Recreation Therapy (RT/TR) is a profession that is not widely known, but the benefits are powerful. It was fifteen years ago that I took my National Exam to become a Recreational Therapist. It was 2002 when I decided to return to college to obtain my bachelors in therapeutic recreation at the University of Idaho in a tiny town called Moscow, Idaho. Turning 30 left me feeling like I wanted to pursue something that blended my love of the outdoors and the medical field, and found this field of study through volunteering for Challenge Alaska.
Focusing on the adaptive sports side of RT, I interned at Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra over the Christmas holiday in 2003. That love grew to become my profession for the last 15 years. After finishing school in 2004, I spent the winter in Telluride working for the local adaptive program learning many lessons about working with people with disabilities and teaching them to ski with specialized gear and teaching techniques. I taught people with a variety of disabilities including spinal cord injuries, visual impairments, to cognitive delays and autism.
WHAT IS A RECREATION THERAPIST?
A recreational therapist might help someone regain his or her ability to play soccer, ski or bike after a car accident. Or they might help someone reach emotional goals through artistic expression – the possibilities are broad. But the overall concept is that leisure activities and hobbies can better someone’s quality of life, and these therapists are experts in how play can be therapeutic. According to the American Therapeutic Recreation Association, recreational therapy is a service used to “restore, remediate and rehabilitate a person’s level of functioning and independence in life activities, to promote health and wellness as well as reduce or eliminate the activity limitations and restrictions to participation in life situations caused by an illness or disabling condition.”
Surprisingly, I found patience I never knew I had, along with the gumption and strength to empower those that could not necessarily help themselves. Most days, even though I was supposed to be the teacher and guide, I walked away feeling like I learned a lesson about life. People with disabilities have no choice but to be resilient and persevere. It was my job to figure out a way to teach them how to ski or bike ride with adaptive equipment. Early on I learned to think about not what they didn’t have or couldn’t use but to say; “What can you do, or use?” We’d focus on what they had, adapted and made it work.
Utilizing adaptive sports through outdoor recreation and leisure sports as mountain medicine for the last 15 years has fueled me in this great profession. I’ve seen people’s depression, anxiety, loneliness, mental and physical deficiencies disappear because they learned or relearned how to ride a bike again. They learned what they could do.
WHAT IS THERAPEUTIC RECREATION?
A recreational therapist utilizes a wide range of activity and community based interventions and techniques to improve the physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and leisure needs of their clients. Recreational therapists assist clients to develop skills, knowledge, and behaviors for daily living and community involvement. The therapist works with the client and their family to incorporate specific interests and community resources into therapy to achieve optimal outcomes that transfer to their real life situation.
WHAT IS ADAPTIVE SPORTS?
Adapted sports are recreational or competitive sports for individuals with disabilities. Adaptive sports often parallel existing sports played by able-bodied athletes, if necessary some modifications to the equipment and rules are instilled to meet the needs of the participants. These services are typically designed for people with spinal cord injuries or amputations. We help people achieve transformation through adventure experiences.
One of my favorite success stories is of a veteran who was using prescribed and recreational medication to function in life to deal with chronic pain and PTSD. He came to our program a mental mess. Throughout the summer he attended an outdoor adventure program designed for veterans. The first day we taught him how to paddle a kayak. He paddled with all his might, like he was in a race, and flipped the boat multiple times. Teaching him to slow down, paddle with ease and finesse, he finally caught on that being aggressive wasn’t going to get him anywhere. Slowly, he adopted mindfulness and finesse and was paddling the boat with ease. Throughout the summer and into the winter he learned techniques and leisure activities that turned his life around. Within the year he stopped abusing drugs and alcohol and had weaned himself off the pain medications. Through recreation therapy, he found life, meaning and happiness again. He went on to finish college and become a pilot.
In a world of big pharmaceuticals and rapid technological development, a strengths-based, holistic approach to health is crucial. Here are a few examples of why therapeutic recreation is so important.
Physical inactivity is the 4th leading risk factor of global mortality. Physicians are now taught that they need to educate their patients on the benefits of exercise. Not only does a recreation therapist provide physical activity but they also:
- Help their clients overcome exercise-related barriers
- Identify and sample new forms of physical activity
- Find resources in their community to be can exercise regularly
Research has shown that there is an increased risk of death among persons with a low quantity, and quality of social relationships. Studies show that when people feel more connected to others they have:
- Higher self-esteem,
- Lower levels of anxiety and depression,
- Greater empathy towards others
- Are more trusting and cooperative
The stories I could tell… transformational experiences for people with spinal injuries going from bike riding 5 miles in a hand cycle to trying out for the Paralympics, to parents of children who would watch their child ski or rock climb for the first time when they never thought they could. Everyday this profession has taught me how to persevere and have gained amazing rewards. There were times when I’d see someone make the most beautiful ski turn for the first time and it would bring tears to my eyes. I thought I was the teacher and trainer but mostly felt like a student in those times. Some of these adaptive athletes have become my good friends and we have indulged in many adventures, mishaps and lessons on the ski hill, dirt trail and road.
Not many people can say they utilized their degree after college. I had the blessing of both being a leader in recreation therapy while keeping my photography alive along the way. Fifteen years in the profession and I finally feel like I’m coming into my own. If you have ever felt that feeling of elation, confidence and empowerment after participating in a sport, whether it’s kayaking, hiking biking or any kind of outdoor recreation activity — that is the power of recreational therapy.
If you are interested in obtaining one on one services for your special needs child or person, please reach out.
970-829-8870 or EMAIL.
About Diana – Owner of Your Adventure Rx
Ladies, if you thought you couldn’t do it, think again. If you hang out with us for too long you’ll start believing in yourself and leave knowing you can accomplish anything. Diana is an Adventurer, Certified Therapeutic Recreational Specialist (CTRS), worked as professional outdoor recreation educator for people with and without disabilities for the last 20 years, traveled to over 20 countries and is also certified in Wilderness First Aid. She climbed many mountain peaks, biked numerous trails and paddled all around the world.