HOPEWELL VALLEY: Survey assesses recreational opportunities for special needs residents

Nearly 100 people answered the survey

   A survey of Hopewell Valley special needs individuals found that they would like to have more local recreational activities specifically for them.
   Nearly 100 people answered the survey, which was posted on the Hopewell Valley Regional School District website from Jan. 14 to March 11. Individuals (or their parents or families) who ranged in age from under 6 to over age 55 took part.
   The survey asked respondents if they participate in mainstream recreational activities, if they would be interested in activities specifically for special needs participants, and if so, what kind. The survey also asked what barriers the population experienced when it comes to recreation.
   The survey was put together by the Hopewell Valley Special Needs Advisory Committee (HVSNAC), which was formed in 2012. The committee is made up of parents of, and individuals with, special needs, and other community members, including the Hopewell Township Recreation Department and various other government representative, nonprofit organizations and businesses interested in providing special needs recreational opportunities.
   Angela Jacobs, a member of the committee and president of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District Special Needs PTO, said communities such as Hamilton and West Windsor have sports and recreational activities for special needs individuals, but that Hopewell Valley’s offerings are limited. Other communities’ activities are open to Hopewell Valley residents, but often require a long drive that may make it difficult for Valley families to participate, and especially difficult for special needs adults who may use public transportation.
   The idea behind the survey was to find out what special needs individuals and/or their parents say they would like to participate in, and take that information to local businesses, non-profits, and other groups, to see if they would be interested in fulfilling those needs.
   ”We can then approach groups and ask, what can we do to make a given recreation program inclusive, or, is there the possibility of a special-needs only program?” said Ms. Jacobs. “This survey allows us to say, for example, that the 45- to 60-year old special needs population would really like to take part in an art class, and here are the accommodations they would need.”
   Judy Lindenberger, chairwoman of the HVSNAC, said that new recreation opportunities don’t require a lot of money. The survey found that 30 percent of respondents (special needs individuals and/or their families) said they would volunteer to help with the activities. And the results of the survey could represent a unique opportunity for recreation businesses, giving them information about potential customers.
   The findings of the survey include:
   — In almost all the age groups surveyed, more than half of respondents said they would like to see local recreational activities specifically for them.
   — Accommodations that may be needed include small group sizes, volunteer buddies to assist the participants, and/or wheelchair access.
   — Younger respondents (up to age 14) expressed interest in activities that included instrumental and vocal music programs, swimming, horseback riding, bowling, bike riding, martial arts, and general sports programs.
   — Respondents 15 and older also asked for social opportunities that included dinner, cooking and outing clubs, and movie nights, as well as sports and classes.
   The survey found that the percentage of respondents who take part in mainstream recreational activities decreased with age. While 79 percent of children under 6 with special needs do so, that number drops to 45 percent for ages 6 to 11; 40 percent for 12- to 14 year-olds; and just 13 percent of 15- to 18-year olds. Ms. Jacobs noted this makes sense as the gap between typically developing children and those with special needs widens with age.
   In the same vein, the percentage of participants who want new special needs recreation opportunities went up as the population got older. Among under 6 year olds (or their parents), 57 percent would like specially targeted activities; 62 percent of 6 to 11 year olds said they would like such activities; 50 percent of 12 to 14 year olds expressed interest; and 75 percent of 15 to 18 year olds said they would take part in such programs.
   Among the 19 to 35 year olds with special needs, 80 percent expressed interest in having more local recreational activities available, including cooking, bowling, computer and art classes, as well as movie and social clubs, specifically for them. That percentage was 60 percent among 36 to 45 year olds; and 50 percent among those over 55.
   ”After special needs kids age out of the school system (at about age 20), isolation really sets in,” said Ms. Jacobs, noting that increasing recreational opportunities are especially important for special needs young adults to combat that trend.
   Ms. Jacobs pointed to special needs recreation programs in other communities, as well as some already operating in Hopewell Valley, as models. One such program is Next Level Soccer Academy’s (NLSA) TOPSoccer program. In it, members of NLSA’s teams assist special needs kids in a Sunday afternoon soccer program held at The Pennington School.
   Another is the Hopewell Valley YMCA Special Olympics NJ Track program on weekends at Hopewell Valley Central High School. Nigel Bates, a Hopewell Valley Central High School senior who coaches the program, said it is a good example of how such a program can benefit both the coaches and those being coached.
   ”Coaching Special Olympics track has exposed me to some of the most inspiring young people that I have ever met,” said Nigel, who is an accomplished runner on the HVCHS track team. “I look forward to coming to the (Special Olympics) practice each weekend and feeling the contagious enthusiasm that the athletes have for their sport and the mutual respect they have for one another.”
   Another such program is Therapeutic Riding Program at the Mercer County Equestrian Center.
   The survey results are available at https://www.surveymonkey.com/sr.aspx?sm=Qzu9UkxodVVloKDM3MZHHzoPpo5zWfjLGsifQGu9n5E_3d.
   For more information, contact Ms. Lindenberger at judith.lindenberger@gmail.com.