Give Pause For Patience

By Patti Sampson

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.

Staff members must be aware that they are acting on behalf of individual campers, so should continually ask for feedback and guidance. For example, in an arts and craft class, in creating a picture frame made of sticks, twine, and other items collected in the woods, the easiest thing for a counselor to do is to grab four sticks similar in size and shape, tie the twine around them, stick some flowers on the frame, and send it home with the camper. But that isn’t the camper’s craft; it’s the counselor’s. Even if the staff member painstakingly chose the sticks, and used only the prettiest flowers—it’s still something the counselor has done for the camper, not with the camper.

Here the counselor has an opportunity to give the camper ownership of the craft. The camper can be escorted over to the pile of sticks and asked how many he or she would like to use, and which ones. In my camper’s case, I would tell him I’m going to start counting, and ask him to communicate “yes” when I got to the number of sticks the camper would like to use.  Then I would start pointing to the sticks until he or she said “yes” to the desired ones. I would do the same for the flowers, acorns, leaves, and any other materials that were available.

The process may take much longer than if I had merely chosen the materials myself, but empowering campers and respecting their opinions is completely worth the extra time and effort.

In Personal Care
Maintaining independence for campers with disabilities is crucial, so staff members must look for these opportunities.

Once again, patience plays a large role in the camper experience. When getting ready for the day in the morning or for bed in the evening, a camper should do as much as possible on his or her own. Ask a camper’s parents or caregivers about a routine at drop-off, and then ask the camper, “What do you usually do at home?” If the camper changes clothes or even chooses pajamas without assistance, allow that choice to continue at camp, too. Once again, it may take more time, and you may have to stay nearby to offer an arm to lean on if the camper is unsteady. Perhaps you go to bed a little later because the camper has to stop and rest a few times on the way to the sink house to brush his or her teeth. But knowing you are reinforcing valuable life skills and encouraging independence and confidence is completely worth it.

So go ahead and build that ramp on the front of the building. Just make sure it’s there not only to get campers from point A to point B, but also to represent a new camp culture and belief system because removing intellectual and behavioral barriers is crucial to camper development and acceptance. This really is the most important step in creating an accessible experience for all campers.

Patti Sampson is the camp director of Easter Seals Nova Scotia, Camp Tidnish for children, youth, and adults with physical and intellectual disabilities in Amherst, Nova   Scotia. Reach her at .