Leveling The Playing Field

Working at a not-for-profit camp that serves children and adults with special needs and challenging illnesses, I often take for granted the powerful impact of having a barrier-free facility. Recently, at a fundraising breakfast, a young woman spoke about her experience at Camp For All in Burton, Texas.. She explained how excited she was to be able to participate in all of the activities and contrasted her experience to that of a church camp she attended later that summer. At that camp, all she could do was watch everyone else have fun. And then, she was given the “Good Sport” award for observing and cheering others. While this touched many people in the audience, being in the camping industry, I was disappointed her experience was not better.

Adapting activities frequently suggests a lot of work, money and compromised safety. Not only is this incorrect, but most of us “adapt” things all the time. It is a strategy we create to enhance our everyday lives. For example, by putting on sunglasses, we see clearer and protect our eyes, or by attaching a water bottle to our bikes, we are prepared and do not have to stop. We do not think about sunglasses or water bottles in terms of adaptation because it comes naturally. However, when people think of adaptations for children and adults with disabilities, generally, people become challenged and make finding solutions much more difficult.

Methods Of Adaptation

There are basically three methods of adaptation. The first is adaptive equipment, in which equipment is created or modified to allow a person to accomplish a skill. One example is the use of beanbag chairs in canoes for people with limited trunk support. The beanbag allows a camper to be in a position to help paddle the canoe; plus, the bags are not expensive.

Another example of adapting equipment is a floating dock system with water ramps for boating and canoeing. This system allows for the safe transfer of a camper from a wheelchair into a canoe. The canoe can then be slid easily into the water. Camp For All recently replaced the old dock with a new EZ Dock. Although EZ Dock had not used a water ramp for people with special needs before, we were able to collaborate to create a water ramp system with a gangway ramp. The system works well for everyone regardless of physical challenges; plus, we have a dock that will last much longer.

A second example of a method of adaptation is changing how a skill or activity is facilitated. If a camper has a seizure and the head goes underwater, water can be aspirated. To allow a camper the freedom of swimming, lookouts, who are trained to watch and identify a seizure, can be placed around the pool. If a seizure occurs, a counselor can take appropriate action to keep the camper’s head above water while lifeguards approach and take the swimmer to safety.

Inner-tube water polo is a team activity that illustrates how adaptation can be easy, cost-efficient and fun. Instead of regular water polo, all campers–regardless of any special needs–play the game while sitting in inner tubes. All of the campers can participate, and no one is excluded. The kids love it, and it is an easy adaptation that levels the playing field.

The third method of adaptation is changing the rules or procedures to allow a camper to participate. This is usually the most complicated, and has the biggest impact on other participants. Using the example of inner-tube water polo, instead of sitting in the inner tube, allow a camper who is a double amputee to hang on to the tube. Another example involves disc-golf courses. Allow a camper in a wheelchair who has overthrown a disc to have it brought back on the sidewalk at a 90-degree angle from where it landed. This gives the disabled camper a chance to play the game without disruption.


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