*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
We are increasingly aware that children and youth with disabilities need opportunities to participate in recreational and leisure activities with typical kids of the same age (Schleien & Ray, 1988). Parents and children have always known how important these activities are. Ask any group of parents, and you will hear anecdotes about informal ways in which children with disabilities have been involved in neighborhood play. This involvement may require some ingenuity and commitment on the part of parents or children, as when a family puts in a swimming pool and invites neighborhood children for swimming parties, or when a group of children incorporates a child’s wheelchair as a “car” in their games. Play and friendships within the neighborhood are often some of the most important childhood experiences for any of us, whatever our abilities.

Organized recreational activities are another important level of experience for children. Too often, children with disabilities have not been given opportunities to participate in organizedactivities (such as Scouting, sports, dance and art classes, camping, and a myriad of others) with typical children their age. Often, the support that may be needed is not available, unless a parent provides it (Walker, 1990). However, many agencies are now looking at how this kind of support, as opposed to support for activities involving groups of children with disabilities, can be provided. 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 are both individualized and flexible; and c) supports that promote social interactions and friendships.

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 thechild with disabilities, the family, friends, and others who know him or her well) how best to promote participation and interaction, and how to provide the supports to 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. Conversely, 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 Friendships

Friendships are important for all people (Strully & Strully, 1985). 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 (G. Allan Roeher Institute, 1988). 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, a person may be needed 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 person providing support should, where possible, get to know the other children, engaging them and providing aconnecting link between these children and the child with disabilities. This person 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 a 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 serve as a barrier to interactions, and it may be necessary to back off consciously and let things happen on their own (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, or parts of activities, are more conducive to interactions than others. The person providing support must notice and take advantage of the opportunities for interaction, even if that means revising plans for skill acquisition to allow for spontaneous interplay to occur. Also, it should be recognized that not all interactions are verbal. Cheering together, sitting together and watching, and working together to build something are examples ofnonverbal interactions.

Opportunities for friendship. Integration is no guarantee that friendships will develop between children. However, participation in integrated leisure and recreational activities, with adequate and proper support, can provide many opportunities for children to have fun, get to know each other, develop friendships, and experience increased membership in neighborhoods, schools, and communities.

Individualized and Flexible Supports

Individualization and flexibility means that the types and levels of support should be based on the needs of the particular child, and should be adaptable, taking into account that the child’s needs may change over time (Schleien & Ray, 1988; Walker & Edinger, 1988). Some key elements of individualized and flexible supports include the following:

Getting to Know the Child/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 child/teen, is likely to take time.

Teaching Needed Skills. Skill acquisition, while important, needs to be balanced with other aspects of participation and social interaction, and should not determine what the child’s participation in an activitywill look like. 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, team work, 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) in determining which skills are important, time should be spent observing and gathering information from nondisabled peers; d) children need varying amounts of time to learn new skills, routines and activities.

Adaptation of activities/partial participation. Use of adaptations and partial participation allows all children to take part in a wide range of activities (Baumgart, et.al., 1984). One type of adaptation is a change in the nature of the activities as a whole, 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 ideas for ways to involve the child.

Backing off from oversupport. Oversupport, 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 when a child needs a lot ofdirect support and when to back off.


Over time, all children, including those with the most severe disabilities, can be assisted to increase the ways they participate in activities and their interactions with others. It does not necessarily take people who are specially trained in the area of developmental disabilities or recreation (Schleien & Ray, 1988). While these types of people may help provide direct or indirect support or consultation, what is needed is: people who know the child well, or who are willing to get to know the child well; people who are knowledgeable about and enjoy the particular activity; people who are willing and able to involve themselves with others in the activity, rather than just with the person with the disability; and people who are committed to the person, and to facilitating his or her participation and integration. As with integration, development of such commitment often takes time, and will only occur as people have the opportunity to get to know children and youth with disabilities, learn ways they can participate and interact with others, and recognize the benefits to all people in the activity or setting when children with disabilities are assisted to participate (Schleien & Ray, 1988).

Resources: Where Can I Learn More?

Following 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, 4700 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).

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.

Walker, P. & Edinger, B. (1988). The kid from Cabin 17. Camping Magazine, May, 18-21.

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 the U.S. Department of Education of the opinions expressed herein should be inferred.