Level The Playing Field

By Kurt Podeszwa

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.

A few simple things should be considered when looking at adapting activities. What is the goal of the activity? If the adaptation makes the goal unattainable, it will not work. Look at a different activity that will work toward the same goal, or rethink the adaptation to meet the goal. 

For each activity, consider if it needs to be adapted. Do not assume that because you adapt one activity, you will need to adapt all of them. Ask the participant(s) what they require--someone who needs a wheelchair for mobility may not need a beanbag chair in a canoe. Also, adapt activities to make things equal, and not to favor a person with a different ability. 

People with different abilities feel patronized when others try to make an activity easier for them. Many athletes who use mobility devices or have visual or hearing impairments want a challenge in a sport or recreational activity, and may just need some simple adjustments to be able to participate.

Make sure you are adapting activities for individuals, not generalities. How a disability impacts an individual is as diverse as individuals. Do not assume because you worked with a person who uses a wheelchair that all people using wheelchairs will need the same adaptation.

Common Mistakes
Some people are afraid to adapt activities because they think it will be too difficult and/or cost too much money. The truth is that most adaptations take little extra time or money. Camp is a place filled with creative people who love to work with kids. It is the perfect environment to adapt activities.  

Another common mistake is over-adapting an activity. Use the K.I.S.S. principle (Keep It Simple, Silly). Talk with campers and their parents to find out how they navigate the world. Many times, the families will be able to help staff determine ways to adapt that had not been considered.

Sometimes activities are adapted so all campers must participate in the same way. This is not always challenging for everyone. Most of the time, it is better to provide alternatives, and then allow campers to choose how they would like to participate. This gives them the power of choice and the opportunity to challenge themselves.

Can-Do Attitude
Adaptation is all about attitude. Staff, parents and campers will react to the challenge of adapting based on the attitude of the leadership. If you act like adaptation is a big deal, it will be. If you approach it with a “can-do” attitude and invite creativity, you will be amazed.

No one knows all of the answers. If you do not know something, ask! The campers and their families can help, but you may also want to talk with people who work with this population all the time. Also, utilize resources like the Internet to help find a special-needs camp in the area, as well as contacts for the special-needs kindred group.

Finally, know what you can handle and what you cannot. Advocates for those with special needs hope more camps can adapt activities for these campers. However, not every camper is meant for every camp. Refer a camper to another camp by keeping a list of organizations in your area and their specialty. And be able to articulate why this individual is not appropriate for your camp.

Typically, camp is a place where one can come to have fun, gain self-esteem, and learn independence. At Camp For All, we do that, and by adapting activities and programs, we help more than 7,000 children and adults discover life through a barrier-free environment. So use your creative staff as well as campers and parents as resources, and adapting activities will soon become second nature.

References And Resources
Wehman, P. & Schlelein, S. Leisure Programs for Handicapped Persons: Adaptations, Techniques, and Curriculum. Austin, Texas: PROED, 1981.

Rosewal G., Dowd K., & Bynum J. Including People with Disabilities in Camp Programs: A resource for camp directors. Martinsville, Ind.: American Camping Association, Inc., 1997.

Bullock, C., & Mahon, M. Introduction to Recreation Services for People with Disabilities: A Person-Centered Approach.  Champaign, Ill. Sagamore Publishing, 1997.

Kurt Podeszwa, the Camp Director for Camp For All in Burton, Texas, has been a camping professional for over 17 years. He has a bachelor’s degree in education and has spent much of his adult life working in outdoor and adventure education.  Camp For All is a camp for children and adults with special needs and chronic illnesses. For more information, visit www.campforall.org.