Rural communities are widely underserved in myriad ways. From a lack of educational resources to inaccessible medical care, rural populations are challenged to maintain what many of us consider a normal standard of living. When you factor in groups with disabilities, the obstacles to creating a stimulating, fulfilling environment mount even higher.

For students with disabilities, the lack of opportunity in rural environments can cause frustration and isolation. With limited resources, it is difficult to create opportunities tailored to the needs of children and teens with disabilities.

However, difficulty does not mean that efforts can be lackluster. It is imperative that students with disabilities be given as many opportunities as possible, whether physically, emotionally, or academically.

In the face of limited resources, inclusive programs may be the answer. As Ohio University notes, “Athletics can reflect the American civil equality progress … Athletic officials and administrators have the privilege and responsibility of upholding opportunity.” Inclusive athletic programs can create these opportunities for students regardless of their ability, which stands to benefit more than just the players.

Benefits of Inclusive Athletic Programs

For Students With Disabilities

When students are segregated for activities, it limits the people they can form relationships with and creates friendships based on differences. Social skills will not develop as easily or readily when friendships are dictated. In rural communities where population density is lower, inclusivity allows organic relationships to form where students may otherwise be isolated.

Research also suggests that when given a chance to rise to the occasion, students with disabilities can accomplish more when working in an inclusive environment. For schools with limited resources, creating an inclusive classroom benefits both teachers and students.

The research study was academically focused, but concepts such as strategy and game play introduce an intellectual component to physical tasks and suggest that sports may have a similar effect.

Participating in inclusive athletic programs will raise the confidence of students with disabilities. It offers the students a forum to challenge themselves physically, and for students with autism, physical exercise can improve both mental and physical health. When students with disabilities stand to benefit so much from inclusive sports, the idea of denying or segregating their activities is illogical.

For Students Without Disabilities

Typically-developing students will benefit from participating in inclusive athletic programs by teaching empathy and improving a student’s sense of community. Students will also gain perspective by working with peers who have different limitations than they do. Patience and the ability to help peer coach with empathy will impart students with valuable life skills for future social environments.

Beyond perspective and patience, however, inclusive athletic programs model what inclusion should look like across a lifetime. Schools must invest into the character of the students and make inclusion a normal, obligatory part of education creates an expectation that inclusion will also be a priority in the workforce or other future ventures.

As students prepare to leave rural communities, the benefits of inclusive athletics travel with them, both preparing them for potentially more liberal populations in bigger cities, or creating expectations for the future of their community if they return.

Implementing Inclusive Athletic Opportunities

It’s all well and good to discuss providing inclusive athletics, but creating the programs is a completely different challenge. In the face of limited resources and the low population density typical of rural communities, it will require teamwork and determination to create inclusive programs that would be a benefit to all. Regardless of challenges, however, the community has a responsibility to provide equal opportunities to all of its youth.

Call on the Community

Inclusive athletic opportunities are not projects that can be easily spearheaded by one person. It will require the time and energy of many people to implement an effective program. By engaging the community, it becomes easier to determine what best suits the needs of the students, as well as what resources are available.

Volunteers, parents, coaches, and students will have to come together to create an inclusive, welcoming environment. The program will require the use of facilities for practicing and competing (if the program is competitive) as well as equipment and, optionally, uniforms for students. Community members may have the ability to provide, donate, or share supplies if the district is not well-funded.

Utilize Your Resources

To create a program that is beneficial to all involved, research and outside information will be necessary. Engaging with a community social worker is a solid strategy for addressing the needs of all students involved. In a rural area, social workers are called on to be “all-arounders” who understand and can cater to the needs of a variety of different community facets.

Coaches or parents who have had previous experience with similar programs will be an invaluable resource, as will the success stories of other programs. Of course, engaging students with disabilities in the decision-making process will also be beneficial to the students and the program — it creates an investment in the outcome and ensures students that their needs and wants are being considered.

Creating Opportunities

Setting up a program that fits the needs of a specific group will be a process of trial, error, and collaboration. Utilizing local resources is only the first step, and as programs become viable, constantly checking in and evaluating the program will allow it to grow and be successful for its participants.

If you’re looking for inspiration for starting a program in your rural area, consider looking at programs that are already in place in different areas of the country. Special needs programs, as well as inclusive programs, are available in various formats. Reaching out to one of these organizations for guidance, helpful information, or mentorship may prove to be just what’s needed to kick-start a program.

Reaping the Rewards

Creating an inclusive program will create a palpable psychological effect within the community. Students with disabilities will be afforded opportunities that they deserve and may not have had otherwise. In the same turn, typically-developing students will be immersed in a model for inclusion, fostering expectations for the future of their community.

Avery Phillips

Avery Phillips

Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.