This summer we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, an important piece of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. While there has been great progress in the disability rights movement, we have yet to see a significant number of children with disabilities participating in inclusive community activities.  At Kids Included Together (KIT), our mission is to help organizations meaningfully include children of all abilities. We believe that activities like childcare, summer camp, scouting and arts enrichment programs can be wonderful places for children to learn and play together, and that both children with and without disabilities benefit from inclusion.

However, we know that it is often difficult for parents who have children with disabilities to access these community-based programs. Parents report that programs are often resistant to serving their children, poorly equipped to make the necessary accommodations, or overwhelming to the child due to the environment or group size.  But we have seen that participation in the community is a wonderful complement to an inclusive education and can help a child build friendships, develop talents and explore new interests.

So, here are 5 steps toward getting your child included in your community.

1. Begin with the end in mind

Before signing up for a program, it helps to consider your goals for inclusive recreation. Would you like to help your child develop or enhance social skills? Are you hoping your child will make new friends at camp? Do you need childcare during specified hours? Being clear about your goals for the experience and then communicating them to the program staff will help everyone immensely.

2. Look to your child’s interests and strengths

Inclusion will be most successful if you select a program that is of interest to your particular child. What does he love?  Is she musical? Crafty? Interested in sports? Does your child thrive in large, busy social environment or quieter settings with smaller groups?

3. Find a program

Although, as a parent, you have a right to access any program that is open to children in your community, you may find it easier to work with local chapters of large national organizations. The YMCA, Girl Scouts and 4-H have all made diversity and inclusion a national priority, and these centralized groups may provide training and support to their local chapters. Larger organizations will have more staff and more resources available to meet the needs of all children.

Another way to find a program is through your local childcare resource and referral agency. Child Care Aware has a searchable directory .  Many of the resource and referral agencies have “enhanced referrals” for families who have children with special needs.

Talking to other parents is a great way to find options for inclusive childcare and recreation in your community.

4. Meet them where they are

When approaching a community-based program, it helps to manage your expectations. When you call to inquire or enroll, listen for a welcoming attitude. Try to view this as the start of a partnership that is focused on a successful and enriching experience for the child. The program staff will need help understanding your child’s specific needs, and they will need to be honest with you about what they can provide. Know that even if your child has a one-on-one para-educator during the school day, it is likely not needed in the out-of-school hours–and not something most programs provide. The program can’t legally require you to provide an aide or pay for extra staffing.

Kids Included Together has tools and resources that can help programs support your child’s needs. Here are a few you can share with a program:

What is Inclusion?

Understanding the Laws Supporting Inclusion

You can also share this blog post from Love That Max that outlines “8 Ways to Include Kids with Special Needs…”

5. Celebrate the success

Your child’s education, growth and development are all collaborative processes. There are many adults who will be involved in helping your child develop unique talents and interests. These relationships with others who support your child will be greatly enhanced when you celebrate the little milestones and successes along the way. Was your child practicing the camp song at home last night? Let your camp teacher know! Did your child mention another child in the program in a positive way? Tell the program director, as there may be a budding friendship there.  By keeping the lines of communication open and celebrating your child’s successes as they happen, you will lay the foundation for a partnership–one that will benefit all involved.

At Kids Included Together, our vision is a world where all children are welcomed and valued in their communities. If you find a program that needs our help, please tell them to visit us at KITonline.org or reach out to info@KITonline.org.

Photo Credit: Melanie Holtsman/Flickr

torrie dunlapTorrie Dunlap, Chief Inclusionista at Kids Included Together. Follow her on Twitter @torriedunlap

Five Steps to Getting Your Child Included in Your Community