Inclusive Recreation Program Positively Impacts Military Personnel

May 8, 2009

Recreation can improve people’s physical and mental health and well-being, and it is widely used by the U.S. military for training and rehabilitation. However, figuring out how to include people with disabilities into recreation programs can be a challenge. Penn State faculty members are offering a class for U.S. military personnel on how to provide recreation opportunities for people with disabilities. The program, which began in January 2009, has already impacted nearly 100 military personnel who work in locations around the world.

“I've worked in outdoor recreation fifteen years now, and until recently, inclusive recreation wasn't a term we used often, if at all,” says Theresa Lee, GS-09, operations manager for Outdoor Recreation in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. “When our program had a patron in a wheelchair or with a prosthetic, I felt as though we could only offer them limited recreation opportunities, mostly because I wasn't sure even sure how to approach them. It was the big ‘elephant’ in the room.”

Lee spent a week in January participating in the first offering of the Inclusive Recreation for Wounded Warriors program. The goal of the program is to educate recreation managers on disabilities, both physical and psychological, and how to include people with disabilities in recreation  offerings. Students in the class are employed by various branches of the military, and all are involved with their branch’s Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) sector, which provides recreation opportunities to active, reserve, and guard military personnel and their families.

“Recreation participation promotes health and wellness and increases combat readiness in active-duty soldiers,” said Tammy Buckley, instructor in recreation, park, and tourism management and project manager of the program. “It also helps to reduce incidents of suicide and other destructive behaviors associated with post-traumatic stress disorder such as substance abuse, social isolation, and depression.

“However, in order for Morale, Welfare and Recreation personnel to fully engage active-duty wounded warriors in existing programs and services, they need to understand the characteristics of various injuries and disorders they will encounter, and learn how to better include wounded warriors through activity adaptation and/or modification.”

Students in the class learn about accessible design, how to assess the level of inclusiveness of their recreation programs, and how to modify the programs they manage. They hear from a variety of guest speakers, and learn what it’s like to have live with spinal cord injuries, amputations, and traumatic brain injuries. The class learns from first-hand perspectives how attitudes such as being dismissive or giving special treatment to people, based on how they act or look, can be alienating.

Several people who have completed the class noted that the most memorable part was hearing from a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I was humbled and grateful to listen to a soldier talk about PTSD and how we can help both him and his family,” said Shelly Leslie, administrator at the Pilila'au Army Recreation Center in Waianae, Hawaii.

Michele Bean, a liberty program manager for the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) in Bethesda, Maryland, agreed: “Learning first hand from him and some of the struggles he has dealing with PTSD was not only powerful and memorable, but it was something that cannot be taught from books.”

Participants also learn about various tools that help ensure that buildings conform to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. Then, the class ventures outside, where they are assigned criteria to survey and measure (for example, the width of doorways or the height of brail lettering). This gives them an up-close look at the challenges faced by persons with disabilities.

“When the ADA was passed, we thought there’d be a totally accessible world,” said Mark Derry, an amputee and the instructor for the ADA-compliancy focus of the program. “But it hasn’t happened yet.” Derry is the president of Eastlake, Derry, and Associates, a company that assists other companies in fully complying with ADA standards.

Robert Frace, a community activities director for Morale, Welfare, and Recreation at the Suwon Air Base in Korea and a participant in the class, described some of the difficulties he faces as a recreation program director in a foreign country: “The military tends to not send people with disabilities overseas, because they think it might be too complex or difficult to manage.”

Frace went on to discuss the lack of ADA-compliancy for most of the buildings he sees in Korea, and how most people respond to the requests of persons with disabilities by doing “patchwork projects.”Like everyone enrolled in the class, Frace wants to improve the quality of life for his colleagues and fellow soldiers.

 “Our hope, through this training,” said Tammy Buckley, “is that wounded warriors will have the same opportunities to participate in recreation programs on their installations as do their non-wounded counterparts.”

The Inclusive Recreation for Wounded Warriors Program is a collaboration between Penn State Outreach’s Management Development Programs and Services; the Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management; and the Hospitality Leadership Institute (directed by Ruth Ann Jackson), part of the School of Hospitality Management. The project is funded by the Army and the Department of Defense and will run monthly until the end of 2011.

Instructors and content experts for the course include Ralph Smith ’84 RC PK, professor emeritus of recreation, park, and tourism management at Penn State; Linda Bollinger ’82 RC PK, recreational therapist for fitness and aquatic wellness programs at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network; Joanne Finegan ’83 RC PK, CEO and managing partner of ReMed Recovery Care Centers; Patricia Kleban ’82 RC PK ’91g LE ST, instructor in  recreation, park, and tourism management; and Jessica Rickard, an advanced clinician and spinal cord injury team leader at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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Editors: Tammy Buckley can be reached at tbuckley@psu.edu. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.