Adapted Leisure Formats

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Adapted recreation and leisure refers to the provision of recreation and leisure services that have been modified or adapted in such a way as to permit the participation of people with disabilities.


One of the oft-cited origins of organized recreation in the United States is the social concern for the plight of urban immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century. Many early community-based providers of recreation viewed the provision of wholesome recreation activities as a way to improve the welfare of the underprivileged. Although the origins of organized recreation in the United States were focused on the development of the underprivileged, it was not until much later in the century that such opportunities were afforded to individuals with disabilities.

Janet Pomeroy noted in an early work on recreation and people with disabilities, entitled Recreation for the Physically Handicapped, that there were a number of movements that led to the provision of recreation and leisure opportunities for this segment of the population. One of the first movements was the development of special education programs. During the 1920s, special attention was focused on the educational needs of children with severe disabilities through the development of state commissions. This emphasis was to provide day schools, as opposed to residential schools, to meet the educational needs of children with developmental disabilities. However, Pomeroy observed that while some communities did provide such services in the 1920s, for most communities special classes, or day schools, were not provided until the 1950s. Although many of these programs did not specifically provide recreation activities, they did increase the presence and visibility of children with disabilities in their communities.

Another influence was the organization of parents of children with disabilities. Pomeroy noted that such organizations were particularly common among parents of children with cerebral palsy and mental retardation. One of the first such organizations was the National Society for Crippled Children (now the Easter Seals), begun in 1919. Although the original intent of the Easter Seals was to provide medical rehabilitation services to children with disabilities, its services quickly expanded to include a variety of activities, including camping and recreation. Similarly, the Arc of the United States (ARC)—begun as the National Association for Retarded Children and then renamed the Association for Retarded Children before adapting its current name—traced its origins to parents' groups that were independently formed in the 1930s and 1940s. Although the national association did not officially form until 1951, these parents' organizations formed to assist children who were excluded from public schools. In addition, part of the impetus for the formation of such parent support organizations was the lack of community services available to their children with disabilities.

A final influence on the provision of leisure and recreation opportunities for people with disabilities was the return of veterans with disabling injuries following World War II. Pomeroy noted that men who acquired disabilities during the war were accepted back into their communities following their return. In addition, during the war the U.S. Civil Service Commission reported that people with disabilities were an untapped resource in terms of the needed workforce for war production. Thus, even as early as the 1940s, there was official recognition of the value of people with disabilities as contributing citizens.

The experiences in the early to middle parts of the twentieth century increased the visibility of people with disabilities in their communities. Through actions by parents' groups, early educational reform, and expanding services for war veterans with disabilities, society began to recognize that people with disabilities should be considered, and included as, participants in their own communities. Much of the impetus for early services was to provide rehabilitation and educational opportunities, yet over time most voluntary organizations expanded to include the provision of recreation and leisure activities.

These developments, however, were not without problems. Peter A. Witt characterized the approach to services for people with disabilities during this period as paternalistic. This was because most of the decisions about the needs and desires of people with disabilities were made by parents, social service providers, and voluntary associations, rather than by the people with the disabilities. In addition, much of the early influence was the result of parents' organizations that were acting on behalf of their children. As services were expanded to serve the needs of adults, the same paternalistic orientation to making decisions was included. As a result of this desire to shelter people with disabilities, segregated services provided outside of society's mainstream tended to develop.

Witt stated that it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that the organizations and people with disabilities began to be concerned with the practices of segregation and exclusion in community recreation services. By the end of the 1970s, Witt estimated that that fewer than 50 percent, and generally less than 30 percent, of municipal recreation departments reported services for people with disabilities. In addition, most agencies that did offer services provided them only for children. Finally, volunteer associations began to evolve in their missions from one of protection to one of advocacy. In this new role, people with disabilities began to advocate for their rights to full access to society.

Adapted recreation programs developed in a number of areas. Programs of adapted recreation developed historically in the areas of camping, sports, and general recreation.

Adapted Camping and Outdoor Recreation

One of the earliest areas of recreational activities adapted for people with disabilities was organized camping. Among the first providers of adapted camping was the Easter Seals. The oldest Easter Seals camp for children with disabilities was established in 1938, at Camp Wawbeek in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. As of 2004, Easter Seals provided more than one hundred camping facilities across the United States for children and adults, and programs included summer camps, weekend camps, and day camps.

Other free-standing camps for people with disabilities also developed. One example of an early camping program for children with disabilities began at Indiana University's Bradford Woods in 1952. The Bradford Woods camping program served children with a variety of disabilities through a partnership with the Riley Children's Foundation. These programs continue to provide adapted camping programs for children with disabilities, including children with severe and multiple disabilities.

