Carlton Plays Tee-Ball: A Case Study in Inclusive Recreation

By: Dale Borman Fink, Ph.D.

Portions of this article have been excerpted and adapted from the book, Making a Place for Kids with Disabilities (Fink, 2000. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.) Names of persons and places are fictionalized to protect confidentiality.

It's one thing to advocate "inclusion" as an ideal in recreation and sports. But what does it mean in the actual day-to-day experiences of players, teammates, families, and coaches?

Persons with disabilities, their families, and advocates in the public policy sphere have increasingly rejected the concept of separate programming and embraced the philosophy of community inclusion -- meaning that youth and adults with mental, physical, behavioral, or other disabilities should receive the supports they need to participate in regular programming available to the general public. A survey of individuals with disabilities conducted by a county recreation department in Maryland found that 90% of the respondents would prefer to be involved in regular programs rather than "special recreation" activities (Richardson, Wilson, Wetherald, and Peters, 1987). The Delegate Body of the Arc (formerly the Association for Retarded Citizens) adopted a position statement in 1992 (P. XIX), strongly endorsing "Inclusive Recreation and Leisure." The resolution called on "organizations currently providing segregated recreation and leisure activities to develop inclusive options" and called inclusive recreation and leisure "an essential component of a quality life for people with mental retardation."

Much ink has been expended in articulating the values and philosophy of inclusion. But what does the implementation of this philosophy mean in practical day-to-day terms? I designed and carried out a research study to answer that and several related questions. Over the course of a year, I interviewed the families of school-aged and adolescent children with disabilities in a Midwestern town which I called Wabash, then followed a dozen of the youngsters into a variety of activities in which they participated, such as drop in recreation, 4-H Clubs, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and martial arts. I also interviewed the volunteers and professional staff associated with the activities, seeking to understand the experience from their vantage points.

The complete findings of the study are available as a book, Making a Place for Kids with Disabilities (Fink, 2000). In this article I want to share one small piece of that study: my observations of a boy named Carlton and the tee-ball team on which he played. With the consent of his foster parents, his coaches, and the program director of the Wabash Park and Recreation Department (WPRD), which operated the league, I followed his experience closely. In order to be a participant-observer in the qualitative research tradition, I took on the role of assistant coach, replete with a team T-shirt. Thus installed, I had the opportunity to watch and learn from Carlton and his teammates.

A profile of Carlton

Carlton had been in foster care along with his biological sister for a year and a half when I met him. he was turning seven in July and was scheduled to enter first grade in the fall. Steve and Sheila, his foster parents, described his primary diagnosis as cerebral palsy but also reported that he had hemiplegia (spasticity on one side of the body), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and a seizure disorder. He was not a talkative child but was able to communicate completely.

Sheila decided to sign Carlton up for a baseball team when she saw how much he enjoyed playing ball in their yard with her older boys. She thought throwing, batting, and running would be good for him, and also, she said, "I wanted him in there for the social skills ... and to help him fit in with other kids," Did Sheila and Steve want the coaches to cut Carlton some slack in light of his developmental delays? No. She told me, "they should push him ... he needs to be pushed."

Carlton wore a plastic brace on his right leg, from the knee to the ankle,and favored that side as he walked or ran. The brace was visible when he wore shorts, which he regularly did to tee-ball practices and games. He used the left arm as much as possible; for instance, wearing his baseball glove on the left hand, then taking it off after he caught or picked up a ball, and throwing with the same arm. He batted off the tee from the right side, however, leaning with most of the weight on the left leg, and using mostly his left arm as he stepped parallel to the tee and swung the bat. When someone reached out to give him a hand shake, reaching with their right toward his right, I saw him instantly retract that hand and substitute the left.

"Playing down"

Most seven and eight year old boys played in a league in which coaches pitches to their own players, and girls that are played in coach-pitched softball. At Sheila's request, Carlton was "playing down" one league so that his limitations would be less apparent. As Sheila put it, Carlton was only "in the 20th percentile for height, and emotionally young for his age." Requests by parents to have children play down in this manner were addressed in the WPRD leagues on a case-by-case basis.

