Helping Your Counselors Welcome All Campers

by Joanne McDonald, M.Ed.

As a camp that runs inclusive programs, we’ve met many potential counselors who have said, “I just don’t think I can work with the kids who have disabilities.” They are usually uncomfortable, afraid, or simply feel that they wouldn’t know how to interact with a camper who has a disability. While there are often specific counselors who specialize in working with campers who have disabilities, campers without disabilities will be watching how every counselor and staff person interacts with every camper. If we are to help all of our campers feel comfortable with each other, we must first help all of our counselors be comfortable with all of our campers. To do this, we must address their fears and provide them with the knowledge and support that will boost their self-confidence in their ability to work with campers of all abilities.

Before the Summer Season Starts

Set the stage for success by working carefully with the families of potential campers to make sure that your camp is a good match for the child. Encourage visits to the camp, so that families can assess whether or not a child with mobility problems will be able to negotiate your camp’s terrain. Explain fully what your program is like, so parents can tell if the schedule has the right amount of structure and activity for their son or daughter.

Find out as much as you can about the potential camper. Ask a lot of specific questions about what the camper would need to be successful. If a parent indicates that the child has some behavior problems, ask what the specific problems are. If the camper takes medication, be sure to let parents know that camp is not the time for a “medication vacation.”

Be honest with families about what your camp can and cannot provide in terms of special supports. Discuss your counselor to camper ratio and your policies on sending campers home. The more information you and the family have, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to determine if your camp is a good match.

During Training Sessions

When camp values are being reviewed, be sure that inclusion is part of your message to counselors. Make it a point of camp pride that every camper is a vital part of your camp community and that every counselor is responsible for making all campers feel welcome.

Transition times
Transition times are difficult for campers with a variety of disabilities. Train your staff to use the following techniques that will help all your campers have smoother days:

  • Let your campers know what’s going to happen at the beginning of each day. With a little creativity, this activity can become a fun camp or cabin ritual.
  • If changes are necessary, explain what’s going on and give campers a few minutes to adjust to the new itinerary.
  • To help with transitions, let campers know that an activity will be ending in ten minutes, then again at the five-minute mark.
  • Campers can be overstimulated by “too much of a good thing.” Plan a balance of exciting and “laid back” activities.

Health issues
When training on health issues, be sure to cover the following points:

  • Campers with disabilities usually need to take their medications at a specific time. Getting meds on time can mean the difference between success and failure at camp, so pay close attention to medication schedules.
  • Many campers with disabilities have a hard time telling when they are beginning to feel physically ill. This is true of campers with learning disabilities and AD/HD as well as those with cognitive disabilities.
  • Counselors will need to be aware of behavioral changes such as increased irritability or unexplained “blue” moods. While these behaviors may indicate changes in the camper’s diagnosed condition, it’s always a good idea to rule out a physical cause. Common unreported illnesses to consider are ear infections, blisters, slivers, or poison ivy.

Training in disability awareness
Provide training in disability awareness. You can find fact sheets posted on the Web sites of advocacy organizations for many disabilities to acquaint your staff with the general characteristics of conditions your campers’ experience. A very effective way to promote understanding is to have counselors participate in a series of experiential exercises that simulate various conditions.

  • Tie a counselor’s legs together and have her use a wheelchair to get around camp. If you take off-site trips, have counselors use wheelchairs to try to get into an accessible stall in a rest room, get a drink of water from a fountain, or make a phone call from a pay phone.
  • Have staff members eat lunch wearing blindfolds. For the first half of the meal, leave them to fend for themselves. For the second half, explain what food is on their plates and where items they will need are located on the table.
  • Ask some of your international staff to teach an activity in a foreign language. Then see how many of your staff members were able to understand how to do the activity.

Follow the exercises with discussions of how the counselors felt during their experiences — Were they frustrated? Did other people treat them differently than they are usually treated?

In addition to a general lack of understanding, people with disabilities often face others who want to protect them or do everything for them. The following exercises will help counselors get a glimpse of what it’s like to have others do too much, rather than let the campers do what they can themselves:

  • Blindfold several counselors. Make sure you ask if any of them have food allergies. If they don’t, tuck a napkin into their shirts and begin to feed them a snack such as applesauce or pudding. Don’t let them know what they are eating or what is going to happen next. When they’re done, wipe their faces with a wet, cold cloth.
  • Have a counselor sit in a wheelchair. Take a walk around camp, not communicating with the counselor, but talking to others around you. Go over bumpy areas, lean on the wheelchair, and stop at a restroom whether the counselor has to use it or not.

For discussion, ask how much control the counselor felt she had over what was happening and what she would have wanted done differently.

During the Camp Season

Make sure that you have enough staff to support your campers with special needs. If a camper needs additional staff, you may be able to find a volunteer from the camper’s family or friends, from a local church, or from a local advocacy agency, such as The Arc. If at all possible, try to let the support person attend without cost.

Another option is to hire extra staff to support campers who have disabilities. Possible funding sources for the extra staff could be state or local mental health or developmental disabilities funding agencies, local coordinating committees that determine how funds are spent for children with special needs, the United Way, churches, advocacy agencies, or grant foundations.

Recognize counselors and campers who do a great job including campers with disabilities. Special attention communicates that inclusion is highly valued at your camp.

Use activities from the Don’t Laugh at Me program and disability awareness exercises with campers. These activities will open up the opportunity for campers to share their own feelings and experiences with each other. Discussions about teasing are particularly appropriate, since being teased is an almost universal experience and campers will be able to immediately see that they have all experienced something in common.

Remember that the end of camp is a transition, and often a very sad one. As your campers prepare to leave their friends and all the fun they’ve had at camp, they may be feeling loss, anger, sadness, and apprehension. Dealing with these emotions can be distressful, especially for campers with disabilities who may not have developed positive ways to express themselves. Counselors should be watching for changes in behavior or increased irritability. Preparing your campers for going home and end-of-camp rituals can be very helpful in easing the transition. If you have a Web site, let your campers know that they can visit your site to see what’s happening next summer and catch up on the news of this summer’s staff and campers.

Campers with varying abilities bring a richness to the camp community. Because camp emphasizes the worth of each individual and the spirit of cooperation, it is the perfect venue for children and teens to discover that we all have things in common and that their lives are fuller when they accept differences among people. Your counselors play a vital role in guiding them along this journey and helping each camper to develop an appreciation of each person’s uniqueness.

Joanne McDonald has a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology. She is a cofounder of Kamp A-Kom-Plish, an inclusive resident camp for children and teens, and the parent of a teen with AD/HD and Bipolar disorder.

Originally published in the 2002 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.