Give Pause For Patience

Allow campers the opportunity to participate and make decisions.

Allow campers the opportunity to participate and make decisions.

Some people think that accessibility for the disabled simply means that a person in a wheelchair has a ramp available.  Yes, ramps are useful and important, but there is much more to being an accessible camp than attaching a ramp onto a building. In fact, I would argue that attitudinal accessibility and barrier-free thinking are the first—and most important—steps in providing a safe and comfortable environment for campers with disabilities.

There are many resources available for creating accessible facilities; hundreds of thousands of dollars could be spent in creating these barrier-free facilities, but buildings don’t make a camp experience amazing and unforgettable, people do. And counselors have an opportunity to make campers with disabilities feel empowered, confident, and independent. All it takes is a little (OK, sometimes a lot) of patience and a “yes” attitude.

Saying Yes

Recently, during a camper drop-off, a parent told me about his son’s first camp experience the previous summer. On the drive home, his son said, “I really like it there. They don’t treat me like I’m different. They just treat me like everybody else.” The highlight of the week was his counselor and the lifeguard letting him dive to the bottom of the pool for a toy. “It took me five tries, but they let me keep trying, and I got it. Because of his disability, no one had ever allowed him to swim without a life jacket before, and they certainly hadn’t let him risk diving to the bottom of the pool multiple times. It turns out that the boy is an excellent swimmer; he just needed someone to say “Yes, you can do it,” and then give him an opportunity to prove it.

People with disabilities hear the word “no” all too often in their everyday lives. Camp should be a place where actions, behaviors, and words tell them “yes.” Campers should be allowed to challenge themselves by trying new things. For example, just because someone doesn’t communicate verbally doesn’t mean that he or she doesn’t want to participate in karaoke. If given a microphone, that person may produce some awesome dance moves and some joyous laughter.

Once you say “Yes, you can” to a camper, it’s important to follow through to make sure with support. Patience will very often ensure success.

Here are some tips for cultivating patience in dealing with campers with disabilities:

In Communication

Campers with intellectual disabilities may take a longer time to process information and formulate a reply; wait for a response before asking another question or moving on to another topic.

Some campers with a physical or intellectual disability may have difficulty speaking, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to say. Wait patiently for them to finish. Don’t interrupt, and don’t try to finish a sentence for them.

Finally, some campers may not communicate verbally at all. If an assistive device, sign language, or another method of communication is used, take the necessary time to learn how the device works; find out what the most common signs mean, and don’t stop chatting because communication is difficult. One of our long-time campers is famous among the staff for his great sense of humor. He communicates by looking up for ”yes,” down for “no,” and grinning when he thinks something is funny. He doesn’t need words to communicate because he makes it clear in so many other ways.

In Programming

Just because some campers may have limited mobility, no mobility, or limb loss, this doesn’t mean non-participation in camp activities. A supportive counselor can give campers the independence that is so crucial for an amazing experience.

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