Last Sunday, the Montgomery County Department of Recreation was honored in Indianapolis by the National Association of Counties. Our local recreation department received one of the association's coveted Special Achievement Awards for developing and implementing a new program that has opened up leisure opportunities for the handicapped.

This breakthrough in our approach to working with handicapped individuals began two years ago. Before 1985 it had been the general practice in the county, and for that matter throughout the country, to relegate all children with handicaps to so-called specialized recreation programs.

What was "special" about these programs was the fact that all of the participants shared handicaps that excluded them from taking part in the wide offering of regular recreation services. The general assumption was that a highly specialized, very controlled environment was the only alternative for children who had any sort of disability -- be it in their ability to learn, to see, to hear or perhaps to have full use of their limbs.

The limits for these youngsters had been set by low expectations, by tradition and by community attitudes. The prevailing wisdom was that nothing could be gained by exposing these children to organized play that "normal" children enjoyed. And of course there was the unspoken fear of the potential disruptive influence these individuals might have on organized play. As a result, children with disabilities were denied choices and often had to travel great distances to get to one specialized service being offered for their disability category.

In 1985 several forces came together to bring about a "mainstreaming initiative" -- a significant change in recreation services for individuals with disabilities. Through this initiative, volunteers and staff are being trained, companions are being provided to youngsters who need them, barriers, both physical and psychological, are being removed and attitudes are being changed. Children who cannot see or hear are attending "normal summer camps" and participating fully. And the "normal" children are accepting each one as "another kid at camp."

In just two years, the results have been extremely encouraging. More than 1,500 young people have participated in a variety of recreation activities. For the first time these individuals have been given choices and a chance to challenge limits previously imposed on them.

The program has just begun and may not be the answer or choice for all people with handicaps. But it does work, and it does offer a new meaning to the pursuit of happiness for many who are disabled.


(The writer was director of the Montgomery County Department of Recreation from 1979 until May of this year.