Seven kids in a day camp are involved in a small group activity. One boy is helping a younger boy cut egg cartons up to be used as pots for little plants. Two other kids are talking about the type of plant to use for the egg carton-pot. A trio of youngsters are preparing small clumps of soil and plants, which will be planted that day. The two employees work with each child individually, some more than others, to make this project happen. The staff call the kids by name. They remember who the children are making the little pots for, and know who needs help cutting or painting.

It sounds like typical day camp fun. Two things make this camp different, however. One is the small size of the group, which fosters interaction. The other is that one of these children has a visible disability. The boy helping a smaller camper cut the egg cartons uses a wheelchair, and was asked by the staff to help the youngest child in the group.


Scenes like this are happening in every region and every state. In communities where inclusion of people with disabilities has not happened, it will certainly happen soon. This article discusses why inclusion is spreading, how its benefits are changing parks and recreation agencies, and signs that identify inclusion exists in a community. It also offers advice about what you can do to make opportunities like these available for you or your family.

What is inclusion? The common definition emphasizes "involvement" of persons with different backgrounds. Drawing on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the "most integrated setting" is one in which persons with and without disabilities interact together. (See Title II regulation issued by the U.S. Department of Justice.) This is a very good, functional definition that gives consumers and parks and recreation professionals a measure for inclusionăinteraction.

There are more than 85,000 units of state and local government. Approximately 6,000 of these local governments have parks and recreation departments. No one knows for certain how many actually support recreation inclusion. We do know, though, that recreation inclusion opportunities have surged in the last five years as parks and recreation professionals have come to understand more and more about their ADA obligations and as society has demanded more accepting, inclusive environments.

The ADA requires that parks and recreation programs and services be provided in the "most integrated setting." While it does not prohibit special programs that are designed solely for people with disabilities it does require that where such programs exist, a choice of inclusive involvement also must exist." We understand the ADA. What we like about the way it affects our agency is that people with disabilities who want recreation have a choice about whether to go inclusion or to use our ĺspecial' programs. That's what it is all aboutăchoice!" says Terry Porter, the Executive Director of the Wilmette Park District in Illinois. As agencies have provided support for inclusion they have found new resources or moved resources formerly used for special programs.

Traditionally, most parks and recreation agencies did not understand inclusion. "In 1973, when we started to provide recreation for people with disabilities, we would never have thought about inclusion. Schools were not mainstreamed and the families of kids with disabilities that we knew wanted separate programs, so that's what we provided." says Connie Rein, Assistant City Administrator and former division head in the City of Albuquerque Parks & Recreation Department.

That sense of "who wants what" began to change in the late 1970's and early 1980's, when some persons with disabilities and families of kids with disabilities began to ask for inclusion. This trickle became a flood in the mid-nineties. Due in part to rising awareness of disability rights, word of mouth within communities about inclusion success stories and the occasional lawsuit under the ADA, public parks and recreation agencies began to devote resources to inclusion. "We had budgeted about $50,000 for inclusion support in 1995. By 1997 it had tripled, and by 1999 it had doubled again. Today, we spend nearly $500,000 annually on full time and part time support for recreation inclusion," says Marye Wells-Harley, Director of the Prince George County Parks and Recreation Department in Riverdale, Maryland. Now, from Bakersfield to Albuquerque to Wilmette to West Palm Beach to Providence, departments provide support that invites and nurtures successful recreation inclusion experiences.


As parks and recreation agencies have jumped into the inclusion pool, some have used different strokes than others. Just like swimmers, they have had varying degrees of success. But in each instance of inclusion success, the careful observer can see some common elements. These elements make up a consistent and effective inclusion process.

STEP ONE: Mission

A Mission or Goal regarding inclusion should be adopted for the parks and recreation department by the local community governing board. Most parks and recreation mission statements are a spin off of this theme: to provide safe and enjoyable recreation opportunities for all residents. The Howard County Recreation and Parks Department in Columbia, Maryland adopted an Inclusion Goal for its guidance. The Goal Statement is:

The Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks will provide the least restrictive environment in which an individual can function within a recreation setting, develop a climate of acceptance through community awareness and support in order to eliminate attitudinal barriers, and stimulate the greatest amount of enjoyment and participation in a general recreation setting.

Other departments can adopt language that suits their specific requirements. Language should address the most integrated settingăproviding support for inclusionăand describe the outcome desired, such as safe and enjoyable recreation participation for all. A strategic method for the Mission language is to have it presented to the governing board of the local government (city council, village trustees, county commission, etc.). Discussion of this issue and eventual adoption by the highest level of local government is a key to successful inclusion. Funding and other modifications are difficult to acquire without support from local elected officials.

STEP TWO: Welcoming Language

To attract participants, parks and recreation agencies can advertise their programs with seasonal brochures, flyers and registration discounts, and ads on radio, television and websites. The ads should be designed to make the programs sound fun and safe.




More stories from Laura San Giacomo issue:

James Cameron; PCRF Saves Coral Reefs

ADA Watch; Protecting Civil Rights

Inteview with Laura San Giacomo

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