Wednesday, July 16, 2014

8 ways to include kids with disabilities in programs, events, classes, camps, wherever

As parents of kids with disabilities, we want our kids to enjoy the same activities that other kids do—but in reality, it doesn't always happen. My son has been turned away from programs and recreational activities, as have the children of many distressed parents I hear from. So I asked the CEO of Kids Included Together (KIT) Torrie Dunlap, to share a practical list with how-tos. This nonprofit teaches inclusive models to YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, city recreation programs and preschools, among others. Serving more than 20,000 people a year, KIT has worked in 45 states and 10 countries. Clearly, they know what they are doing. 

If you are a children's program or event coordinator, camp director, coach or teacher, please, take a few minutes to read this—especially if you have hesitated to accommodate a child with disabilities. 

One recent afternoon I was scrolling through Instagram, hoping to find new photos of my niece and nephew. What I did see was a captivating 15-second video of a boy who looked to be about ten years old beatboxing like a boss. It was so good that I let it repeat several times. The third time I watched it, I realized this talented guy has Down syndrome. I looked at the comments and saw that he had learned to beatbox that day at summer theater camp. Fifteen years ago, KIT began providing inclusion training for this particular theater company, and they remain one of our local star programs. I grabbed my iPhone and ran around the KIT offices holding up the video and telling everyone, “What you do makes a difference!”

Glee star Lauren Potter with Torrie Dunlap, the CEO of KIT
Over the years, I have seen countless organizations and people grapple with the idea of including children with disabilities in their programs. There are attitudinal barriers like fear and lack of experience with people with disabilities. There are also institutional barriers like lack of staff training and lack of support from program leadership, and worries including cost, liability, safety and the concern that inclusion will diminish the quality of the experience for kids without disabilities.

It really isn’t as hard as you think. 

Sure, some kids have significant disabilities and major challenges in life, but in the context of programs, and with the right supports, most children do just fine. Kids are much more alike than they are different. They all come to a program or class to have fun, to make friends and to learn. Commit to inclusion not because it is the law, but because it makes your program better—for every kid. It’s true. The research shows that including kids with disabilities in your programs is good for them, but it also benefits the kids without disabilities.

Here are eight things to keep in mind for creating an environment where everyone is welcome:

Get into the inclusion mindset

Inclusion is first and foremost a philosophy that says that everyone belongs. Inclusion means that every child has value and has something to contribute. When you adopt an inclusive mindset, barriers are easier to overcome, solutions are more readily available, and the whole feeling of the program evolves to one of community. 

Create a partnership with the family

In the child’s parent or caregiver you have access to the absolute expert on the child. They know the child’s likes and dislikes, his special talents, what triggers challenging behavior and what can be done to calm him when necessary. In your job as a camp director, after-school program leader, ballet teacher or soccer coach you have the knowledge of your subject and you know how to teach groups of kids. When you put parents' knowledge together with yours, BAM! You have some serious super-powers. Although not every parent is going to be willing or able to give a lot of support, by being open and inviting a team approach, you create the possibility. Remember, the parent wants this to work too. They are often very eager and willing to help, because they know your program would be an awesome experience for their child.

Understand that small changes can have a big impact

Many accommodations are easy and inexpensive. One example is creating visual supports that work well for children with autism and other disabilities, like a program schedule that uses pictures instead of (or in addition to) words. Before each activity show the schedule, and point to the picture of what is happening next. You can also make a small choice board with photos or images of different options for snack or free play activities, which can work well for children without verbal language. Another small change that makes a big difference is working on the transitions in your program. Moving from one activity to another, or from one location to another (like outside play to inside for snack) can be very stressful for children. When children feel stress or anxiety they often show you through their behavior. If you can put some structure to the unstructured time, most of the children in a program will feel more relaxed. The big secret about inclusion is that what works for kids with disabilities works for kids without disabilities, and by practicing inclusion you make your whole program quality better.

Don't worry—it's OK for everyone to participate differently

At KIT we’ve worked with a wide variety of types of programs including museums, zoos, preschools and even a farm. Across the board we tell them, “It is OK if everyone participates differently.” In 2007 we were working with a children’s theater company in Maryland that came to us with the challenge of how to include a child who used a wheelchair in their dance classes. What could they do? We asked them to look through the lens of the child’s interest in the dance class. Why did she want to be there? In this case it was a child who loved music and was fascinated by movement, even if learning to pirouette wasn’t in the cards for her. They discovered that she could be the class “DJ” and play the music, could count off the four beats to start the dance and could use her arms to learn some of the moves when she wanted. This young girl got something valuable out of this experience, and it didn’t need to be what the other children got out of it. She was engaging with her love of dance, and everyone was happy.

