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Are you struggling to get your staff on board with inclusion? The number one principle for creating successful disability inclusion is organizational commitment, which means every position within your recreation program should have a role and responsibility to ensure all belong. Hiring a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) or appointing an inclusion specialist isn’t the magic wand to building a culture of inclusion. In fact, it may have the opposite effect if not properly supported.
Moving Toward Organizational Commitment
Whether you have therapeutic or inclusion staff already on board or are considering hiring for these positions, to achieve organizational commitment, their role should be primarily consulting or mentoring others on inclusive practices. Their expertise should be inherent to ensure inclusive practices are in place in all settings and should not necessarily be used as a reactive approach to “handle every inclusion situation.” They should have the full support of your organization’s administrative team to lead an inclusion initiative and should not be relegated to only creating adaptive or specialized programs.
If your department isn’t in a place to hire a specialist, you still can implement inclusive practices, ensuring your team has the tools and confidence to welcome, engage and support community members with diverse abilities to successfully participate and belong. In fact, it is sometimes believed to be an advantage to your organization if this is a grassroots effort to create such an environment. As author Stephanie Perkins wrote, “A blank canvas has unlimited possibilities.”
Let’s paint a picture of what organizational commitment looks like to create an authentic culture of inclusion. From a participant’s position, inclusion means that individuals have a choice in how they participate — whether that’s a specialized, integrated or buddy model or full inclusion — and are supported to be as independent as possible through meaningful participation with their typical peers whenever and wherever possible. As a program provider, you aim to have a strength-based, not deficit-based focus, providing opportunities for their talents, interests and hobbies to be developed and nurtured, thus giving them an opportunity for a socially valued role in your recreation community.
Strategies to Bring Your Whole Team Aboard the Inclusion Train
In your journey toward organizational commitment to inclusion, it is likely that you may encounter hurdles along the way. Let’s tackle these commonly encountered hurdles through providing best practices and strategies for overcoming them.
Hurdle: Staff does not understand what inclusion really is.
Strategy: Embrace and practice the six principles of inclusion. Share this information with your team and create a personalized development plan/approach to address/discuss at team meetings. Make it a collaboration of thoughts, ideas and actions. Make your team feel included in the process; it is not one-size-fits-all for every recreation program and is based on location, staff, resources and individual participants.
Hurdle: Staff don’t understand they are responsible for inclusion, demonstrate low performance in this area or refuse to participate in inclusion practices.
Strategy: For new staff, evaluate the job description and onboarding process to ensure inclusion-related job responsibilities and expectations are clearly stated. For existing staff, ensure there is an inclusion component in each position’s goals and review during performance evaluations.
Hurdle: Buy-in isn’t strong, or staff display a “this can’t work” attitude or point out past bad experiences.
Strategy: Be heard! Praise what you see, like and want to increase. Start by finding your “champions” and give verbal commendation within earshot of others. In staff meetings, point out great examples of inclusion. Remember, cultural change is a shift in mindset and may take time. Attitude is infectious.
Hurdle: Inclusion specialists are not confident typical staff can do this work.
Strategy: Inclusion specialists should be given the time and support to observe programming in real time and provide guidance to recreation staff. If inclusion is an expectation of all groups, then the choice to not use inclusive practices is eliminated. Create sustainability by “teaching” — not “doing.” Demonstrate strategies or interactions. Delegate responsibility to build more confidence while also letting them know you are here for them.
Build in dedicated disability inclusion training. If you have inclusion specialists, they should lead or co-lead this session. Keep inclusion training at the forefront. Create an inclusion toolkit or resource binder for group leaders and instructors to access. Offer a “tip of the day” or “inclusion thought of the week” posted on a public bulletin board. Provide opportunities to discuss during formal and informal staff gatherings. Share a video or social media clip with your team that emphasizes the benefits of inclusion.
Hurdle: Management sees inclusion as a “check-box” item.
Strategy: Present at a board/senior executive meeting on the benefits of inclusion. Share photos, tell stories, show what’s possible. Invite key decision-makers to observe successful inclusive participation. Ask families to share written testimonials or, better yet, invite them/the individual with a disability to the meeting.
Hurdle: You still have holdouts who don’t believe inclusive practices work.
Strategy: Help them to see where inclusion is working to overcome a negative perception based on an isolated previous experience. Build up empathy, invite a family member or a person with a disability to speak at your staff meeting to share how your inclusive efforts have impacted their lives. Is there a staff member on your team who has dealt with this personally or a nearby recreation program that has had success? Ask if they would be willing to share.
Fundamentals for Building a Solid Foundation
If you follow this guideline for perception and implementation for disability inclusion, your foundation will be stronger, ultimately creating the perfect formula for cultural change and sustainability. Inclusive practices should be used:
- In all settings, places and spaces, including all groups, all ages, both members and employees
- For all participants, those with and without disabilities as strategies are beneficial to all
- By all staff, coaches, instructors and volunteers, and all should be trained, not just inclusion staff.
Lisa Drennan is the founder of MERGE Diverse Abilities Inclusion Consulting.