A World of Diversity: Including campers of all abilities in your program

by Jason Lau Wing Keung and Don DeGraaf, Ph.D.

More camps throughout the world are offering inclusive programs such as the one described below. In 1995, twenty-four of twenty-seven YMCA resident camps in Canada routinely included children with physical or mental disabilities as part of their camper constituency. The number of inclusive programs in United States’ camps is increasing as well.

Inclusive programs can help campers with disabilities change their self-perception, improve their self-esteem, and can lead to a greater quality of life. For all participants, inclusion provides an opportunity to eliminate the fear of the unknown, to gain a greater sensitivity and appreciation of diversity, and to reduce barriers.

Camp directors who have little experience with inclusion are often reluctant to create inclusive programs because they feel they do not how to proceed. Yet, there are existing programs that can serve as models in the inclusion process. One such model can be found half way around the world in Hong Kong, where a nonprofit organization called TREATS goes beyond creating an inclusive camp environment to actually using recreation and play to teach life skills and the acceptance of diversity.

TREATS' Mission

TREATS strives to integrate children of different backgrounds and abilities in a recreation setting (e.g., camps), to help promote a better understanding of one another, and to provide them with enjoyable ways of learning life skills. When TREATS was established in 1979, the aim was simply to give children a fun and happy day — a treat — a day away from their noisy, crowded urban environment.

In the 1990s, TREATS expanded its mission to include children and youth of all backgrounds and abilities. The cornerstone of the program continued to be to promote fun and enjoyment by providing well-organized, well-executed, and caring youth development services; however, additional goals were added to include an emphasis on including children with different backgrounds and abilities. Since this time, the program has flourished, and in 1996, TREATS served more than 12,750 children and youth in 102 different programs.

TREATS Program: An Innovative Idea

In conceiving the TREATS program, a model that included several key strategies was developed. These strategies form a blueprint for other camps that are interested in developing inclusive programs.

Structure interaction
Structured experiences allow camp staff to develop programs that meet specific goals. Such programs result in creating more positive attitude changes toward people with disabilities. TREATS acknowledges the importance of structured programs in promoting positive attitudes in participants. Each program is well planned and responds to the needs of the specific groups involved. The overall aim of the program is to develop a safe environment where participants can freely interact and get to know one another.

Encourage extensive personal contact
A camp is considered a closed environment that provides an atmosphere for extensive interaction, allowing campers to see the relationship between their actions and the consequences of those behaviors. By fostering a community with extensive personal contact, inclusive programs provide participants with extensive opportunities to interact and communicate. Such opportunities can increase both communication and understanding between people with different backgrounds and abilities because campers can see the connections that link their behavior to the behaviors of others.

Promote joint participation
By promoting opportunities for joint participation, camp programs can help dispel existing stereotypes held by individuals with different backgrounds and abilities. As stereotypes are broken down, new, more positive attitudes are developed, especially about individuals with disabilities. In order to promote joint participation, TREATS works closely with government and non-government organizations to bring together a wide variety of children, including those with special needs; those living in institutions, small group homes, or crowded public housing; recent immigrants, and youth at risk.

Facilitate equal status
Through joint participation, programs can set the stage for attitude adjustments, yet the most positive attitude adjustments result from an environment that is equal for all. The most important aspect of this concept is focusing on the individual first and the disability second. TREATS facilitators focus on the strengths that each individual brings to the group and value the person for the contribution he can make to the group. The emphasis in the program is to help all campers view their involvement with others as a means to facilitate the leisure experience for the entire group.

Foster cooperative interdependence
TREATS develops programs to emphasize the joy of participating. Throughout the programs, staff focus on the process of the experience rather than the outcome or product of the experience. To facilitate the process, the TREATS program emphasizes cooperative games and creative endeavors, which encourage campers to communicate and work together to achieve a common goal. The emphasis is on developing environments that are friendly and cooperative.

Develop effective communication
The unknown often creates fear for individuals. Exposure and opportunities to communicate with one another are important components that help to break down barriers between individuals. A friendly smile, a helping hand, and mutual support while playing games are also examples of effective communication that help break down barriers between people.

One way TREATS encourages communication is by placing participants in groups of eight to twelve. At least one staff member works with each group. The ratio of nondisabled participants to participants with disabilities is 3 to 1, the percentage of people with disabilities in general society.

