Postgraduate Profiles

Claire Willis

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Thesis: The Participate Project: Facilitating participation in community recreation and leisure activity for children with disabilities.

The ultimate goal of rehabilitation in children with disabilities is participation in home, school and community life. In 1994, the United Nations declared that enabling participation should be a primary aim of rehabilitation services internationally. Over two decades later, research indicates that children with disabilities still experience significant participation restrictions, particularly in sport and recreation activities in the community. This is concerning, as regular physical activity has significant physical and psychosocial benefits, and habits acquired during childhood and adolescence are more likely to be maintained into adult life. As environmental factors have the most significant impact on these outcomes, providing equal opportunities for children and adolescents to be physically active is an imperative consideration for the long-term health and development outcomes of children globally.

Despite this, there remains limited empirical evidence regarding approaches to improve this domain in children and youth with disabilities. In collaboration with the University of Western Australia, Princess Margaret Hospital, Curtin University, Beitostolen Healthsports Centre (Norway) and consumers within the WA community, this research aims to develop an evidence-based, ecological rehabilitation model to optimise community and physical activity participation outcomes in children with disabilities. A needs assessment is being used to develop an intervention, inclusive of both a local environment and international model analysis. A steering group, consisting of consumer and community representatives in Western Australia (WA), guides and contributes to all aspects of this research project to ensure its relevance, importance and successful translation to the wider community. Collating the findings of the needs assessment will provide the context and conceptual basis that will form the key pillars of our Australian rehabilitation model. The intervention will be designed to support children and families in gaining skills and confidence to move into community programs to promote empowerment, social inclusion and physical activity participation in children with disabilities and their families.

Why my research is important

Despite community physical activity participation being identified as a research priority from researchers, clinicians, parents and children with disabilities, interventions specifically designed to optimise these outcomes for children with severe neurodevelopmental disability are yet to be developed. This research will provide a unique and holistic understanding of the mechanisms that contribute to poor participation outcomes in children with disabilities, and may assist in removing barriers associated with physical activity participation in the community. Furthermore, this research will be the first to develop an intervention designed to optimise participation in active recreation and leisure activity for children with disabilities. The intervention will form the missing link of what is considered an integral element of the continuum of care in paediatric rehabilitation. Importantly, the model developed in this research will outline key principles and strategies to guide future program development, support replication into other paediatric rehabilitation frameworks, and assist in enhancing the participation opportunities and quality of life of children with disabilities worldwide.