Change Yourself; Change Their World: How to Play With Campers With Disabilities

by Faith Evans, M.Ed., and Jane Pemberton, Ph.D.

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

Universal design

  • Universal design is an approach to the design of all products and environments, improving the usability of these products and environments by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability, or situation. An example of universal design is the door on the outside of a building with an entry button displaying the disability symbol. The door's function was designed for individuals with disabilities but is often used by people who are carrying materials and have trouble opening the door or by someone who just wants easy entrance into the building. The handicapped entry is a universal design because it benefits a variety of individuals and also provides individuals with certain disabilities access to the building. The concept of universal design is an important one in planning and playing with individuals with a variety of needs and skills.


  • Noise—assure that the leader can get the attention of the players when the noise or activity level is high. Give the opportunity to practice and master "attention getting" when needed.
  • Attention getting should be strong, clear, and reinforced; reminders may be necessary.
  • Provide directions when distracting noise is not an issue from other groups, traffic, planes, trains, etc.
  • If background noise is unavoidable, use a partner system to support individuals with hearing or attention issues.
  • Participants should be able to see the direction-giving leader. Elevate the leader's physical position in the crowd for efficient viewing and hearing.

Open space

  • Define play boundaries for areas of movement.
  • Provide seating at boundary's edge for those who may need a break from the action.

Proximity to leader

  • Some individuals with disabilities benefit from being physically near the counselor. For larger groups, consider using a microphone with excellent sound quality or manage the group by proximity, meaning the leader's eyes are always on the group, and the group is never behind the leader's back or facing the sun.

Giving Directions to Campers

  • Practice giving a minimum number of clear, one-step directions, using as few words as possible.
  • When needed, break the activity into small steps and model each one at the time. Offer an opportunity to practice if appropriate.
  • Confirm that the campers understand the skill at each step.
  • Number and give all directions in the order in which they will be completed.
  • Keep voice at moderate level and use an attention-getting signal to quiet a group, rather than talking louder.
  • Tell campers what to do, not what not to do. If it is necessary to identify what not to do, do so with the nonexample/ example method. (For example, provide a nonexample of the behavior and then follow immediately with an example of the positive behavior.)
  • Pay attention to, and immediately reinforce, positive behavior using voice and facial reinforcement such as smiling or hand gestures (clapping or OK sign).
  • When possible, connect effort with results; for example, "Good job listening. Your group heard the directions and finished easily," or, "Nice work . . . your team members took turns and came up with several creative answers."

Accommodations for Individual Campers
When planning for group play, determine if any campers will need accommodations. For example:

  • Establish a partner system—two people function in partnership, playing as one, or one partner acts as a prompter for another: "Ready, GO!"; "Now, it's your turn"; or "Here comes the ball."
  • Adapt a game for the use of all body parts, such as, for a person using a wheelchair, use a lap for catching if arms or hands are not fully functioning.
  • Adapt game materials, such as substituting a beach ball for a harder or smaller regulation size ball.
  • If a camper needs modifications to participate (such as using a wheelchair), begin by asking the individual, in a private and respectful way, how he or she would like to be included/supported.


  • Be fair, firm, and consistent.
  • Individuals have the most control over their own behavior. If the group or individual behavior isn't going as expected, first check your own behavior in terms of directions, environment, players versus leaders, activity appropriateness, length of game, time of day, and schedule placement.
  • Use time wisely. Prepare all materials in advance to avoid wait time and the consequent loss of player focus. Regaining player focus is harder than maintaining it with a steady and natural flow of activity.
  • xpect the unexpected! Be prepared for stray dogs; dramatic weather changes (or danger, such as lightning); surprise illnesses or accidents; technology malfunctions or loss of electricity; late beginnings; or early endings . . . and a host of unimaginable challenges.

Modification Scenarios

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.

Jen's Story
Jen (not her real name), a former Winter Olympic Games candidate, was in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. From the sidelines, Jen listened with her fellow players to the directions for accomplishing the Electric Maze, an activity focused on communication.

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.

Sam's Story
Sam, a member of a group tossing balls for Group Juggle, joined the standing circle seated in his wheelchair. Each player brought a chair to the circle to level the tossing field, thus bringing the game to Sam's eye level. Sam, unable to catch a ball with his hands, could receive a well-aimed toss in his lap. A partner sitting next to Sam picked up the ball and sent it on to the next catcher. Two people acted as one player and each played a viable role in the game.

Sandra's Story
During a game session, Sandra, for religious reasons, could not touch or be touched by any member of the opposite sex, other than her spouse or family. Planning ahead, several same-gender colleagues volunteered to be her partner whenever she needed one. The anxiety, which could have resulted in an untenable situation for the group, transformed to fun and comfortable inclusion for all players.

Jose's Story
Another player, Jose, new to the English language and not familiar with a traditional game played in the U.S., connected with a partner, whom he shadowed. The two played as one—running, catching, giving signals. Soon the newcomer was playing with confidence and enthusiasm and able to take his turns alone.

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:

  • Give the time frame. "We'll play for ten minutes . . . it's a short game."
  • Tell the reluctant player that new partners and groups will be formed and reformed throughout the game playing time.

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

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

Originally published in the 2007 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.