According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2016), 8.5 percent of school-aged children are receiving specialized education services, not including those students with specific learning disabilities. Yet, in 2012, campers with disabilities represented only 3 percent of campers attending Jewish overnight camps (Laszlo Strategies, 2013). This implies that a large number of children are not benefiting from the life-enriching and joyful experience of overnight camp. Just like their peers, youth with disabilities have much to gain from inclusive camp experiences, including physical, emotional, and social outcomes (Brannon, Arick, Fullerton, & Harris, 2000; Schleien, Ray, & Green, 1997; Van Belois & Mitchell, 2009).

In the summer of 2015, the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) began an initiative to facilitate inclusion at six camps. The FJC hoped to learn enough to make inclusion scalable across all the 195 camps under its umbrella ( The three-year initiative was closely evaluated so that key elements and best practices leading to successful camp inclusion could be gleaned and made available to other camps wishing or needing to become more inclusive. The comprehensive evaluation — conducted by the InFocus advocacy organization and funded by the FJC — showed that gradually, over the three-year period, the six camps under study moved along a “continuum of inclusion” (Schleien, Ray, & Green, 1997; Schleien, Miller, Walton, & Roth, 2017).

The continuum of inclusion begins at the physical integration level, where campers with disabilities are present and participating alongside their peers at a basic level in the environment. The next major step on this continuum is that of functional inclusion. At the functional inclusion level, campers are functioning in the environment and receiving similar enjoyment and success as campers without disabilities, but typically lack meaningful and ongoing social interactions with their peers. The ultimate goal on the continuum is to reach level three; that is, social inclusion, where participants are fully included, accepted, and supported by their peers (rather than by paid staff), and are developing friendships with them.

The six camps in the initiative either had not previously served campers with disabilities, or were at the physical integration stage of the continuum prior to the initiative. For example, one camp served campers with disabilities who attended a separate, segregated camp simultaneously with a session for campers without disabilities. With little interaction between campers across camps, focus on the development of social interactions and relationships between the differentiated groups was at a minimum. However, through comprehensive training of administrative staff, along with the hiring of an inclusion coordinator at each camp, all camps in the initiative reached the functional inclusion level during the initiative’s first year. At this level of the continuum, campers with disabilities had a physical presence at camp but were not often involved in its social life. At the conclusion of the first summer, many camp leaders and staff were hard-pressed to identify successful stories illustrating campers of varying abilities enjoying one another’s company and initiating friendly behavior (rather than feeling an obligation to be kind to a camper perceived as less fortunate). Examples of inclusion described during the first summer sounded much like this one: “A boy with autism wanted to collect cans on our overnight, so we [staff] got everyone to help.”

In 2016, during the second year of the initiative, camps began to separate themselves along this continuum of inclusion. Camps made substantial progress as they had all reached, to some extent, the third level on the continuum, social inclusion. Rather than reports of being physically present only, or functioning in appropriate ways during activities alongside their peers, staff were beginning to identify examples of specific occurrences of pro-social activity among campers of varying abilities. A large number of campers were actively participating in formal and informal activities, and were becoming socially included in camp life. For example, one camp treated the campers to a fireworks display. A camper on the autism spectrum with noise sensitivity decided he would prefer to watch the fireworks from the “Chill Zone” where the noise of the fireworks would be dampened. He asked one of his friends to join him in this quiet area. The offer was received with excitement, and the campers enjoyed the fireworks together. The peer without a disability thought it was “cool” to hang out in the Chill Zone and support his friend. Moreover, statements made by staff concerning socialization among the campers with and without disabilities became more prevalent in 2016; “With the help of the ‘popular’ boys in our age group, we made one of our inclusion campers [sic] one of the coolest kids at camp. They loved him and took care of him when it came to social situations.” A camp counselor noted, “One of my campers chose our inclusion camper [sic] to be her ‘best friend.’ They shared a bunk and did everything together.” It was clear that all camps were moving forward on the continuum. As one inclusion coordinator stated, “Camp was definitely a more inclusive experience this summer. Last summer camp was like a fetus. This summer we gave birth.”

During the third year of the inclusive camp initiative, in 2017, a cultural shift occurred throughout the cohort of six camps. All the camps progressed along the continuum to a substantial level of social inclusion. Stories of friendships being formed between campers, campers having opportunities to participate with their friends in equitable rather than identical activities, along with a “culture of kindness,” were readily reported.

