PORTLAND – Amid all the vetoes coming out from the governor’s office, one that may not have received attention is Gov. LePage’s veto of L.D. 1281, “An Act to Provide for Licensing of Recreational Therapists.”
The American Therapeutic Recreation Association defines recreational therapy as a treatment service designed to restore, remediate and rehabilitate a person’s level of functioning and independence in life activities to promote health and wellness and to reduce or eliminate limitations and restrictions on activities of daily living caused by an illness or disabling conditions.
For 30 years, I have taught recreational therapy. I am an associate professor at the University of Southern Maine, teaching and supervising interns in the field.
In all my classes, I am committed to providing students with opportunities to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities to plan and implement the most effective interventions for their clients.
My students have completed their internships at Riverview Psychiatric Center, St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston and River Ridge Rehabilitation Center in Kennebunk, to name a few.
Graduates of the recreational therapy program at USM provide valuable interventions and treatment to diverse groups of vulnerable individuals in Maine, including older adults with dementia/Alzheimer’s disease, adults and youth with substance abuse issues, individuals with mental health problems, and individuals with various physical disabilities, including veterans.
During my years as a recreational therapy practitioner, I utilized recreational therapy with a wide range of vulnerable populations: i.e., incarcerated youth, children with autism and developmental disabilities, adults and youth with mental health problems and individuals with physical disabilities.
Currently, as part of my university scholarship, I am studying the benefits of play and recreation for traumatized children and the use of therapeutic outdoor recreation activities in treating individuals with disabilities, including veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Regardless of the population served or the treatment setting, one constant is the importance of qualified recreational therapists to ensure the effective treatment and the safety of the clients served.
Similar to other allied health professionals, recreational therapists have unique skills and expertise regarding licensure. Without such a credential, there is the inevitable risk of harm to vulnerable individuals from unqualified practitioners.
During my tenure within the field, I have uncovered numerous instances in which practitioners who claim to be recreational therapists but don’t have the proper education and training seriously harmed individuals under their charge.
For example, during an aquatic program led by an unqualified individual, a nonverbal adult with a mental disability drowned because of inadequate planning and supervision. In another situation, a young man with substance abuse and mental health issues was denied adequate nutrition and medical care by an unqualified leader during a therapeutic wilderness program, ultimately leading to the young man’s death. These are a few of many examples.
Similar to Gov. LePage, I also experienced an abusive childhood, and I applaud his efforts to bring childhood abuse to the public’s attention. However, the governor should recognize that abuse is not just isolated to domestic situations.
Sadly, abuse can and does occur in a variety of treatment settings, whether with children, youth, adults or older adults as victims. To protect clients from this potential abuse, professional licensing boards must be in place to cull out recreational therapy practitioners lacking foundational skills and ethical understanding.
Legislators recognized the importance of licensing recreational therapists and approved L.D. 1281. However, Gov. LePage vetoed it, and Republican lawmakers sided with the governor and did not override his veto.
The governor’s only comment regarding his veto was that “creating more regulation and licensing is not the answer” for Maine’s problems. Licensing regulations exist to protect the public, especially the most vulnerable individuals. Without these protections, Maine’s most vulnerable populations are at increased risk.
Recreational therapists are working in our state every day to improve the lives of Maine citizens, especially the most vulnerable. Lawmakers need to act to ensure that recreational therapy remains a viable treatment and that Mainers are protected from unqualified practitioners.
David B. Jones is associate professor of recreation and leisure studies at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.