Successful inclusion depends on an agency-wide commitment to serving all people. All levels of staff and volunteers must adopt an inclusive philosophy. This new way of thinking can transform an organization into one that is truly reflective of the community it serves and accepting of all people.
Ensure That Your Mission Statement Welcomes All
A critical piece of organizational transformation is the development of a mission statement that welcomes all people (Miller & Schleien, 1999). Examine your current mission statement. Does it accurately reflect your desire to serve people of all abilities? Is it clear, concise, and welcoming? If you are unsure what message your statement is delivering, ask a few participants to review it and give you some feedback. Generally, the use of the word all will convey your moral philosophy.
Here are some examples of inclusive mission and values statements:
- From national organizations:
- Inspiring and enabling all young people to realize their full potential as productive, responsible, and caring citizens. (Boys & Girls Clubs of America)
- We are dedicated to improving the quality of human life and to helping all people realize their fullest potential. (YMCA)
- (Core Value) We are inclusive, welcoming children, youth and adults regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic status, disability, sexual orientation or other aspect of diversity. (Camp Fire USA)
- From after-school and recreation programs:
- We provide engaging, innovative, high-quality theater education and productions for children of all cultural heritages, ages, abilities and levels of interest.
- To provide learning and recreational experiences for children at all stages of development.
- We are committed to serving all children and meeting their needs for social interaction and educational enrichment.
If you decide that your mission statement needs revising, you must begin a thoughtful process that includes the key stakeholders of the agency. Mission statements often come with a long history and are meaningful to staff and volunteers who have experience with the organization. You will need to respect the history of the mission statement and work to build consensus among stakeholders. One way to accomplish this is to convene a focus group of people from the different facets of your organization. Lead them through a process to determine what core services the agency provides. Then, discuss the agency’s purpose (e.g., to teach life skills through participation in team sports). Be sure that the statement is not exclusionary and invites participation from all. Once you have created a mission statement that includes all, you will have developed a vision for a caring, respectful community that welcomes people with diverse abilities.
Once you have an inclusive mission statement, do not keep it a secret. Display the mission statement in a visible place in all facilities, include it in every piece of print material, and locate it prominently on your Web site. Many organizations publish their mission statement on business cards and letterhead stationery as a way to constantly advertise their philosophy. The mission statement should be familiar to every staff member.
A complement to an inclusive mission statement is a separate inclusion statement that can be printed in all registration brochures. This will more directly invite people with disabilities to participate in the programs you offer. If families know that your agency is committed to inclusion, they will be more likely to provide you with valuable information regarding accommodations. The inclusion statement may be something like “we welcome children of all ability levels in our day camps.” This will let parents know that they will not be turned away when they call or visit to register for your programs.
Examine Your Admission Policies
Once you are sure that your agency mission statement communicates an inclusive philosophy, look at your admission policies. Are your policies rigid, or do they use mostly skill-based requirements? An example of a rigid policy is that children may not use flotation supports in the pool. Some children will never be able to swim without the support of flotation devices, because of low muscle tone or poor gross motor skills, but would benefit greatly from the opportunity to be in the swimming pool with their peers without disabilities. An accommodation to support inclusion would be to allow a child to use a flotation device. An example of a skill-based requirement is that children must perform a solo song or dance in order to participate in the community talent show or play production camp. An accommodation to facilitate inclusion could be that the child participates in the performance in another way, perhaps as a technical assistant. Your agency must have policies related to admission and enrollment and must adhere strictly to them whenever possible. In designing policies, ensure that you are not excluding groups of people by demanding prerequisite skills.
Design an Intake and Enrollment Process
Inclusion has the best chance of success when a thoughtful and respectful intake process is in place. This process will likely include staff members at several levels in an agency, including the administrative assistant or registrar, program director, and program instructors or leaders. The intake and enrollment process helps a family to feel welcomed by your agency and allows them to provide you with information and resources that will be valuable in your efforts to include a person with a disability. Families are a critical component in facilitating inclusion (National Child Care Information Center, 2003). Establishing a positive rapport with a family prior to the start of the program will enhance communication if challenges arise.
The process will likely begin with a phone call of inquiry from a parent. Be sure that the staff member who answers the phone is aware of the agency’s commitment to inclusion. Many times parents are turned away at the first phone call because the person they speak to has not undergone training for inclusion. The staff member who takes the call should be able to provide the parent with information about the program, dates and times, fees, and payment schedules. This staff member will determine whether there is space available in the class and, if not, will put the participant on a waiting list. You are not required to open up a space in a class or camp that is closed in order to include a child with a disability, but you cannot deny a space if there are openings (Dunlap & Shea, 2004).
