Camp Inclusion — Its Importance to Kids with and without Disabilities

by O’Ryan Case, UCP’s Manager of Public Education Programs

As a kid, it seemed everyone I knew had great stories and memories about summer camp. I remember seeing television shows and movies, such as Salute Your Shorts and Heavyweights that highlighted the friendships, activities and adventures that come with summer camps. It’s no surprise that, just as it seemed for everyone else, I couldn’t wait to go to camp. Fortunately, I did go one year– to some camp in Virginia after my third-grade year. I loved it. As I expected and hoped, I made new friends, found adventures and spent many a night with my fellow campers scheming to pull the ultimate prank on our camp leaders. But I’ve realized that, if the camp had more kids with disabilities there, it would have made a much bigger impact on my life. 

Camp University of Montana

(Photo Credit: University of Montana Wilderness Institute)

I have cerebral palsy and remember being the only camper there with a (visible) disability. While everyone at camp was super nice and I always felt included, it would have been great to have seen and interacted with other kids who were “similar” to me. There’s a social aspect to having a disability that, unsurprisingly, only those with disabilities can relate to. No matter how kind the world is (and trust me, that means a lot), it means so much to connect with others who, at least somewhat, can relate to my daily experiences and see life through a lens similar to mine. As I think back to the rides, races, water games and other various activities that I loved at camp, I know I would have enjoyed them even more if I was around more kids of all abilities. I am fortunate to now have this type of interaction on a daily basis– professionally here at UCP and personally through social media and events– but experiencing this at such a younger age would have meant so much more.

One of our UCP affiliates, UCP of Delaware, has been running inclusive camps since the 1990s. A few weeks ago, they held a seminar on camp inclusion that I had the pleasure of attending. It was open to families of individuals with and without disabilities, as well as other local agencies and camps. Inclusion, of course, was highlighted and attendees discussed the perceived barriers to operating inclusive camps. While these barriers were addressed and it was powerful (as always) to hear experiences and stories from others, it was nice to learn more about the impact inclusive camps have on those without disabilities. As I and others with disabilities talked about the impacts inclusion has had and continues to have on our lives, many stories about kids without disabilities and how they enjoy interacting with peers with disabilities were shared. Camp directors and family members talked about times when kids would flock to their peers using wheelchairs to get to know them and children with disabilities and their siblings would enjoy their time away from home with one another. It is an exposure that is so impactful at a younger age– and one that teaches patience and an understanding of how everyone has different challenges.


Below outlines some of the major takeaways from UCP of Delaware’s event:


Families and caregivers of children with disabilities:

  • Want their children to be and feel included

  • Want their children to enjoy friendships

  • Like inclusion because siblings can be together

  • Like inclusion because it gives camp that “family” feel

 

Former campers with disabilities explained that camp helped with:

  • Gaining lifelong friends

  • Challenging one’s self

  • Expressing one’s self

  • Building self-esteem

  • Getting out of the house!

 

Some tips to help make camp activities more inclusive:

  • Pair campers up– kids without disabilities can help explain directions and assist with physical activities for kids who may have difficulty doing them on their own;

  • Offer a wide range of activities so that can campers can pick the activities they feel most comfortable doing;

  • Communicate with the campers and their parents– what are their likes and dislikes?

  • Promote teamwork– delegate roles to each team member so that everyone feels included and important.

 

Free ways to become more inclusive:

  • Volunteers

  • College internship programs

  • Donations from local community service organizations

  • Finding adapted recreational equipment from other agencies

 

Getting the word out:

  • Word of mouth! The disability community is small but vocal

  • Letting local disability organizations know you are a resource

  • List yourself as “disability friendly” in annual summer camp lists

 

I thank Bill McCool, Executive Director, Lilia Melikechi, Research Intern and everyone else involved at UCP of Delaware for hosting and allowing me to attend this seminar. If you have any questions or would like to learn more about inclusive camps, please feel free to contact Lilia Melikechi at liliam@udel.edu or (302) 943-7214. Or you can contact UCP of Delaware at ucpde@ucpde.org or (302) 764-2400.

 

For information about a range of disabilities, please contact us at info@ucp.org or visit www.mychildwithoutlimits.org or www.bravekids.org!