Encourage age-appropriate behaviors
For children and youth with disabilities, their peers are important role models who can provide a positive influence on behavior. This influence can be heightened by creating and maintaining an environment that is appropriate to their chronological age. Age-appropriate programs and activities assist camp staff in creating an environment that facilitates equal status between campers of different backgrounds and abilities.

One way in which TREATS promotes equal status is by making the least possible adaptations to activities. Some strategies used to assist campers with disabilities to participate in age-appropriate activities include:

  • Modeling: All games and activities are verbally and visually introduced (including
    a demonstration of the games by staff).
  • Prompting: Pre-planning activities ensures that leaders know what activities are coming next. At times, the leader can give this information to campers with special needs before an activity occurs to give them an edge as the new activity begins.

Lessons to Be Learned

As the TREATS staff learned, partnering with other organizations, using volunteers, commiting to an inclusive programs and its evolution, and training staff and participants can be helpful in creating a smooth-running program. Camp staff can incorporate many of these same ideas into their camp program.

The importance of collaboration
In implementing their programs, TREATS collaborated with other nonprofit organizations and government agencies. Camp professionals need to be constantly aware of opportunities to collaborate with other organizations. Through partnerships, camps can often extend their services beyond their existing resources by pooling their strengths with other organizations.

To be successful, organizations must clearly define goals, understand their partner’s strengths and weaknesses, know the real cost of their involvement, and realize that each partner gives up some level of control to reap the benefits of the partnership. In addition, partners should focus on outcomes and recognize that partnerships usually require a long-term commitment. For example, through partnering, camps can find organizations that will assist with training staff to work with campers with special needs. For the camp, the benefit would be staff development; for the training organization, the benefit may be expanded programming options for children with disabilities.

The evolving nature of programs
The evolving nature of the TREATS program is a constant reminder of the need to understand local needs and of being willing to adapt to meet those needs. Programs should be dynamic rather than static; they must grow and evolve. TREATS’ history shows how their integrated program has evolved and will continue to unfold as opportunities arise.

The need to commit to promoting inclusion
As we move into the next century, camps must commit to helping campers embrace diversity, both ethnic differences and individuals with varying abilities. As one TREATS participant notes, "They may not be as capable as us, but we are all people. We should not discriminate against them and we should get along with each other."

When developing an inclusive program, camps must be committed to:

  • Knocking down barriers and roadblocks so that all children, regardless of ability or background, feel welcome.
  • Having staff and volunteers who are aware, trained, and ready to facilitate an inclusive program.
  • Promoting a process in which each child is seen and respected as an individual with strengths and abilities.
  • Encouraging both physical and social inclusion in all aspects of camp life.
  • Creating a supportive environment where everyone feels both physically and psychologically safe to participate. This means that specific supports are available for children with disabilities
    or medical needs to ensure that they have equitable opportunities for involvement.

Use of volunteers
Many camps may find funding additional staff members difficult. The use of volunteers may be an option. Unless camps aggressively seek to include all types of people in their staff, campers with disabilities will not have the opportunity to identify a counselor who is like them and who can serve as a positive role model. Beyond offering extra help to the organization, a volunteer program can also promote community awareness about the goals of your camp program. In many cases, the more people that are involved in your programs, the more supportive they become of what you are trying to accomplish.

One innovative approach taken by TREATS is to run integrated peer trainings. These trainings include high school students from various backgrounds and abilities. Upon graduation from the trainings, these students often serve as volunteers within other TREATS programs.

Preparing groups for an inclusive experience
The TREATS’ staff members realize that the success of a program depends on the cooperation of many people who are involved in varying ways with the program. Educating and informing teachers, parents, participants, funders, and others is an important component in offering programs.

TREATS often schedules precamp meetings with groups to share expectations and to educate various groups about upcoming programs. The need for such sessions has been reiterated in a study by Rynders, Schleien, and Muustonen (1990), which found that offering training about disabilities to nondisabled campers prior to camp helped all campers make friends more easily and helped campers with disabilities acquire new skills. As a result, camps need to be aware of all possible opportunities to share information and to educate various publics about the benefits of their programs.

Creating inclusive programs is a challenge. Mistakes can and will be made, and there are many details that will need to be worked through to successfully conduct a program that works for everyone involved. However, in spite of possible mistakes, it is important to plunge ahead and put into action strategies that further the core values that are inherent in the philosophy of inclusion — developing character, abilities, creativity, and knowledge and creating a society where everyone is valued. Camp can be a great place to create such programs.

 

Originally published in the 1999 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.

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