Focus on Abilities

November 1, 2012, Department, by Elizabeth Beard

Disabilities don't mean inability in Chattanooga, where two park staff work to provide recreation opportunities for community members of all ability levels.Few sports serve as such an obvious metaphor for life as rock climbing. The strategy and strength needed for the climb, the potential to fall or to choose the wrong path, and the sense of accomplishment when the top is finally reached are all symbolic of life’s journey. If the sport can mean that much to the able-bodied, imagine what it might mean for those with physical or intellectual disabilities.

“Reaching the top of the rock is such a great sense of accomplishment,” says Elaine Adams, CTRS, program coordinator for Parks and Recreation in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “It’s a really cool thing for an individual to realize all the things that they can do.”

Rock climbing is just one of 15 programs offered each season by Adams and her colleague, Therapeutic Recreation Specialist Jessie Steele, CTRS. This staff of just two is helping to build the quality of life for more than 6,000 individuals every year by leveraging the efforts of 175 trained volunteers and interns and by conducting dozens of in-service programs for college students, most from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

“Something that I think is cool is to see the volunteers really start to understand about individuals with disabilities,” Steele says. “It’s not this whole, ‘Oh, I feel sorry for them,’ but they really start to see what all these individuals can accomplish.”

A native of Chattanooga and a graduate of Arizona State University, Adams has been in the therapeutic recreation field for 12 years. Initially interested to outdoor recreation, she became drawn to therapeutic recreation after working on an accessibility site survey project in the Grand Canyon. Steele has worked in the field for two years since her graduation from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She discovered the therapeutic recreation field while working at a camp for individuals with disabilities.

Adams credits a local chapter of the group Disabled Sports USA for initiating the effort that led to establishment of the city’s therapeutic recreation program in 2000. Today, the program offers sports, social activities, arts and dance, and outdoor recreation for individuals of almost all ages and levels of ability. Besides organizing programming, the pair also advocates tirelessly for accessibility awareness throughout the city, leading to better accommodations for individuals with disabilities at several major venues.

“We have really great resources within our community,” Adams says. “And I think that has made a huge difference not only to our programs but to our participants. For instance, our local outdoor retailer Rock Creek is passionate about access and accessibility as well, so we were able to team up with them to help expand our climbing program.”

One of their most popular offerings is Camp ZooAbility, a therapeutic recreation summer day camp based at the Chattanooga Zoo.

“We hear from parents every day talking about how their child has an opportunity to attend a summer camp,” Adams says. “There’s a safe place to go and have fun and experience things just like any other kid…We’re able to change that child’s summer.”

Adams describes a six-year-old currently enrolled in therapeutic recreation programs: “He is really just starting to get involved in a lot of the programs that we have. Not only has it been amazing to see him grow, whether that’s from a skill standpoint or whether that’s from a social standpoint, but it’s also been pretty awesome to see his mom…What a difference it had made in his life—to reach the top of the rock was such a great accomplishment for him and of course for her.”

“She said just him being able to climb all the way to the top of the wall changed his whole demeanor and his whole attitude toward his life with a disability,” Steele adds.

For agencies considering how to start such a program with limited resources, Adams gives the same advice she gives her programs’ participants—anything is possible.

“No matter what your limited resources are, whether it’s money, staff, or time—you can make a difference within your community for all individuals,” she says. “Look at the abilities instead of disabilities.”


Elizabeth Beard is Managing Editor of Parks & Recreation (