The first contact with a family may be through a registration or enrollment form. There should be a statement on the registration form that asks whether a participant needs an accommodation because of a medical condition or disability. You cannot ask for a diagnosis but should ask open-ended questions that will help you determine what types of supports will need to be in place. You may also want to include a place on the registration form for a family to let you know about any cultural concerns they have related to their participation in your program (e.g., food substitutions if meals or snacks are provided).
The next step is to invite the parent and participant to visit the program, preferably during program hours. This is an opportunity for a family to see the facility, get more information about the activities offered, and provide program staff with suggestions for accommodations. For the program staff, this is a time to find out about the family’s goals for the child in the program, learn more about the strengths and interests of the child, and determine what areas may be challenging and need accommodation or additional support. This is also a time to let the family know that all information about the child will be kept confidential by program staff and that information will only be given to staff members on a need-to-know-basis. Encourage families to put important information about medications and food restrictions in writing, and keep this information in a secure location.
Here are some sample questions to include in the intake process:
- Does your child have allergies?
- Will you provide medications and instructions for administering medication?
- Does your child require a special diet? What are her preferred snacks and eating schedule?
- What should we do if the child has a seizure or goes into diabetic shock?
- Is the child a flight risk (i.e., does he run away)?
- Who are your emergency contacts and physician, and what hospital should we send your child to in case of emergency?
- Special Interests and Talents
- Friendships: What are his friends like and what do they like to do together?
- Hobbies: What does he like to do at home in his free time?
- Interests: What are her favorite books, games, and television shows?
- Talents: What is he really good at?
- Goals: What goals do you have for your child in this program?
- Physical: How does the child move? Does he require any adaptive equipment?
- Emotional: What does he do when he is upset? What helps to calm him down?
- Social: How does she communicate? Does she use words, pictures, or gestures?
- Self-help: Does he need assistance when using the toilet? Are there specific things that he needs help with (opening his lunch or blowing his nose)?
- Your Child and Our Program
- What are his favorite types of activities?
- What are some of her fears (dogs, the dark)?
- Do any particular sounds or smells bother him?
- Does he mind being close to other children and people?
- What kinds of accommodations can we make to help her be successful in our program?
© Kids Included Together 2006.
The site visit is a good opportunity to establish a plan for ongoing communication with the parent. Decide whether you will use a daily written log, phone calls, or e-mail or will chat at the drop-off or pickup point. Be sure that the method is convenient for both you and the family, and respect the family’s privacy by speaking out of earshot of other participants and their families and keeping logs and e-mails private.
The site visit will give parents an idea of what accommodations may be necessary to support successful inclusion. Be thorough in your descriptions of program activities and show the environments in which they take place. Ask open-ended questions: “What do you see that you think your child will really enjoy?” “How can we adjust the environment to meet her needs?” Be a good listener and take notes if necessary, but don’t ask the parent to fill out lengthy forms that parents of children without disabilities are not asked to complete.
If the participant uses assistive technology or has other specific needs, consider asking the family to orient the staff to the equipment. A parent may be willing to visit a staff meeting and demonstrate how to use a piece of equipment or may share specific information about the child with the program staff.
Evaluate Your Facility and Program Offerings for Inclusion
For inclusion to become a part of your program, all members of the staff must understand what accessibility means in terms of both facilities and programs. Inclusion is everyone’s responsibility (Anderson & Kress, 2003). Planning for inclusion involves job responsibilities at every level of an organization: administrators who create budgets and policies that allow for inclusion, directors and coordinators who design thoughtful intake and enrollment processes for families and instruct program staff on accommodations, marketing personnel who depict inclusion in print materials and promotional photos, and facilities and custodial staff who ensure that program environments are conducive to inclusion. Entrances and public areas should be welcoming to families and take into account a variety of methods of communication. Families and participants need to be able to both enter your facility and take advantage of your program offerings once inside. Is the reception desk accessible? Are alternate forms of communication provided for registration or check-in? Examples of alternate forms of communication include large-print materials, computer with screen reader, braille, and languages other than English.