Staff gave numerous examples of campers instigating social inclusion. For example, “[camper name]’s bunk loved him. They all enjoyed spending time with him. Some said he was their best friend. And they were all sad to see him leave early due to a family trip.” Similarly noted, “I saw daily support to a camper with autism by the rest of his bunkmates. They were helpful and gentle when he needed it, laughed with him when intended to be funny or entertaining, and included him in everything they did.” Some staff noted a change in language among staff and campers. As one staff member said, “It was ‘us,’ not ‘us and her’ [camper with a disability].”

The impact of this cultural shift generalized beyond the camp setting. One camper’s mother reported that her teenage daughter was invited to meet up with a group of peers following camp and to connect with them through social media for year-round friendship enrichment. Furthermore, examples of campers without disabilities advocating for their fellow campers were noted. One senior staff member observed, “I’ve seen a camper tell his friend that everyone needs help with something every now and then, to defend an inclusion camper [sic].” A unit head offered the example, “One of my campers asked everyone to stay silent because he noticed that it was too loud.” Additionally, three prior campers with disabilities were hired as camp staff. These individuals were now in position to serve as role models for other campers.

While the six cohort camps were moving along this continuum of inclusion, they were also serving an increased number of campers with disabilities, along with increased complexities among these campers with disabilities. A 172-percent increase in the number of campers with disabilities served by camps in the cohort over the three-year period was documented. Additionally, the proportion of campers with disabilities to those without disabilities continued to grow. In 2015, 4.2 percent of the campers had a disability, as compared to 8 percent of the total camper population in 2017. It should also be noted that these numbers did not include a vast array of campers who arrived at camp without an identified label or diagnosis, but required supports and accommodations to be successful at camp.

The evaluation team identified several salient changes in these camps across the three-year time frame that helped facilitate this progression along the continuum of inclusion. Through an examination of these considerable changes across camps, we attempt to provide insights into how other camps could become socially inclusive by progressing along the continuum.

Evolving Role of an Inclusion Coordinator

Each camp hired an inclusion coordinator (IC) who was a highly skilled professional, educated in the assessment of support needs related to having a disability, and capable of providing direct support to campers with disabilities. The IC position was year-round (part-time through the fall and winter, gearing up to full-time through the spring, and on site at camp, full-time, throughout the summer months). During year one of the initiative, IC roles included:

  • an extensive intake process
  • assessing campers and identifying their support needs
  • providing inclusion training to staff
  • ensuring camper supports were in place
  • addressing behavioral issues through positive behavior supports (working hands-on with campers) as they arose

Although these professionals were highly educated and trained, they had minimal time and opportunity to utilize their skills to foster social inclusion among the campers. Furthermore, there was a camp-wide focus on diagnostic labels and their associated typical characteristics that likely contributed to the perception of the IC as the inclusion expert, rather than the coordinator of inclusive camp. The ICs’ role, however, evolved over the course of the initiative.

By 2017, ICs were an integral part of the camps’ leadership teams. In addition to assessing camper needs, identifying appropriate individualized supports, building trusting relationships with families, and preparing staff for inclusion, ICs began to assist with the hiring of counselors, making bunk assignments to match camper needs with counselor skill sets, putting universal design strategies into place (described later), and coordinating the overall delivery of inclusive services. This coordination implied that ICs needed to move beyond their hands-on, in-the-trenches ability to work with campers with disabilities, and empower all staff to accommodate these campers in what we refer to as a “decentralized” model. In this manner, the ICs shifted from being inclusion specialists to inclusion coordinators as they delegated the support of campers with disabilities to unit heads, counselors, and activity specialists.

Embracing a Decentralized Model of Inclusion Supports

During the summer of 2015, the ICs were known as the inclusion experts and spent their entire summer “putting out fires” (e.g., campers exhibiting challenging behaviors), as other staff did not feel responsible or qualified to do so. This was largely because of a lack of training and skills. ICs provided training to staff who would be directly supporting campers with disabilities, with the remaining staff simply being introduced to the concept of inclusion and different diagnoses among the campers. Following this summer camp session, activity specialists especially voiced a need for additional training to understand and accommodate campers in their respective program areas.

In 2016, camps began to provide more extensive training on inclusion and supporting campers of varying abilities to a much broader set of staff members (e.g., counselors supporting campers with disabilities, general bunk counselors, unit heads, camper care teams, medical staff, administrative staff, and even some auxiliary staff). Activity specialists were specifically provided additional training and encouraged to design accommodations for campers as needed. The focus of training moved from diagnoses and characteristics of different disabilities to a focus on how all campers could be accommodated based on their individual needs. There was an increased awareness of the positive impact this had on those without a known diagnosis associated with disability.

