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Athletes with Disabilities: King County Parks as a Recreation Pioneer


Camping program participant, c. 1958-1960. Series 467, Box 14, Folder 6.

In the postwar 1950s, King County Parks oversaw a robust program of organized recreational activities.  Under departmental leadership emphasizing innovation and expansion, recreation opportunities were extended to new, under-served groups of county residents, including girls and women, senior citizens – and youths with disabilities.


A happy camper, c. 1958-1960.
Series 467, Box 14, Folder 6.

A Pioneering Program

“Adapted recreation” for people with disabilities, both physical and intellectual, was an extremely novel idea in a time when these individuals were often regarded with only pity and were not well integrated into society at large.

In 1958, King County’s recreation leaders launched the pioneering adapted recreation program, the only such year-round program in the Pacific Northwest, and the first in the region to be sponsored by a public agency. In its initial year, 86 children with physical disabilities participated. In two years, participation tripled as children with intellectual disabilities were welcomed into the program.

“We felt that these children should have
opportunities after school, like anyone else”

 Patricia Karrasch, recreation program director.

Inclusion and acceptance


Swimming program participants, c. 1960. Series 467, Box 14, Folder 6.

Recreation leaders encouraged the participation of abled youths alongside those with disabilities. Interaction among the groups was promoted as a social good that fostered inclusivity and acceptance. The program’s philosophy further permitted any participant to try any activity. If one activity wasn’t successful, another was offered in its place.

Expanding Activities


Playing checkers, circa 1958-1960.  Series 467, Box 14, Folder 5

Earliest activities included games, training in crafts, and structured social events. Team and individual sports, such as softball, track, tennis and bowling were swiftly added and many more would follow.

Top: Archery practice, circa 1950s, Series 467, Box 14, Folder 5. Bottom left: Flag raising at camp, circa 1958-1960, Series 467, Box 14, Folder 3. Bottom center: Doing crafts, Camp Lutherwood, circa 1958-1960, Series 467, Box 14, Folder 8. Bottom right: Basketball at Camp Lutherwood, circa 1958-1960, Series 467, Box 14, Folder 8.

A Model Swimming Program

King County Parks’ popular and successful swimming program was extended to adapted recreation, not only as an individual activity, but soon as a competitive sport. This drew national attention. In the mid-1960s, when the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation was developing the first nationwide Special Olympics for youth with intellectual disabilities, planners sought out King County’s recreation specialists to learn how to stage a swimming competition. Two of the seven events at the first Special Olympics games were swimming.


Swimming program participants and helpers, probably at Camp Lutherwood; circa 1960. Series 467, Box 14, Folder 5.
Listen to Patricia Karrasch, recreation director for King County Parks in the 1950s and 1960s, talk about the competitive swimming program and other aspects of recreation for people with disabilities, and how the Parks program contributed to the first Special Olympics.

Interview with Patricia Karrasch, April 19, 1989. Series 50, Department of Parks, Planning and Resources, Parks Division, Oral history interviews, Box 2, tape 1, King County Archives.

Travel by Air, and On to the Special Olympics

Providing opportunities for youth to travel by air to camps and other destinations was already component of the adaptive recreation program.


Parks program participants ready for departure from Seattle’s Boeing Field, circa 1960. Series 467, Box 14, Folder 5.

In 1968, 90 young athletes from Washington State — about 10 to 14 from King County — traveled to Chicago for the first Special Olympics via the team plane of the University of Washington Huskies.

Into the 1970s and 1980s

The models of the Special Olympics, and the older Paralympic Games for athletes with physical disabilities, were replicated at the state level in the 1970s and 1980s through the Washington Wheelchair Games and the Washington Games for Physically Disabled Citizens. King County endorsed the games and helped stage them; many county citizens participated.


Lowell Elementary School student practicing for the 1977 Washington Olympics for the Physically Disabled. Series 467, Box 21, Folder 2.

The original caption for the image to the right reads, “a student at Lowell Elementary School in Seattle practices one of the events which will be featured in the upcoming 1977 Washington Olympics for the Physically Disabled. This is the first year for these Olympics which will be held Saturday, March 5, at Green River Community College near Auburn, Washington. The Olympics are sponsored by the King County Parks Division, the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department, and Green River Community College.”


A young artist, camping at Gold Creek Park lodge near Woodinville, 1980. Series 467, Box 11, Folder 2

As programs for persons with disabilities grew in schools and other public and private organizations, King County Parks continued its own program. At its peak, in the early 1980s, almost 30,000 participants enjoyed a wide range of activities.

Gains in Rights and Accessibility, and a Changing Role for Parks

Over time, and with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, individuals with disabilities achieved new rights, greater visibility, and opportunities alongside all citizens.  During the same time, while King County Parks moved away from organized recreation and toward land stewardship through the creation of regional parks and trails, new accessible designs enabled increased recreational use of County parks by individuals with disabilities.

Looking Forward to the 2018 Special Olympics

As Seattle prepares to host the 2018 Special Olympics, King County can look back proudly at its pioneering role in special recreation.

Campers and staff at Camp Lutherwood, c. 1958-1960. Series 467, Box 14, Folder 6.

Looking Back

Did you or a family member participate in King County’s adapted recreation program, the Special Olympics or other athletic competitions?  Tell us about your experiences by replying below!


Annual reports, 1948-1985; King County Parks and Recreation Department. Series 1714, King County Archives.

Interviews with Patricia Karrasch, Tom Ryan and George Wyse, 1988-1991; King County Department of Parks, Planning and Resources oral history interviews. Series 50, King County Archives.

Photograph files, c. 1948-1998; King County Parks System. Series 467, King County Archives.

Seattle Times news stories about the first Special Olympics:

    “County Parks Sets Meet for Retarded Youth,” May 26, 1968.

    “Chicago ‘Special Olympics’ Set for Retarded Children,” June 2, 1968.

    “State Youths to Compete in ‘Olympics,’” June 27, 1968.

Related King County Resources

October is American Archives Month!
The theme chosen by the Washington State Archives for 2016 is “we love parks.” This is the first of a series of four posts from the King County Archives on the history of King County Parks.


One Comment

  1. natashanboris natashanboris October 5, 2016

    Wonderful article about a beautiful story. Looking forward to learning more! Thanks for writing about an underrepresented population as well.

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