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Change Yourself; Change Their World: How to Play With Campers With Disabilities
A well-meaning camp counselor once said to her camper, "Don't stare at that person who has a disability." The camper broadly translated that information to, "Don't look." As a result, people who were different became invisible to the camper. Her counselor really meant, "Don't make the individual uncomfortable." As a result of the camper's innocent interpretation, she not only didn't see people who were different, she did not invite or even include them in her environment.
This story isn't that unusual. At times when people encounter a person who seems different, for a host of reasons, they may look away because they don't know what else to do. Tolstoy said, "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself."
One of the ways to change one's self and learn to be more accepting of people with disabilities is to change behaviors when meeting, working, or playing with people with disabilities in any camp setting. When people, including children, know what to do and how to behave, perhaps more positive results will occur, and the world may change one person at a time.
Tips for Special Populations
The following tips are meant to help people know what to do and how to plan for, invite, include, respect, and play with individuals who may be different (culturally, physically, emotionally, or intellectually). The general suggestions listed fit individuals with disabilities and other special populations, and in most cases, their nondisabled peers will benefit as well. Often, it isn't important to know or understand the actual disability or difference. It is more important to have supportive strategies immediately available to include all camp staff.
These suggestions specifically address play with individuals identified as having attention/hyperactivity disorder, learning disability, emotional disturbance, mental disabilities, hearing and/or visual impairment, autism, and other health-impaired issues such as arthritis and cerebral palsy. The strategies outlined may also be useful when playing with English Language Learners (ELL).
Adaptation/Accommodation Strategies for Managing the Camp Environment
Proximity to leader
Giving Directions to Campers
Accommodations for Individual Campers
Modifying a game scenario for one person sends a powerful message of acceptance and respect to all players, as well as a message that conveys that any player's needs will be met.
Navigating a grid of squares taped to the carpet, players discover the unknown path through the maze, using signals developed by the team members. Each of the thirty-four taped squares was sized just large enough for one person to stand. Jen declined the invitation to be an observer and reporter of the team's process—typically, a familiar attempt to involve her, but not a fulfilling alternative for her. One of her friends responded with, "Why not, Jen?" and she replied, "I'd play, but the squares are too small."
Bingo! The tape was pulled up by camp staff, and the squares were made big enough to accommodate the base of the wheelchair. Jen rolled her chair from square to square, as easily as her colleagues stepped from square to square. Jen began the maze with skepticism and ended with elation. Jen reported feeling equal, engaged, and successful in a game—a first since her accident. She remembers that seemingly innocuous game as a beginning step toward her work today, as a spokesperson for persons with disabilities.
Understanding Specific Disabilities and Situations
When individuals are reluctant to play with particular persons, it is helpful to set parameters and expectations.
In setting up the game:
To aid individuals who are hearing impaired, give visual cues. Consider the use of written instructions, or if indoors, put instructions on an overhead or LCD projector.
For the person who is visually impaired, find a partner with whom he or she is comfortable and safe. Braille instructions are an option for written materials. Be spatially cognizant when planning games: arrange for open, easy access to seating and assure that any materials are within reach. Be aware of the proximity of stairs or uneven ground, and carefully orchestrate movement within groups.
Most campers benefit from knowing what to expect. Post or verbally offer an agenda of the day, including what to expect, how long, the number of activities, an indication of the timing for breaks/lunch, and the ending time. Organizing and sharing the beginnings and endings of sections of the program give players structure, predictability, information for appropriate movement, and a feeling of control because they have knowledge (power) of the schedule for the day.
Some campers with learning disabilities and/or emotional disabilities may have difficulty reading social cues. Basically, the behavior does not fit the task. For example, players may have difficulty taking turns; may dominate; may withdraw; become inappropriately loud (use outside voices in inside settings); or become energetically out of bounds.
Some campers with learning disabilities may hear instructions literally, spending the entire activity time finding the perfect partner who "has the same shoes," and never get to play the game. Individuals may be seen mistakenly as socially incompetent, unable to follow directions, uninterested, or even rebellious, when they are merely trying to follow the directions to the letter.
Some campers playing games have difficulty connecting effort with results or action with consequences. If an individual has an internal locus of control, it implies he or she understands effort is connected with results. Interestingly, some individuals have an external locus of control, and the connection is not clear between the effort and the results.
An individual camper could be viewed as nonparticipatory, reckless with the outcome, or simply uncaring. Being clear about the expectation is helpful. Some individuals may display learned helplessness or an overall feeling of powerlessness, an attitude of "what's the point?" or "why try, it never works anyway." Be aware that many factors converge to create a play behavior that may call for sensitivity, thoughtful planning, and positive strategy management.
Draw a Circle That Includes
Play can be used to draw a circle that includes players from diverse backgrounds and skill levels. It is important for leaders to recognize abilities rather than disabilities and use invitation and inclusive strategies to draw all players into the activities. When one player succeeds, all players have a better chance for success.
In summary, it is important to know that all members of a camp community have strengths and areas of need. To increase success in play experiences, staff leaders must embrace the opportunity to make inclusive changes, honoring H.D. Thoreau's statement, "Things do not change. We do."
Faith Evans, M.Ed., owner of PlayFully, Inc., specializes in experiential learning. She is a staff trainer, author, and presenter whose professional camp history spans forty-five years. She can be reached at FaithEvans@aol.com.
Jane Pemberton, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Special Education Program, College of Professional Education at Texas Woman's University. She has a background in camping as a camper, counselor, director, and staff trainer. She currently teaches undergraduate and graduate students interested in working with students with disabilities. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published in the 2007 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.