A focus on abilities, not disabilities
Name : Richard Kenney
Special for The Republic
Apr. 15, 2006 12:00 AM
Kelly Ramella helps people focus on their abilities, not their disabilities.
When they enroll in her Foundations of Therapeutic Recreation course at Arizona State University in Tempe, they quickly learn her message.
“Unfortunately, we live in a society where it’s harder to see the strengths of a person with a disability because we’re so stuck on the disability we can see,” Ramella said. “So I teach the students to focus on ability, not disability.”
To illustrate the concept, the two-year ASU lecturer likes to show her class the film Murder Ball, a movie about rugby-playing individuals who are quadriplegic. The students cannot fathom how anyone can play rugby with limitations in four limbs.
“They just don’t get it,” she said. “But after they watch the film they agree anything is possible.”
The Phoenix resident has been a certified therapeutic recreation specialist since 1992. According to the National Therapeutic Recreation Society, therapeutic recreation uses treatment, education and recreation to help people with illnesses, disabilities and other conditions to develop and use their leisure in ways that enhance their health, independence and well-being.
“In the first grade, my best friend had cerebral palsy,” she recalled. “The teacher used students in the classroom to help other students, and I happened to be partnered with Tracey. I knew Tracey; I didn’t know cerebral palsy.”
Ramella is grateful for her experience with her childhood friend. It helped her to see the person first. She also learned to be comfortable with a person with “activity limitations,” a term she prefers to use to the more common “disability.”
“Many students have fears,” she said. “We all do. If a person who is visually impaired comes up and asks you for directions, your heart rate goes up, your palms sweat. You’re not sure what to say. We’re trying to teach students to be more responsive, to overcome those fears.”
After her studies in recreation management at the University of Connecticut, Ramella continued her education at Webster University in St. Louis, where she earned a master’s degree in health services management. She worked in several East Coast hospitals where she provided recreational therapy services to individuals in traumatic brain injury units and adolescents in need of psychiatric care.
“That’s the big selling point about this field,” she said. “It’s very diverse in its applications. You can work with such a variety of populations. You can help a senior with dementia relearn to play the piano or help a teen with Down syndrome train for the Special Olympics.”
Just as there are many populations with which to work, there are as many activities to help individuals grow well.
“When we think about recreation, we tend to think about traditional things like sports or card games,” Ramella said. “But with therapeutic recreation we also look at non-traditional leisure activities like gardening, photography and even scrap-booking. We want to help people find their niche and foster that strength.”
One person who seems to have found her niche is Alexis Newly of Tempe. The 22-year-old ASU senior will soon graduate with her bachelor’s degree in recreation management with an emphasis in therapeutic recreation. Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder one year ago, Newly looks forward to her career possibilities.
“I want to help people with psychiatric disorders,” she said. “I know what it’s like to go through that and feel that I have something to offer them.”
She credits her teacher with helping her to find ways to deal with some of her difficulties.
“Kelly is so amazing,” she said. “She got me into blogging. It’s a way to write my feelings, like a diary. And I’m into art big-time. I volunteer at Art Awakenings, where I help people with mental illness. I help them with art projects like candle-making.”
Newly is enthusiastic about attending an upcoming conference sponsored by the Arizona State Therapeutic Recreation Association, of which Ramella is president.
The organization’s spring convention will be from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday at ASU at the West campus in Phoenix. Participants will learn more about life-story development, youth activities and storytelling to help facilitate self-exploration.
“What’s great about this conference is that people leave with tools,” Ramella said. “They’re going to leave saying, ‘I can use these ideas in my facility.’ ”
There is a limit of 75 participants at the conference. Individuals may register at the door if space is available. For more information, call (623) 584-0040 or (480) 965-6428.