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13.13: Recreational Therapy

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    Recreation Therapy

    This section was written by Delfina Newton.

    What is Recreational Therapy?

    The purpose of therapeutic recreation has long been debated.  In the 1980s the National Therapeutic Recreation Society (NTRS) developed a philosophical position stating, “the purpose of therapeutic recreation is to facilitate the development, maintenance, and expression of an appropriate leisure lifestyle for individuals with physical, mental, emotional, and social limitations (NTRS, 1982). Recreation Therapy, also known as therapeutic recreation, is a systematic process or specialized application that utilizes recreation and experiential activities or other activity-based interventions to address the assessed needs of individuals with illnesses and/or disabling conditions as a means to psychological and physical health, recovery and well-being (ATRA, 2020).   

    Early in the twentieth century, recreation became recognized for its value in social reform, as a tool to fight the social decay of inner-city slums (Carter, Van Andel, & Robb, 1995). Recreational activities promote personal development by providing opportunities for self-satisfying experiences, reinforcing a positive self-image, and the achievement of personal goals (1995). Recreation in this context becomes essential to the health and quality of life for all people.  

    The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity (1948). This has been their position since 1948 and it has not changed in all these years. Since recreation experiences enhance health and well-being, they become more and more important to a society that seeks to keep people well. Recreation thus plays a preventative role in health maintenance, and community recreators contribute to health care as they promote recreational experiences. Quality of life is the goal of the new health movement, and recreation experiences contribute to this effort (Sylvester, 1987).   

    Therapeutic recreation has a unique rehabilitative purpose, yet is more than just a natural product of a recreation experience (Carter, Van Andel, & Robb, 1995). Individuals with disabilities, illnesses, or social conditions that limit their full participation in the normative social structure of society need support. Individuals with disabilities have the same human right to, and need for, leisure involvement (Philosophical Position Statement NTRS, 1982). All individuals can experience the therapeutic benefits of recreation whether part of a therapeutic recreation program or self-directed leisure experience. The goal is not to do things for individuals but to adapt and modify to facilitate participation.

    girl playing basketball in wheelchair

    Photo by Danny Nee on Unsplash

    What it Takes to be a Recreational Therapist

    It is important for recreation professionals to understand the needs of individuals with disabilities. Research has shown that in general community leaders have the essential skills necessary, but Pomeroy (1974) suggests they should also have several special qualities, desirable attitudes, and attributes. 

    These attributes include but are not limited to:

    • Stamina and physical energy
    • Enthusiasm and sense of humor
    • Ingenuity, resourcefulness, creativity, and innovativeness
    • Exceptional patience, understanding, and tact
    • A capacity for accepting limited and/or slower process and the ways in which affection and hostility may be expressed
    • A strong commitment to health,  physical education, and recreation as an integral part of the total educative process
    • A willingness to experiment or pioneer with new activities, attitudes, and approaches
    • A willingness to do custodial tasks, such as feeding and lifting, toileting and handling of wheelchairs, beds, and cots

    Austin & Powell (1980) identified five areas of competencies that assist those who serve individuals with disabilities.

    1. The attitudes cluster contains competencies such as:
      • Understands how positive attitudes toward individuals with handicaps or disabilities may be developed within the recreation programs
      • Demonstrates awareness of personal attitudes toward individuals who are ill, handicapped, or disabled
      • Understands various societal attitudes toward special populations
    2. The cluster on facility design and accessibility contains competencies such as:
      • Understands the frustrations experienced in an inaccessible environment
      • Describes physical barriers to accessibility and how they can be eliminated
      • Identifies resources available on the design of barrier-free recreation environments
    3. The cluster on orientation to recreation to special populations -contains competencies dealing with philosophical understandings, including:
      • Develops a personal/professional philosophy of recreation for special populations in community settings
      • States a rationale for the provision of community recreation for special populations
      • Knows the role of services for special populations in the community recreation department
    4. The leadership and supervision cluster contains the following competencies among others:
      • Recognizes the importance of considering individual needs and interests during the program leadership
      • Knows the principles of instructions useful for executing recreation activities for special populations
      • Knows how to facilitate integrated recreational groups (create an atmosphere conducive to mainstreaming)
    5. The mainstreaming cluster contains the following competencies among others:
      • Understands concepts of mainstreaming
      • Understands concepts of normalization
      • Describes approaches to mainstreaming special populations in community recreation

    The competencies identified by Austin and Powell’s (1981) experts constitute a listing of basic skills and knowledge necessary for entry-level professionals assuming positions in recreation and parks as well as the hospitality and tourism industry. 

    Therapeutic Recreation must be characterized by the specific process that uses recreation or experiential activities to achieve predetermined health-directed and health-related objectives (Carter, Van Andel, & Robb, 1995). Therapeutic recreation may be performed in virtually any setting, indoors or outdoors. Regardless of where therapeutic recreation specialists are based, their overriding mission is the provision of purposeful intervention designed to help clients grow and to assist them to prevent or relieve problems through activities, recreation, and leisure. 

