By Heather Granger, Recreation Coordinator, Town of Milton
Starting out in my career as a Recreation Therapist in Children’s Rehabilitation, my role involved connecting youth with disabilities to community recreation opportunities. This typically entailed a collaborative assessment to identify their strengths, interests, recreation goals, and any barriers to participation. Sometimes, this meant filling out lengthy subsidy applications to cover the wages of a Support Worker for a week of summer camp. It might also be connecting families with an adapted sports program or sharing inclusion strategies with recreation providers to ensure safe and meaningful participation. Regardless of whether the challenges were financial, physical access, social support needs, or a combination of barriers, all families I connected with had a unique set of circumstances and faced many obstacles. After many years in this role, I gained a vital insight into the systemic barriers that hinder recreation participation for equity-deserving groups.
Unsurprisingly, the Halton Youth Impact Survey demonstrates a strong link between well-being, sense of belonging, and participation in leisure activities for children and youth. The data reaffirms that youth with disabilities face more barriers when it comes to engaging in recreation. In fact, among the youth in Halton who reported having systemic barriers to recreation, 64% identified as having a disability and inadequate income.
When I made a career change from children’s rehabilitation to overseeing inclusion services for the Town of Milton’s recreation department, I was thrilled to be on the other side of implementing supports and programs within a municipal setting. After all, if a family is struggling, municipal recreation is often the first place families seek out for accessible and affordable opportunities.
Within the first few months as a Recreation Coordinator, I met a mom of a 15-year-old son with autism. Being new to Canada, she was unsure about bringing him into a Town of Milton facility. She admitted he had never left her side other than to attend school. When she learned about the ICAN inclusion program, which provides one-to-one assistance for campers, she was interested but apprehensive. After providing her with a facility tour and answering her questions, she registered him for a week of summer camp and inclusion support. Following his week at camp, she told us that attending a camp with his peers was the highlight of his summer. Not to mention, for the first time, she got a short break from caring for him during the nine-weeks’ summer break.
Another family reached out about their 8-year-old child with a developmental delay who loves sports activities. They had tried to enroll him in a house league basketball program, but despite the volunteer coaches’ best efforts, they did not have the resources to help him participate safely. The family asked me if he doesn’t fit into a house league program, where do they go for sport participation? I recommended the Town of Milton’s Move More Sports for ALL program that teaches fundamental sports skills and provides inclusion workers to adapt the activities as needed. Currently offered as a pilot program, it represents a step towards a sense of belonging and a chance to develop physical literacy.
While there are many success stories and genuine efforts to address barriers, the waitlists for these services are long. Inclusion programs are limited, and spots fill within minutes of registration openings. Many families do not have the capacity to arrange specialized supports or even know that these services exist, resulting in their child missing out on the social and developmental benefits of recreation participation. The Halton Youth Impact Survey data shows the increased need for inclusion supports. Census data indicates that in 2019, 12.3% of children and youth aged 5-17 in Ontario reported at least one functional difficulty. Particularly in Milton, the number of youth aged 13-18 has grown by 53% since 2016. Furthermore, in 2018, 29% of kindergarten children are identified as developmentally vulnerable in at least one domain. How do municipal recreation departments keep up with these growing demands to support equity-deserving groups?
With the growing and changing populations in Halton, equity-deserving groups and their families face unprecedented financial barriers to recreation access. Municipal recreation departments are pivotal in ensuring that recreation is accessible and inclusive to all. Increasing subsidy and inclusion supports for registered programs is one solution. However, low cost and low barrier opportunities can make a real difference for a family facing challenges with recreation access. Initiatives such as neighbourhood rinks, playground activation programs, and youth drop-in spaces are all examples of reaching those who face barriers to organized recreation activities, not to mention the value they bring to all community members. Municipal recreation departments have the infrastructure to take the lead in making parks, neighbourhoods, and public spaces accessible for play, social connection, and belonging for all children and youth.
A municipal recreation department cannot address inclusion and access independently. It is a community effort that involves strong partnerships with social services organizations that support equity-deserving groups. Having data from OKN’s Halton Youth Impact Survey is a powerful advocacy tool to show the value and need for increasing low barrier programs and initiatives. By working collaboratively to build awareness of existing services and creating new programs to engage equity-deserving groups, we can cultivate a healthy, interconnected community that supports recreation for all.