In addition to camping programs, a number of adapted outdoor recreation programs were developed, largely in the 1970s and 1980s. Such programs as the National Sports Center for the Disabled (1970) in Winter Park, Colorado; Wilderness Inquiry (1978) in Minneapolis, Minnesota; the National Ability Center (1985) in Park City, Utah; and Northeast Passage (1990) in Durham, New Hampshire; all focused on adapting outdoor recreation activities to facilitate the participation of people with disabilities. Adapted outdoor recreation programs provide year-round activities such as skiing, canoeing, backpacking, and rafting.

Adapted Sports

One of the more widely recognized programs for adapted sports is the Special Olympics. The Special Olympics credits its origins to a summer day camp begun by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in Washington, D.C., in June 1963, to serve people with mental retardation. From these origins, the first International Special Olympics competition was held in Chicago, Illinois, in July 1968. Although the Special Olympics competitions had always been named the "International Special Olympics," it was not until the summer of 2003 in Dublin, Ireland, that the summer games were held outside of the United States. The Special Olympics has focused on encouraging participation in sports activities for people with mental retardation as a means for development and social integration. In contrast, some adapted sports for people with physical disabilities have evolved to focus on the competitive, as opposed to participative, aspects of adapted sport.

Sports for people with physical disabilities developed largely as a result of the influence of World War II veterans. These sports began with the organization of wheelchair sports, the first of which was wheelchair basketball. The first noted wheelchair basketball game was played in 1945, at the Corona Naval station in California. Due to the fact that there were so few wheelchair basketball teams, many of the early teams played teams of players without disabilities, who would use wheelchairs. From 1946 to 1949, a number of wheelchair basketball teams emerged. By 1949, there were enough teams in the United States for a national wheelchair basketball tournament to be held. As a result of the organization of this tournament, the National Wheelchair Basketball Association was created.

Similarly, developments in adapted sports were occurring in Europe that eventually gave rise to the Paralympics movement. In July 1948, under the guidance of Sir Ludwig Guttman, a neurosurgeon at the Stoke Mandeville Spinal Injuries Unit in Aylesbury, England, the first Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed was held. It included sixteen participants. These games were held annually and gradually grew in size. By 1960, there were 600 competitors from twenty-three countries who took part in the Rome Paralympic Games. The first Paralympic Games of the twenty-first century, held in Sydney, Australia, in 2000, included 3,824 athletes from 122 countries. In addition, Winter Games competitions were begun in 1976, and have grown to include 416 athletes from thirty-six countries at the 2002 games in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Adapted Recreation

A recognized leader in the development of adapted recreation programs was Janet Pomeroy. Pomeroy was the founder of the Recreation Center for the Handicapped (RCH) in San Francisco, which began providing programs in 1952 to six young adults with physical disabilities. RCH was able to offer year-round programs in the 1960s, at its own facilities funded through grants from both foundations and federal sources. In the early twenty-first century, RCH provided services to more than 2,000 individuals of all ages per week in programs such as aquatics, sports, theatre, gardening, and day camps.

Another somewhat unique development in adapted recreation was the formation of Special Recreation Associations (SRA) in the state of Illinois. State legislation passed in 1969 provided the authorization for the formation of "special recreation" cooperatives. These cooperatives were a partnership of local park districts and community recreation departments that were formed to provide community-based recreation programs for people with disabilities. The first SRA was the North Suburban SRA in Northbrook, Illinois, which began services in 1970. In the early 2000s, there were twenty SRAs in the state of Illinois that provided a variety of recreation activities such as camping and outdoor recreation, athletics and fitness activities including Special Olympics training, cultural travel, and arts and music programs.

Current Perspectives

As noted by Witt, one of the challenges raised in the 1970s to adapted recreation programs was their segregated and exclusionary nature. It was during the later 1970s and 1980s that recreation for people with disabilities was influenced by ideas of mainstreaming and inclusion. Mainstreaming implied that people with disabilities were best served in the "mainstream" of society, and that segregated programs perpetuated negative stereotypes. The concept of inclusion assumes that people with and without disabilities have the most satisfactory lives when they are fully integrated into their communities. The challenges of mainstreaming and inclusion mandated that public recreation and leisure service providers in all communities acknowledge and provide in their programs for the needs of their constituents with disabilities. In addition, even voluntary associations such as the Easter Seals and ARC, which continue to provide adapted recreation, have recognized the need for providing inclusive services to aid their constituents in participating to their fullest capacity in their communities.

See also: Disability and Leisure Lifestyles, Leisure and Civil Society


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Bryan P. McCormick