So where do we start with achieving social inclusion through recreation? One important starting point is to recognize that inclusion is a value that must guide our beliefs and actions as recreation providers and citizens. Here is what we mean by this:
In the days before inclusion was a widely held idea in the fields of education, recreation, employment, etc., people spoke about the need to find ways to integrate people with disabilities into the mainstream of society. The focus on integration was about ensuring that people were present – and that their right to access “regular” things (such as classrooms and recreation programs) was respected.
During the last 25 years individual rights have further evolved through laws policies that require service providers to provide accommodations so that people are able to participate. These rights are important as they provide ways for people to open doors that had previously been closed. But, laws and policies cannot guarantee true social inclusion on their own.
Over time, it became clear that “integration” — making a place in an existing system for people who had previously been excluded – was not enough. “Integration” tended to retain the notion that there were two kinds of people: “regular” or “normal” people, and those who were “integrated”. Schools and other programs thinking “integration” also tended to retain old ways of doing things, and many of these did not work well with the more diverse population. This taught us that a new way of thinking and acting was needed.
Inclusion as a value and way of thinking requires something more. Inclusion is about people gaining “social acceptance”, having positive interactions with one’s peers and being valued for who they are. As such, it must be “internally motivated” and stem from embracing the belief that all people have value and the right to belong. Inclusion values diversity and allows for the real opportunity for people (both with and without disabilities) to have meaningful relationships.
In this respect, recreation providers must be willing to look at their beliefs, missions, messages, and operations to determine what they must do to be fully inclusive. There is an important question that must be asked on a regular basis:
How do we develop, organize and operate our recreation program to ensure that all people are able to participate and enjoy the benefits of what we offer?