Creating Inclusive Physical Activity Communities for Children with Disabilities
By Dr. James Rimmer
While the latest efforts to reduce childhood obesity in the United States have been commendable, most of the ongoing initiatives do not recognize or consider the gaps in access that many families who have a child with a disability experience. The fundamental building blocks for preventing and/or reducing obesity in non-disabled children – physical activity and nutrition – also apply to children with disabilities. However, since most children with disabilities do not meet the inclusion criteria for participation in studies targeting children without disabilities, the growing evidence base of childhood obesity prevention programs does not consider what adaptations are necessary to make these programs accessible and beneficial for children with disabilities.
In research that our team has been conducting for the last six years on obesity prevalence and obesity-related secondary conditions in children with disabilities (J. Rimmer, Rowland JL, Yamaki Y, 2007; J. Rimmer, Yamaki K, Davis B, Wang E, Vogel LC, 2010, 2011; Yamaki, 2011), we identified several possible reasons why children with disabilities may have higher rates of obesity compared to children who do not have a disability, as well as what types of changes are needed to make communities more inclusive for families who have a child with a disability.
First, many parents who have a child with a disability do not have the resources or capabilities to find programs that meet the physical or programmatic needs of their child. While a few communities have an occasional special recreation or peer-mentoring program for children with disabilities, even when these services are available their infrequency (e.g., offered only once or twice per week at times that may not fit within the family member’s schedule) limits their utility as a weight management strategy. Communities should consider small steps in making their programs more inclusive. A good place to start is including images of children with disabilities in brochures and other media that advertise sports and recreation programs to community members. Another way to engage families is to ask them in a formal or informal phone or internet survey what types of programs/services they would like to see improved upon so that their child has more opportunities to participate in sports and recreation. This will give families a deeper sense that their school or park district is interested in promoting inclusion.
Second, many if not most school-based physical activity programs unintentionally limit opportunities for children with disabilities. Class sizes are often too large and children with disabilities are not given the supports they need to achieve equivalent levels of physical activity time as their non-disabled peers. Simple things like modifying the rules of a game to ‘level the playing field’ (golfers do this all the time) or having the right adaptations so that the child is able to strike or catch a ball will provide higher levels of success and enjoyment. Also, providing physical education teachers with some training in adapting programs for children with disabilities and the name of an adapted physical education consultant (every school district should have one) will strengthen the likelihood that their programs have a greater level of inclusion.
Third, junior high and high school sports programs must become more accessible to youths with physical and cognitive disabilities. In a report published in 2010 by the Government Accountability Office, youths with disabilities were found to have much lower rates of participation in physical education and sports compared to non-disabled youth, thus prompting the Office of Civil Rights to issue guidance on January 25, 2013, on the rights of students with disabilities to participate in after-school athletics. Instead of ignoring these recommendations, schools should embrace them and find ways to encourage family members and children with disabilities to become interested in joining school athletic programs.