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Starting an Inclusive Sports Program

First five things to do


Matthew Schinelli

Matthew Schinelli

Photo courtesy of Matthew Schinelli

There are many positive sports programs for children with special needs -- Little League's Challenger Division and Special Olympics being two my son has enjoyed -- and their emphasis on trying your best and cheering everybody on has warmed many a parent's heart. Yet if you've dedicated yourself to inclusion, it's hard to overlook how very exclusive these programs are. A good look at mainstream athletics, though, with the overwhelming emphasis on winning and the screaming parents in the stands, may send you scurrying back to the disability-only side of the playing field.

I asked Matthew Schinelli, an expert on adaptive physical education and founder of www.NJAPE.org, an organization that provides information and support for the inclusion of kids with disabilities in sports, how parents who want an inclusive sports experience for their kids could go about envisioning and creating a program that accommodates a variety of abilities, and he suggested five ways to get started:

1. Create a new level of sports opportunity. Kids with special needs aren't the only ones who aren't well-served by those high-pressure, high-ability mainstream programs. Creating inclusion on a less-stressed level actually opens up the playing field for a whole range of youngsters who just want to have fun. Explains Schinelli, "The assumption is that the 'majority' of individuals possess a far greater skill base than the 'minority' (i.e. individuals with special needs), but if that generalization were true, then why have obesity and type 2 diabetes levels skyrocketed during the same generation that is fixated on sports? Why are children, teens, and young adults addicted to video games if they have such strong sports skills and understanding of how to play traditional sport activities? The simple truth is that people are not active enough because there are not enough program opportunities for people who are 'just ok' at sports. The 'minority' is really the 'majority'!" And that majority is looking for a place to play where they don't have to warm the bench for the talented few.

2. Define inclusion. Once you have your pool of players in mind, decide how you want to structure their games. "Creating a meaningful working definition of your community values, and how you want them to play together, will help to simplify decision-making as the program expands," Schinelli advises. "For example, do you define inclusive play as 'all participants doing the same thing, at the same time, in the same manner,' or is your definition more flexible, such as, 'inclusive play encourages all community members to be actively engaged in a common experience that allows for individual differences and preferences'? Although this step may appear simple, it really will drive the majority of the program components."

3. Reconstruct traditional formats. When your focus shifts from preparing future stars for the big leagues to simply having fun, you can start to play a little looser with the rules. "Authentic inclusive game structure allows for a total reconstruction of traditional formats," says Schinelli. "When designing an activity, focus on the goal of the activity, not the traditional rules. In many instances, traditional sport games evolved from very open-ended movement experiences to ones that are highly structured and only reinforce a specific skill set. Sports such as baseball, basketball, football, and soccer were played very differently when they first began, and differ from what we see today on television. Overtime rules changed to create specific outcomes that made the game more competitive and helped to create greater sensationalism. Therefore, following modern rules and structure may very well mask the abilities of our participants, or even worse may tune them out to the entire experience. My advice is to push out the implementation of classic/traditional rules until the program participants are truly ready."

4. Involve your players in shaping the program. In another article from this interview, Schinelli gives some guidelines for adapting sports for inclusion, including finding out about players' outside interests and encorporating them into the game, whether it's naming teams after Star Wars characters or re-imagining bats as light sabers. Games can be broken down into basic elements, with players choosing parts to fill based on their abilities and physical needs. Use his suggestions to empower kids to flex their imaginations along with their muscles, every time they take the field or the floor. And afterward, seek their input on what worked and what didn't.

5. Consider your program a work in progress. According to Schinelli, "The effectiveness of the program is measured by how closely the game play resembles your definition of inclusion. Review and modification is an essential ingredient to long-term success." Not everyone may be comfortable with the departures from traditional play, Schinelli admits. "Building an authentic inclusive sport programs is similar to the transformation of Art from classic to modern. Things will appear for many people as very different, and individuals may challenge what you are doing. The response is simple: show them your definition of inclusion, and invite them to help you build upon what is already started!"

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