Coaching Carlton

Carlton's coaches were Rhonda, a physical education teacher in the Wabash elementary schools who had twin girls on the team, and Tracy, homemaker and parent of one of the boys. The WPRD Program Director had checked with them before he made the team assignments to make sure they were comfortable coaching a boy who was a bit older than the other players and who might need some extra help. (He did not know the specifics of Carlton's disabilities. The sign-up card asked about medications but it was only Sheila's request to let him play down that alerted the department to the fact that he had special needs.) They assured him that they would do their best. When Tracy telephoned to inform Carlton's family about the practice schedule, she learned for the first time of his cerebral palsy and other disabilities.

At the early practices, Carlton's attention and behavior problems were obvious. Rhonda and Tracy divided the kids into small groups to practice throwing and catching, fielding grounders, and hitting off the tee. Carlton was the only one who fitted away from his assigned group at times. he was also the only one who asked in the middle of practice to go to the bathroom. On two occasions, he began running the bases as if he had just hit a home run. Tracy and Rhonda encouraged him to rejoin them, but did not demand compliance or impose any sanctions for these behaviors.

At one practice before the opening game, Carlton sat down on the field and complained of pain. Steve, who was watching from behind the backstop, told us we should tell him to get up and play. Tracy did that, and he stopped complaining.

At the end of a game or practice, Sheila or Steve often updated us on Carlton's condition. For instance, they told us about changes in his medications that were made after he had a seizure at the beginning of the season. The only concern Steve and Sheila ever expressed about carlton's participation was relating to his tendency to move in front of the protective backstop fencing while teammates were batting -- a tendency they regarded as a product of his ADHD. They asked us to make sure he stayed behind the backstop while other players were batting, and out of the range of fouls or thrown balls.

A comparison of participation

When it came to knowledge of baseball, his teammates had no leg up on Carlton. Rhonda sat the team on the ground and posed a number of questions at the end of an early practice. "Where's third base?" was one of her questions. Only half of the kids could point to it with any confidence.

I typed up field notes after each practice or game. After game two I wrote, "Carlton is able to blend in pretty well, although he had to leave third base for a bathroom break when he was a base runner, and sate down at his position in the outfield around third inning."

In the games, in contrast to the early practices, carlton stayed remarkably close to his assigned fielding positions. He managed to avoid behaviors that would have made him look conspicuously different. Throughout the season, he never ran off the field while we were on defense, or tried to bat when it wasn't his turn, or took off to run the base paths as he had in that early practice. When a batted ball landed near him, he was as good as any of the team at giving it a heave in the general direction of first base.

Some other team members engaged in behaviors that might have been labeled as "socially inappropriate" if displayed by a child with special needs. Kimberly removed her mitt while catching grounders at an early practice and asked, "Can I take this off? My hand is sweaty." While playing third base in game four, she tried to sit down. Still later, she covered her face (while still playing the field) with a rain slicker. In a game in which our opponents were called the Police, Ben, one of our most athletically inclined boys, stood at first base, rooting loudly for the other team -- apparently because he admired policemen.

Cognitive and social progress

In game four, I noticed that Carlton stopped bringing his glove out to the field. This was sensible, because he always removed it to throw and didn't know how to catch with it (a skill in which he was no more deficient than his teammates). With or without his glove on either hand, Carlton paid reasonably good attention to the action throughout the season. In the last game he attended, he wore it for the first time on his right hand, as a left hander should. It served a purely decorative purpose, as he picked up balls with his bare left hand. No one had instructed him to do this.

Although he had effective use of only one arm, Carlton's ability to bat off the tee was no worse than most other players. I noted the following after game four: "Carlton missed 3 or 4 before making a hit in his first bat; next at bat he had 2 misses, 2 that dribbled short of the chalk circle, and one hit the post before connection. This is a little worse than other players but not so dramatic as to be noticeable. Even the sluggers like Ben do hit the post or miss the ball."

