, S., Meyer, L., Heyne, L., & Brandt, B. (1995).
Lifelong Leisure Skills and Lifestyles for persons with Developmental
Disabilities. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Schelein, S., Ray, M.T., & Green, F. (1997). Community
Recreation and People with Disabilities: Strategies for Inclusion.
Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Wehman, P. & Schlelein, S. (1981). Leisure Programs
for Handicapped Persons: Adaptations, Techniques, and Curriculum.
Austin, TX: PROED.