Side by side at play, kids with special needs find inclusion in community recreation programs

Inclusion in recreation is an option many families may not be aware of, and the supports needed are provided at no cost to the participant, beyond the regular program fee charged by the park district or recreation department.

Photo courtesy of Northeast DuPage Special Recreation Association”

Inclusion, in which kids with special needs learn alongside normally developing children, helps with academic and social development, experts say.

Inclusion is all about choice and the special recreation associations in Illinois have been providing children and adults with inclusive recreation options for the past 20 years.

SRAs are cooperatives of local park districts and municipalities who join their resources together to provide diversified recreation opportunities for their residents with disabilities. They embrace the philosophy that not every child or adult with a disability requires specialized recreation programming, and that the choice of inclusion experiences is a vital part of their continuum of service options. Inclusion provides a child or adult with a disability the opportunity to recreate with nondisabled peers in park district or village recreation programs in the least restrictive environment.

Opportunities to participate in recreational activities are crucial for all children and adults. For example, one mom wanted her daughter, Nancy, to attend the local park district’s tap and ballet program. But having Down syndrome, Nancy needed more assistance than the instructor could provide. NEDSRA provided a “leisure buddy” and that successful inclusion experience enabled Nancy to be part of other programs on her own.

Inclusion experiences often enhance an individual’s self-esteem, foster improved physical and mental well-being and growth in cognitive and social skills-all while having fun. Parents may choose an inclusion setting for some experiences and the SRA’s more specialized program for other options.

Every inclusion experience will differ depending on the activity and the individual. The SRA staff will work closely with parents and local recreation/park district staff to provide the support needed. Examples include: disability in-service training with the community recreation staff, modification of the program activities to meet the needs of the individual, use of various types of adaptive equipment, provision of interpreters or the temporary support of one-on-one trained leisure buddies. The purpose of the leisure buddy is to provide overall guidance during the inclusion process while promoting natural supports among peers.

After careful assessment and consultation, implementation of one or all of these support techniques may be used to help ensure a positive and successful inclusion experience.

Larry Reiner is executive director of the Northeast DuPage Special Recreation Association and a member of the Chicago Special Parent Advisory Board.

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