New program aims to level the playing field for youth with disabilities

Three-year project will develop inclusive recreation opportunities that can be adapted to communities across Canada.

Born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, Morgan Cathcart said taking part in active play as a part-time wheelchair user was discouraging.

"Being outside with my friends was hard because they didn't know how to adapt things for me," she said. "They would be playing in the wood chips and go off towards the playground, and I couldn't get there. It was too far for me so I would end up sitting on the sidelines."

She said doctors provided her and her parents with resources but most of it was information about motor function and basic life skills.

"We were never provided information for sport-specific activities and very little information as it pertains to recreation," she explained.

Despite the lack of guidance, and thanks in part to the determined efforts of her mother seeking out sport-specific and recreation activities for her daughter, Cathcart has been able to live an active lifestyle.

Today, as an instructor with the University of Alberta's Steadward Centre for Personal and Physical Achievement's Free2BMe Program, Cathcart uses her experiences and the knowledge she has gained over the years to work with youth who have a wide range of disabilities.

And though her lived experiences assist her in her role, she's often thought having access to inclusive play information and resources would be beneficial.

"It would make my job a lot easier and would allow me to be more interactive and challenge the kids. How am I supposed to teach them how to play with someone else if I can't get to where they are?"

Now, thanks to a new three-year initiative entitled Promoting Inclusive Play in Alberta, those obstacles to physical activity and free play encountered by Albertans with disabilities will start to fall.

The first year of the program, which is led by The Steadward Centre in collaboration with Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities, will have recreation program planning professionals and stakeholder groups exploring ways to increase access to physical activity and recreation opportunities.

This developmental phase will be followed by two years of implementing a model of evidence-based, inclusive programming across the province that could be easily adapted to communities across Canada.

The Government of Alberta's Ministry of Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women has committed $300,000 to the project to help with the community outreach and knowledge-dissemination portion of the project.

"The Promoting Inclusive Play in Alberta project will help create meaningful opportunities for parents, their children and communities to come together through play," said Minister Leela Aheer, who was at the Steadward Centre today for the announcement of the project. "It will also strengthen the coaching skills of the province's sport and recreation leaders as they encourage and support kids of all ability levels in being active on a regular basis."

According to Steadward Centre director Jennifer Leo, many families-especially ones with members experiencing disability-want to be more active but lack the knowledge, experience or resources to support physical activity engagement.

"Promoting Inclusive Play in Alberta will teach families strategies to build physical literacy and encourage play both in the community and at home," said Leo. "This is crucial to ensure children and youth experiencing disability develop healthy habits and increase their confidence to be more active, more often."

For Cathcart, the program will not only allow youth and families living with disabilities to access physical activity and play opportunities, but will also serve as a bridge to the community to make play integrated between those who live with disability and those who do not.

"My parents knew how to adapt things and so did my teachers, but my brothers, cousins, friends-they didn't know how to adapt play for me, and so there was this segregation," she said. "Promoting Inclusive Play will help bridge that gap by providing everyone with the same resources, so everyone can access the information and interact with each other in a safe, fun, intentional way."