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Learning Disabilities in Campers
How often do you see the following examples occur in campers? Kenny, a bright ten-year-old, focuses his attention on the counselor's directions during an activity. He appears attentive, but always needs to ask the counselor or a peer to repeat portions of the directions. Sue, an impressionable thirteen-year-old, likes to participate in sports activities, but finds constant misjudging of distances to catch or hit a ball is embarrassing. She slowly withdraws from these activities. And Bob, a competitive fellow, enjoys playing table games except for the ones that require him to spell. He is not going to show you his words or ask for help. If Bob doesn't have the slightest chance of winning, he's not going to play.
The examples describe characteristics of learning disabilities that can interfere with participation in recreation activities.
Most information available regarding learning disabilities focuses on educational intervention and language instruction, usually in a school setting. However, learning disabilities do not disappear when a student is on summer break. At camp, a child is required to read directions, write a letter, and remember important tasks or chores, just as in school. Just like teachers, camp directors and counselors should be familiar with learning disabilities and their characteristics.
Defining Learning Disabilities
The National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (JCLD) defines learning disabilities as a "group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities." They are presumed to be due to a dysfunction of the central nervous system and may occur across a person's lifetime.
A person with a learning disability may also have problems in self-regulatory behaviors, social perception, and social interaction. People with other disabilities, such as sensory impairment, mental retardation, or serious emotional disturbances, or those with extrinsic influences such as cultural differences or inappropriate instruction may have learning disabilities as well; however, the disability is not the result of those conditions or influences.
Once camp directors and counselors understand how learning disabilities affect a camper's recreation skills, they can assist in providing accommodations and/or modifications. They can also teach compensation strategies to improve the camper's success in camp activities.
Accommodations Level the Playing Field
What is meant by accommodation and why is it used? Accommodation means making some kind of arrangement or change for the person having learning disabilities, such as introducing materials, policies and procedures, or equipment, so that the person has an equal opportunity to fully participate in the program.
Accommodations can be as simple as having a baseball catcher wear red gloves under his mitt for administering signals to a pitcher who has visual-perceptual learning disabilities. Audio recording the directions to a craft project for a camper who has dyslexia would be another example. Complex accommodations might consist of breaking down steps and rewriting the rules of a game. The revised game rules with additional steps would then be given to the camper to use as a reference guide to follow during participation in the game.
Modifications Enhance the Activity
What is a modification? This is where an agency reasonably modifies its policies, practices, or procedures to avoid discrimination, allowing equal access and participation to persons with disabilities. Unlike accommodation, modification affects others within the program. For example, Jane, a participant in a recreation exploration class, has a visual impairment in addition to her learning disabilities. Slides are used to depict examples of recreation activities and equipment. Modifications to this program include moving the slide projector as far away from the screen as possible to create a larger image of the slide and employing sound effects of the game in play (e.g., bat striking a ball, racket hitting a shuttlecock, and cheers of the crowd). The latter modification introduces sensory awareness of the activity to Jane and the other participants.
Modifications can serve as innovative teaching techniques for the entire group, not just for the person requiring a different presentation. Other kinds of modifications consist of allowing extra time in a timed word game, using bright green tape to create the boundaries of an inside foul line on a volleyball court, or teaching all soccer players the following mnemonic to remember a play sequence: PIFS (Pass ball with Inside Foot to Stationary player) or PIF SAMP (Pass ball with Inside Foot Slightly Ahead of Moving Player).
The following are guidelines to consider when looking at adapting an activity to the needs of campers having disabilities:
Various parts of an activity, from equipment to rules, can be adapted to improve a learning disabled camper's success. Primary types of adaptations include:
The use of accommodations and modifications through adaptive measures are helpful in improving a person with learning disabilities' success in recreation pursuits, but another important factor is the use of compensation strategies to refine recreation skills.
Compensation strategies are useful techniques or methods to effectively solve problems, approach mastering a task efficiently, learn procedures within an activity more elaborately, and understand a concept when integration and assimilation are required. Some individuals learn these strategies through life experience (the school of hard knocks), while others are fortunate enough to have someone provide them with guidance. It does not matter how compensation strategies are obtained, as long as they are mastered and utilized to render effective participation in an activity of choice. Some examples of self-learned compensation strategies in children and youth include:
In Pursuit of Having a Good Time
When camp professionals learn the characteristics of learning disabilities, recognize these behaviors in campers, acknowledge the need for accommodations or modifications, and deliver those services in an efficient matter, then campers can enjoy a quality camp experience. It may take extra work and special effort to ensure that the Kennys, Sues, and Bobs at camp can enjoy activities as much as their non-disabled peers, but their smiles and laugher will tell you it is all worthwhile.
Lorraine C. Peniston is a learning disabilities specialist at the University of New Mexico. She is also a certified therapeutic recreation specialist and certified leisure professional. She has eighteen years' experience working with special populations in clinical and community recreation settings.
Originally published in the 1999 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.