Empowering People With Disabilities

The Disability Unit at Miami-Dade Parks strives to provide a richer level of park access and experiences to people with disabilities.

By Victoria Galan

Miami-Dade Parks means something different to everyone. For boaters, it means a place to store or launch their vessels. For the golfer, it’s about the six courses where they can hone their game. For parents, it’s about having peace of mind when their children are being cared for in one of several dozen after-school or out-of-school programs.

But for the children and adults with developmental/intellectual or physical disabilities who participate in Miami-Dade Parks Disability Services’ program, Miami-Dade Parks is a lifesaver — and that’s not an exaggeration.

For Carmen Vega, the Miami-Dade Parks Disability Services’ Adult Day Training Program at A.D. (Doug) Barnes Park has been a “home away from home” for her daughter Lillian, 49, and even an extension of the Vega family.

Lillian — a petite, stylish and well-coiffed woman — was born with Down syndrome. She has been in the program since 1992, half of her life. It’s the place where she socializes with friends, practices life skills and enjoys outings.

Her day sounds like a typical day for just about anyone, and that is exactly what Recreation Leader Avery Coats hopes to accomplish. Coats has spent 19 years teaching life skills to students and he has helped change the public’s perception of people with disabilities.

“We work with each of our participants and teach them life skills based on their ability, all to help move them towards becoming more independent,” Coats said. “From practicing hygiene skills to learning to use the microwave to setting goals to learning to swim, we want to make sure that each participant is as self-sufficient as possible, and along the way hope to change the way the world views people with developmental/intellectual and physical disabilities.”

Building Lasting Connections

In 1993, Miami-Dade Parks created the Disability Services unit, a therapeutic recreation program that uses recreation and other activity-based interventions to guide them toward better psychological and physical health, recovery and well-being.

Today, the program is a national model for other park systems across the nation. The goal was not only to provide accessible accommodations like restrooms and parking spaces, but also to connect people with disabilities to all elements of parks. From single-rider golf carts and beach wheelchairs to accessible beach showers and accessible pathways onto the sand, a range of resources ensure everyone can experience all that Miami-Dade Parks offers. Programs are offered to individuals ages six and up.

As manager of Disability Services, Mary Palacios wants to make sure opportunities are offered for personal growth and development, but that they are also taking advantage of everything available to them.

“All of our participants complete an assessment to determine their unique needs. Some of the personal goals may include increasing socialization, improving frustration tolerance, improving self-esteem or increasing self-awareness, developing life skills and leisure awareness,” Palacios said. “As we work with our participants and watch them learn and grow, we are not only connecting to the participant who gets to enjoy these experiences and feel fulfilled, but we also become a link to these families by meeting their family’s needs.”

While the program is based on Life Skills Development III curriculum, it is so much more than that. “This place means everything to Lillian,” Vega said. “We both love the staff, the other participants, the park itself and all the activities she gets to do. I drive an hour and a half each way to bring her here because there is nothing else like it in the city — this is the place that has helped her thrive.” 

Programs for youth with disabilities – ages 6 and up with intellectual or physical disabilities

  • FREE Out of School Programs (funded by The Children’s Trust): Six sites throughout the county
  • Art in the Park
  • S.T.A.R.S: Skills Training for Autism Recreational Sports
  • Water Exercise

Programs for Adults with Disabilities – ages 21 and up with intellectual and/or physical disabilities

  • Special Events: Paralympic Experience, Transition Resource Fair, Family Festival
  • Water Exercise
  • Swimming Lessons
  • Miami HEAT Wheels Wheelchair Basketball Team
  • Archery
  • Leisure Education & Planning Skills (L.E.A.P.S.) ages 15-25
  • Handcycling (ages 15 and up)
  • Boccia Clinic
  • Saturday in the Park

A Great New Place to Play – The Miracle League

Tamiami Park has unveiled the Miracle League of Miami-Dade’s new specially designed ball field for children with disabilities.  The field was made possible by the Miami Marlins and the Marlins Foundation, who have been working alongside the Parks Foundation of Miami-Dade to raise $500,000 for the project.

“This ballpark is a symbol of Parks’ willingness to make inclusion participation happen for all children,” Parks Director George Navarrete said. “My hope is that children and adults with disabilities will enjoy some competitive fun and experience what it feels like to win and lose, what it feels to support and encourage their teammates and that they will learn that no position is too small and that everyone on the team matters.”

The field is made of a rubberized surface so children with walkers, wheelchairs and other assistive devices have improved access to the field and experience what it’s like to play ball.

The Miracle League is a nationwide program that enables children with disabilities to play baseball and be part of a team. Ranging in age from 5 to 20, these individuals have an array of physical and mental challenges and disabilities that include autism, Down syndrome, cancer and attention deficit disorder.

The first Miracle League facility was built outside of Atlanta in 2000 and now, with the opening of the field at Tamiami Park, there are 236 Miracle League fields in the United States and six internationally. In 2009, founders Keith Reilly and Karl Sturge offered special accommodations to a special needs child to play ball in their partner league, Howard Palmetto. They saw the positive impact it had on him, his family, his teammates and the community. From that moment, they decided that every child deserves the chance to play baseball, and they committed to making that happen.

More Articles From Miami-Dade Parks

Above content provided by Parks-Foundation of Miami-Dade and Miami-Dade Parks & Recreation

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