It seemed that, with experience, Carlton's ability to focus was slowly improving. his parents pointed out that they had adjusted his medications twice during the season in the after-math of a seizure. Some of the improved focus could have been attributable to these changes.

Peer interaction among the players was minimal but I did observe Carlton speaking more with his teammates at the last game he attended than ever before. I also saw him speak with a child on the opposing team, something he had never done before. He told me that he knew the boy from Bible camp.

One observation was consistent from his first game to his last: He loved it when his teammates, standing behind the backstop, chanted his name when he came up to bat. me field notes after game one stated: "When they [chanted his name], he beamed a bigger smile than I'd seen on any kid all evening. They put the accent on the second syllable: "Carl-tin! Carl-tin! Carl-tin!" Maybe that support was what helped him to belt one so hard! He always needs a reminder to start running, though."

In his last game, I again observed that he "beamed" when he heard his own name chanted. But I also noted for the first time that he took part in the chanting of other teammates' names, and seemed to enjoy it.

Lesson learned

An important lesson we can draw from this case study is that volunteers and professionals involved in recreational activities should get to know the individual participant and beware of making assumptions based on labels. it may sound scary to hear that a child has cerebral palsy, hemiplegia, a seizure disorder, and ADHD -- and yet, in Carlton's case, none of these disabilities turned out to be of any great significance over the course of the season.

A second lesson we can draw is about the importance of projecting a positive attitude towards a participant with special needs even when he or she presents inappropriate behaviors. if Rhonda and Tracy had sat Carlton down or scolded him in response to the inattentive behavior he displayed at early practice, it would have signaled to the other team members that he was "different" (or perhaps "bad"). Instead, they avoided any kind of confrontation and as the season progressed, he was able to meet their behavioral expectations without having been stigmatized in the eyes of his teammates.

Third, we can recognize that the ability of a coach to foster team spirit and inculcate the love of sport can be as important as the ability to support the development of specific athletic skills. Given his physical limitations, there will be no way for Carlton to maintain a level of skill comparable to his teammates as they grow older and move up to the more competitive leagues. Nevertheless, if coaches focus on the social benefits of being on a team as well as the more purely athletic aspects of the experience, there is no reason that children like Carlton should be excluded.

Towards full acceptance

Carlton's peers did not view his behavior or capabilities as different from their own. Once while the team was lined up in batting order, Kimberly asked me, "what's wrong with Carlton?" I paused, cogitating on how best describe his disabilities. Then I followed her gaze to the sidelines where he was sitting with his mom and I realized why she was asking the question. "He has a nosebleed," I explained. That was all she wanted to know.

Above the age of six, we can expect participants in recreational or sports activities to be more cognizant of differences and disabilities than were the players on Carlton's tee-ball team. But with the right kind of guidance from professional staff, coachers, and other volunteers, children and youth can learn to be just as accepting as were Carlton's teammates. And they can cheer on peers who have special needs just as Carlton's teammates did -- not because they felt sympathy for his disabilities but because he was their teammate.

Dale Fink, a former SAC director, is a writer and researcher. He is available for consultations, workshops and writing projects related to quality in school-age care and the inclusion of youth with disabilities. he can be contacted at P.O. Box 363, Williamstown, MA 01267, fax or telephone 413-458-5334, email: dalefink@verizon.net.



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Fink, D.B. (2000). Making a Place for Kids with Disabilities. Westport, Connecticut. Praeger Publishers.

Richardson, D., Wilson, B., Wetherald, L., and Peters, J. 1987. Mainstreaming initiative: An innovative approach to recreation and leisure services in a community setting. Therapeutic Recreation Journal (second quarter): 9-19.

Park & Recreation, Agust 2001, Volume 36, Number 8