Play to strengths

When a parent shares a child’s strengths, talents and interests, it’s the most helpful information you can have in your pocket. I had a student in my theater programs whose biggest love in life was SpongeBob. When I could find ways to include SpongeBob in the scenes we were doing, he was happy and engaged. SpongeBob making an appearance in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream? Sure, why not! Kids often have a special interest or talent that you can incorporate into the program. In a Boys & Girls Club that we worked with, they were struggling to serve a 9-year-old with autism. He was having trouble engaging with the other kids and there was nothing in the program that would hold his interest for very long. When we found out that his special interest was weather patterns (actually, his talking about weather all day was annoying the other kids), we found a way to use it. The club staff created a daily news program and Tommy became the weatherman. The news program became the most popular activity at the club, and now Tommy was seen in a new way by the kids; for his ability, and not his disability.

Help facilitate relationships

As humans we are social creatures. We need and want to connect. This is the same for children with disabilities, even those who seem like they don’t. Tommy was having trouble engaging with the other kids, and it wasn’t because he didn’t want to, it was because he didn’t know how. The news program allowed him to work collaboratively, and not competitively, with other kids which was a great start. Then the program staff could teach him the skills to engage with the other kids. He learned how to approach them, and how to invite them to play a game. The other kids learned how to say, “Please stop. I don’t like that” when he tapped on their shoulders too strongly to get their attention. They learned how to help him take turns in games like Connect Four. In an after school program in Northern California, a 12 year-old with autism had been sitting at a table every afternoon coloring by himself. The program thought this is what he wanted to do, and they left him alone. After learning about inclusion they began to help him learn to connect with others in the program. When his mom came to pick him up one day and saw him playing four square with three other children on the playground, she told the program leader “This is the first time I have seen him play with other kids."

Know that everyone benefits from inclusion

In the beginning, you think it’s about the kids with disabilities. You think you are helping them or helping their families. But once you start practicing inclusion, you realize that everyone is getting something out of the experience. It’s not really about the kids with disabilities, or their families, it’s about the community as a whole. Your program becomes a place where everyone can thrive. Where everyone learns more about themselves, where they explore new talents and interests, where people who are different learn to get along, and where they learn that they have more in common with others than they thought they did. Parents report that the friendships their children are making with children with disabilities affect their other relationships in a positive way. They become more empathic, patient and accepting of differences. The benefits of inclusion extend out into the community. Our long-time partner the San Diego Zoo recently received a special commendation from the City Council for their efforts to ensure that children with disabilities are included in the education programs.

Celebrate successes!

I am not saying that meeting the needs of all kinds of kids is always easy. I know it’s not. I know how hard your job is to begin with, even without a child with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or other disability in your class. But not only is it worth it, it is necessary. Our world needs to be a place where everyone belongs. Kids need to know that everyone has value, and you show them that by treating everyone in your program equally, and with great compassion and love. Sometimes it will be hard, but you will have many successes. Share them with the child’s family and with your program team (“Guess what—Juan Carlos used words to ask for snack today!”). I had a mother come to me in tears once when she received the summer camp group photo we had taken. She told me, “It's the first time I have ever seen my son smile in a photo.” This is the opportunity we have. This is what we can create. So try not to worry, try not to be afraid. You probably got into this field because you love nurturing children and helping them grow. You can do this. And you have no idea what change you can create for the world by being open to the possibility of inclusion.

Kids Included Together stands ready to help! Click here for a free trial to our Online Learning Center with a ton of free tip sheets, instructional videos and a couple of free learning modules.  

Top and bottom photos courtesy of KIT/photo of Potter and Dunlap: David Manning


  1. woohooo! Yes, Yes, Yes! I LOVE, LOVE this post- all of it. Thank you for writing it. I am going to link this up.

  2. Wow, that sounds like a wonderful program and I love hearing about those success stories. We've had both good and bad experiences with day camps. Our local (I'm in Canada) Boys and Girls Club is fantastic. They have an inclusion coordinator and my son LOVES going there, which we are allowed to do for two weeks. We did not have such a great experience with our local Y day camp. My son and another kid with special needs spent most of the time in a separate room with their helpers, watching TV and doing crafts. They went for a walk every day, also separately. They did go swimming with the rest of the campers. It broke my heart to pick him up in the segregated room every day, although my son did seem to have a good time.

    I think as parents our experience has been that we don't want to complain, as we are just so grateful to be able to send our son to day camp for the allowed two weeks. We also have a day camp for kids with intellectual disabilities that parents will line up hours for, often with their crying, exhausted kids in tow, because there are no other affordable options. Honestly, the general public has NO idea what we go through, nor do they really care. (With the exception of the lovely lady in the article!)

  3. Band camp is coming up! I love band and the people in it, but how will I fare in marching?

  4. Fantastic post, thank you!

  5. Wonderful post! Thank-you!

  6. I think every supprt worker, teacher and social group organiser should read this. I will be sharing Ellen. Hayley x

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Thanks for sharing!

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