    Recreation Therapy in Hospitality

    It is estimated that there are over 1 billion persons with disabilities as well as more than 2 million people who are spouses, children, and caregivers of individuals with disabilities (United Nations, 2020). This represents almost a third of the world’s population who are directly affected by a disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), PL 101-336, was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. The ADA is the most important piece of civil rights legislation ever written (Bullock & Mahon, 1997). It has been referred to as the 20th-century emancipation proclamation for individuals with disabilities. The ADA was written to address the pervasive discrimination that had existed for so many years against the 43 million Americans who have physical or mental disabilities (1997). The ADA guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in employment, public accommodations, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications (1997). The ADA is a comprehensive civil rights law intended to eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities in all aspects of American life. Individuals with disabilities are entitled to the full benefits of citizenship, including all its rights, privileges, opportunities, and responsibilities (1997). 

    This relates to the hospitality industry and beyond because people want to be included in activities regardless of their ability. Our history has shown that segregation of any kind is not conducive to community and ultimately to a positive sense of self. ADA has forced businesses to provide those with disabilities access to programs and services.   Accessible tourism is the ongoing endeavor to ensure tourist destinations, products and services are accessible to all people, regardless of their physical limitations, disabilities, or age (United Nations, 2020). Accessible tourism enables all people to participate in and enjoy tourism experiences. More people have access needs regardless of whether they are related to a physical condition.  This includes publicly and privately owned tourist locations, facilities, and services. 

    The challenges for people with disabilities include:

    • Untrained professional staff capable of informing and advising about accessibility issues and inaccessible booking services and related websites
    • Lack of accessible airports and transfer facilities and services
    • Unavailability of adapted accessible hotel rooms, restaurants, shops, toilets, and public places
    • Inaccessible streets and transport service
    • Unavailable information accessible facilities, services, equipment rentals, and tourist attractions

    If those in the hospitality and tourism industry want to survive and thrive, they must consider the needs of those with disabilities and be ready with solutions to meet their interests and desires as they would for any other guest. The locations that bring in professionals who have an understanding of the needs of individuals with disabilities will find themselves in a proactive position. Their expertise can extend recreational opportunities to those individuals who once thought participation in leisure excursions an impossibility. Locations regardless of country origin need to cater to and acknowledge the barriers to travel. Ensuring wheelchair access to amenities and excursions open travel opportunities to those who once thought it impossible. To boost travel and tourism, locations need to consider accessibility if they want individuals to come regardless of regulations such as ADA here in the United States. The tourism industry has been paying attention to the needs and requests of tourists with disabilities, recognizing that individuals with disabilities have the same needs and desires for tours, which has paved the way for accessible tourism (Loi & Kong, 2017). Locations and tourism professionals that consider the needs of individuals with disabilities as they design and plan programming will find repeat customers and a wave of new ones as they share their experiences. The sky's the limit to the benefits of participation in play, recreation, and leisure programming for individuals with and without disabilities. Take the initiative and educate yourself on how to support those with disabilities so you can be proactive regardless of the setting you work in. This knowledge you bring to the table will be invaluable to the businesses you serve from amenities to the many entertainment and recreational pursuits available. 

    step free route sign.jpg

    Photo by Yomex Owo on Unsplash

    Career Paths

    Career opportunities available in the field of recreation therapy:

    • Recreation Therapist
    • Recreation Specialist
    • Recreation Leader
    • Recreation Director
    • Consultant
    • Entrepreneur
    • Activity Director
    • Camp Director
    • Tour Guides/Escorts
    • Theme Park Director
    • Convention Coordinator
    • Club/Resort/Hotel Manager
    • Social Director


    Austin, D.R., and Powell.  Competencies needed by community recreators to serve special populations.  In Austin, D.R., ed.  Directions in Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, Therapeutic Recreation Curriculum: Philosophy, Strategy, and Concepts.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, 1980, pp.33,34.

    Austin, D.R. (1997).  Therapeutic Recreation Process and techniques (3rd Edition). Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing. 

    Bullock, C.C., & Mahon, M.J. (1999).  Introduction to recreation services for people with disabilities: A person-centered approach (2nd Edition). Champaign, IL:  Sagamore Publishing.

    Carter, M.J., Van Andel, G.E., Robb, G.M. (1995).  Therapeutic recreation: A practical approach.  Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

    Kennedy, D.W, Austin, D.R., Smith, R.W. (1987).  Special recreation opportunities for persons with disabilities.  Philadelphia, PA: Saunders College Publishing.

    Loi, K.I., Kong, W.H. (2017). People With Disabilities in the Tourism Industry Concepts and Issues.  Opatija, Croatia.  Paper Presented and Published at Critical Tourism Studies Conference.

    Meyer, L. (1987) A view of therapeutic recreation: It’s foundation foundations, objectives, and challenges.  In G.C. Zaso (Ed.). Therapeutic recreation dialogues in development: Concepts and action.  Durham: University of New Hampshire, School of Health Studies Recreation, Dance and Parks Program. 

    Moore, V.L. (1976).  A conceptual model for contemporary recreation theory and service.  Dissertation Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School University of Southern California.  

    O’Morrow, G.S., & Reynolds, R.P. (1989) Therapeutic recreation: A helping profession (3rd Edition). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.

    Pomeroy, J., One Community’s effort.  Paper presented at the institute on Community Recreation for Special Populations sponsored by North Texas State University and the Texas Recreation and Park Society, Arlington, TX, July 19, 1974.

    Sylvester, C. (1987).  Therapeutic recreation and the end of leisure.  In C. Sylvester (Ed.). Philosophy of therapeutic recreation: Ideas and issues (vol. 1. pp 76-89).  Alexandria, VA: National Recreation and Park Association. 

    13.13: Recreational Therapy is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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