It is important to have a “top down, bottom up” strategy in an organization so that inclusion is consistent and pervasive. In the context of organizational structure, the term top down, bottom up refers to how decisions are made and executed. In a “top down, bottom up” approach, the staff at the executive level make decisions and disseminate them to the staff at lower levels. A “bottom up” approach is when staff at the front-line level can affect decision-making. To ensure “top down, bottom up” is to be sure that everyone working in an organization has the information and knowledge of the philosophy of inclusion so that service delivery is seamless for participants. Custodial staff may question why they need to receive training on inclusion, but their role will be important, especially if you are including a person who is blind or visually impaired and depends on the consistency of furniture in the environment. If custodial staff are aware of your agency’s commitment to inclusion, they can make decisions about the physical spaces that reflect the moral philosophy of inclusion. This may mean that they reposition trash receptacles to provide access for those using wheelchairs. Or it may mean they do not hose down sidewalks when they know children with limited mobility will be in camp. Front desk staffers who understand inclusion will be open to using TTY (teletypewriter) systems to take registration from participants who are deaf and will make parents of children with disabilities feel welcome in their first interaction with the agency. Support from program leaders will ensure that all members of staff receive the training and support they need to provide the best possible programs for the widest range of people.
Commit to Ongoing Training
A high rate of staff turnover is common in programs that take place outside of school hours (Yohalem & Pittman, 2006). Ongoing training is vital to ensuring the consistency of inclusive practices in an agency. The Massachusetts After-school Research Study (MARS) found that programs with more highly trained staff, particularly at the levels of program director and direct service, were rated significantly higher in overall program quality (Intercultural Center, 2005). Training that is most successful goes beyond merely raising awareness of disability and inclusion and includes activities to increase knowledge and skill (Mulvihill et al., 2002).
Ongoing staff training can take many formats and should be rooted in the following efforts:
- Ensure that new hires are oriented on inclusive practices of the agency.
- Provide ongoing support to staff and information on new techniques.
- Keep a commitment to inclusion at the forefront of business practices.
Methods for staff training can include live presentations to staff at regularly scheduled meetings or special training events, job coaching provided by a supervisor or senior staff member, technical assistance provided by outside consultants, Internet research on specific disabilities or behavior support strategies, attendance at conferences, and online training.
Every new employee should be oriented on inclusion and the agency’s philosophy, policies, and procedures related to inclusion. Formal staff orientations can be combined with other efforts seasonally when large numbers of people are hired at once. Late spring, when summer camp staff are hired, is a good time for an orientation to inclusion. Orientation for new employees throughout the year can take place through one-on-one meetings with a mentor or senior staff member, by having new employees review the operations manual, or through enrolling new staff in a distance learning course using the Internet. New staff should understand the agency’s intention to provide service to all people and how employees can support inclusion through their own position. Sharing stories about successful inclusion in your organization can be a good way to communicate the value of inclusion to new hires. Newsletter articles, thank-you letters from families, and agency scrapbooks can all show the benefits of inclusion.
Seasoned staff will also need ongoing training and support for inclusion. As the agency progresses in its journey to inclusion, new challenges will arise that training can address. Enrollment of participants with specific types of disabilities may require that staff undertake specific training. As the agency moves toward meaningful inclusion for all, participants with more significant disabilities will be more likely to enroll. Once staff members have experience with basic inclusion techniques, they will want to explore a more intentional approach to social inclusion and friendship development among the participants. This type of ongoing training can be provided in a group setting using disability service agencies from the community or organizations that specialize in inclusion. A way to create sustainability for inclusion is to assign some seasoned staff members to present training during staff meetings. These staff members can research a topic that is timely using books, journals, the Internet, or live interviews and then present the information to the group. Online training can keep seasoned staff motivated.
All levels of staff will to need to revisit their commitment periodically to ensure that inclusion remains an integral part of business practices and organizational identity. Gathering time-limited advisory groups, made up of people with and without disabilities who use the agency’s services, can be a good way to review program policies and procedures to ensure inclusiveness. Asking families of children who have been included to speak to staff and volunteer groups about their experience can help staff renew their commitment to serving people of all abilities. Satisfaction surveys distributed to participants and their families will help staff refine processes related to inclusion. Keep staff enthused by supporting their attendance at inclusion-related conferences, finding local opportunities for training, and searching the Internet for new information regarding disability and inclusion. Make discussion about inclusion a regular part of staff and department meetings so that ongoing progress can be evaluated by staff.
Recreation providers are part of a larger social system that offers services to community members. As society changes and evolves, recreation professionals must evaluate the way that they think about service delivery, continually question whether they are using their resources as effectively and efficiently as possible, and envision ways to include all people in programs and activities. To enhance community life for people with disabilities, recreation providers can start by observing that people are more alike than different, even if they walk or communicate with the use of an assistive device. To expand recreation services to a broader audience, adopt and model a philosophy of respect of all people and use your resources to include people with disabilities in your program activities. Review organizational policies and procedures, facilities, and programs, and provide ongoing inclusion training for staff so that they feel competent and up-to-date on best practices for program and behavior modifications and on state and federal regulations in order to build local community capacity to make their town the best possible place to live.
This is an excerpt from Inclusive Recreation: Programs and Services for Diverse Populations.