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Quality Indicators of Inclusive Recreation Programs:
A National Youth Service Example

By Kimberly D. Miller, Antoinette Frisoli, Anna Smythe, and Stuart J. Schleien

Inclusive recreation programming is slowly, but steadily, becoming a more prominent feature of our local communities. But not every community recreation program adheres to the philosophical underpinnings of inclusive recreation and, therefore, may lack the qualities necessary for the successful inclusion (physical and social) of individuals with disabilities. Physical accessibility and physical integration do not ensure that individuals with disabilities will feel welcomed and accommodated, the salient characteristics of inclusion. What are the qualities that identify a program as both physically and socially inclusive? Outlined here are quality indicators, embedded within the context of an inclusive community volunteer program, that can be used to evaluate a recreation system’s level of commitment to social inclusion. These indicators include 1) administrative support, 2) nature of the program, 3) nature of the activities, 4) environmental/logistical considerations, and 5) programming techniques and methods.

These quality indicators are illustrated in this article through profiling a volunteer program recently implemented through a collaborative partnership of the Volunteer Center of Greensboro (North Carolina); Department of Recreation, Parks, and Tourism of The University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Guilford County Schools; Greensboro Department of Parks and Recreation; and Partnership F.I.V.E. (Fostering Inclusive Volunteer Efforts), a three-year U.S. Department of Education grant initiative.

Day of Service Event

The program under study was a “day of service” event held at a local park for high school students in conjunction with National Youth Service Day (NYSD). This event was viewed as an opportunity to expose youth of varying abilities to volunteering with the hopes of encouraging them to become active, ongoing volunteers for community agencies. While the development of ongoing social relationships was not the key focus of this recreation event, through the event participants were encouraged to become volunteers in their communities in settings where social relationships could develop. Also, social inclusion through ongoing contributions in the community could occur as participants volunteered throughout the year.

Of the 125 student volunteers, 61 had disabilities. Their disabilities included visual impairments, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism, bipolar disorder, and learning disabilities. After an opening ceremony, the student volunteers were divided into smaller, inclusive teams of approximately 15 participants. These groups participated in a variety of team-building activities such as the human knot and hoop pass. Following these warm-ups the teams worked cooperatively on the following service projects benefiting local nonprofit and public agencies:

Using these activities and the day of service event as an example, we turn now to the five quality indicators for inclusion in recreation programs.

Indicator 1: Administrative Support

Administrative support of a diverse participant base is essential for inclusive recreation to be successful. Quality indicators in this area include:

National Youth Service Day’s mission was to recruit the next generation of volunteers and educate the public about the contributions of young people as community leaders. The collaborative planning group ensured that all facilities were physically accessible and in compliance with the guidelines of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The atmosphere was socially and programmatically accessible to all participants. Prior to the event, training was provided to event planners and staff on disability awareness, strategies for barrier removal, and social inclusion. Volunteers were asked to complete a NYSD evaluation, inquiring about the quality of the volunteer activities, their enjoyment levels, and whether they felt included by peers.

Indicator 2: Nature of the Program

Recreation programs must be conducive to individuals succeeding in their participation and reaping multiple benefits beyond winning and losing. The quality indicators in this area include:

Program goals for NYSD were for high school students with and without disabilities to have the opportunity to volunteer in an inclusive atmosphere. In this manner, volunteers could demonstrate that everyone has a contribution to make in their community regardless of ability level. Emphasis was placed on every team member contributing to the volunteer activities in which they were engaged. For example, the goal of the American Red Cross mailing activity was for every student to play a role in the folding and labeling process, not the completion of a certain number of mail pieces. Despite the emphasis on social inclusion versus productivity, the student volunteers completed this task in less time than the nonprofit agency had anticipated.

The NYSD planning group discussed the notion of “flexible” and adaptable programming prior to the event. When it was discovered that a student who could not read or write and had limited verbal communication was mistakenly placed in a group that was writing letters for soldiers, this student was inconspicuously reassigned to a group preparing a bulk mailing, where she successfully folded letters.

Indicator 3: Nature of the Activities

Participants with and without disabilities need access to activities and programs that are considered appropriate for their peer group, as well as consistent with their personal preferences. Quality indicators include:

According to national statistics, 59% of American teenagers (ages 12 to 17) volunteer their time to improve their communities (Hamilton & Hussain, 1998), and thus volunteering is a popular activity for teens across our nation. All service projects offered at NYSD were typical of volunteer activities offered to teenagers in local nonprofit agencies. The opportunity for students to participate in volunteer activities outside of their schools encouraged them to learn new skills in novel community settings.

Indicator 4: Environmental/Logistical Considerations

A well-planned inclusive program is dependent on several factors, including its ability to accommodate a wide range of people and alterations to plans. Quality indicators in this area are:

Through grants, sponsorships, and donations, the NYSD event was implemented at no cost to the participants. In addition, the school system provided student transportation to the event. The modifiability of the program was clearly demonstrated when inclement weather forced the cancellation of outdoor volunteer activities. Since the entire park where the event was held was architecturally accessible, activities were easily moved from an outdoor shelter into an indoor facility.

Indicator 5: Programming Techniques

Programmers must sometimes alter their teaching and facilitation strategies to help participants have successful experiences. Quality indicators include:

The implementation of the NYSD event required the collaboration of several key players. Program planners teamed with teachers, parents, students, nonprofit organizations, a volunteer center, a parks and recreation department, inclusion facilitators, and disability advocacy groups in order to implement the successful inclusive event. All activities for NYSD were cooperatively structured. Students were placed into small groups to complete assigned tasks. For example, students formed cooperative groups to write letters to American troops in Iraq. The students who did not feel comfortable writing gave ideas to their partners who then completed the letters. An inclusion facilitator noticed that a student with a visual impairment was in close proximity to a nondisabled student, but was working with her teacher to complete the birdhouse painting task. The facilitator asked both students if they would work together. The students were observed interacting and painting the birdhouses together for the next 30 minutes, as the student with a disability was holding the paintbrush while the other student guided her hand.


Recreation programs should be assessed using the quality indicators discussed above. It is when all recreation programs, including one-day events such as the National Youth Service Day, are held to these standards that socially inclusive programming will become the norm rather than the exception. The event described in this article was planned with these quality indicators in mind, and staff and participants alike attributed the success of the event to adherence to many of these qualities.


Hamilton, M. & Hussain, A. (1998). America’s teenage volunteers. Washington, D.C.: Independent Sector.

Kimberly D. Miller is Project Coordinator with Partnership F.I.V.E., University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Antoinette Frisoli is Research Assistant in the Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Anna Smythe is Program Director of the Volunteer Center of Greensboro; and Stuart J. Schleien is Professor and Department Head with the Department of Recreation, Parks, and Tourism, as well as Project Director of Partnership F.I.V.E., at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. For more information contact Kimberly at 336/334-4480 or

Note: Preparation of this article was partially supported by Cooperative Agreement No. H128J020074 from the Rehabilitation Services Administration, U.S. Department of Education. The content and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and no official endorsement should be inferred.


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Citation: Gaylord, V., Lieberman, L., Abery, B. & Lais, G. (Eds.). (2003). Impact: Feature Issue on Social Inclusion Through Recreation for Persons with Disabilities, 16(2) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from


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