With the increasing number of campers arriving at camp without an identified diagnostic label, staff’s ability to individualize supports proved to be helpful and necessary. Training modules incorporated a number of role-playing scenarios, which counselors found very helpful. One staff member said, “I loved acting out role plays of scenarios because they gave me concrete examples and allowed me to learn through doing.” Through role plays, the ICs were able to empower staff to problem-solve to accommodate campers with disabilities independently. As one IC stated, “Staff wanted to make things work for all kids.” Several counselors specifically said they desired to meet their campers’ needs without being reliant on the IC (e.g., “Just teach me . . . so I don’t need as much help”).

In 2017, the use of role-playing scenarios became a central part of staff training sessions. Additionally, greater emphasis was placed on the concepts of universal design and “equitable versus identical” programming. The overarching emphasis of these training sessions was on how inclusive camp was everyone’s responsibility. Ongoing training also became prominent. When an incident (e.g., a camper being oppositional and physically aggressive) occurred that a staff member was uncertain how to handle, rather than the IC solving the problem for them, the IC guided the staff member in problem-solving how to improve the situation. The IC then observed the staff member in action and provided them with necessary feedback. This real-time training provided staff with confidence in their ability to address issues independently. One IC noted, “I am no longer called on to put out every fire at camp.”

Counselors and activity specialists were readily able to describe a number of inclusion techniques that they had implemented independently, including adapting activities (e.g., “Adapting the zip line or swing so they can still participate”), using universal design principles (e.g., “Opening a second specialty [activity area] that helps all beginners”), and ensuring campers with disabilities adopted valued roles (e.g., “Had them help at the ropes course to feel important”). Everyone in these camps, including staff and fellow campers, was becoming skilled in inclusive service delivery, as staff’s empowerment trickled down to campers who also wished to see their peers succeed.

Embracing Universal Design and Equitable Versus Identical Program Approaches

When programs and activities are universally designed, they are accessible to the largest number of people to the maximum extent possible. If an activity is designed with universal design principles in mind, it will account for the ability of all individuals to participate, regardless of ability level (Carter & Smith, 2016; Dillenschneider & Burkhour, 2010). One of the strengths of universal design is that strategies that are put into place do not benefit individuals with disabilities only, but everyone in the environment. The seven principles of universal design include:

  1. Equitable use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Simple and intuitive use
  4. Perceptible information
  5. Tolerance for error
  6. Low physical effort
  7. Size and space for approach and use (Austin & Lee, 2013; Dillenschneider & Burkhour, 2010)

Examples of universal design that became commonplace at camp include the use of laminated picture schedules (i.e., listing tasks that must be completed) in cabins to help guide all campers in morning routines. While this strategy was originally designed to support campers with autism spectrum disorder, camp staff discovered that all campers in the cabin benefited through this support. Two camps supported “silent discos” where all campers wore headsets to allow for music of their own liking and volume. All campers were dancing to their own beat, and yet enjoying their social time together. This was a foolproof universal design solution that allowed those who struggled with overstimulation to participate when they typically would not because of the overstimulating environment. All campers benefited as they played music of their liking and danced with their peers. Another example of a universal design approach was the provision of rest areas, or “chill zones” throughout the camp environment that were available to all children who needed to temporarily escape the rigor of the camp schedule or to simply decompress. While initially proposed for use solely by those on the autism spectrum or others who had sensory processing disorders, the value of respite for many campers was soon realized. One final example of a camp activity that was universally designed was when camp staff used aluminum foil boxes to design card holders for campers to use during card games in the cabins. Using this technique, individual players were not tasked with having to hold their playing cards while also having to draw cards from the deck.

Similar to the concept of universal design is that of “equitable versus identical” participation. With this principle in mind, it is recognized that not all campers have to participate in camp activities in identical ways, but should be granted opportunities to participate in similar activities that are equitable in nature. One example provided campers who preferred not to swim with an opportunity to use a rowing (exercise) machine at poolside. This technique provided a particular camper — who was averse to swimming in the pool or lake — with the opportunity to participate in a water-related activity near their peers while also getting some exercise. Another equitable activity was to allow a camper who was slower than her peers to leave an activity earlier for easy transition to the next activity. “Clubs of choice,” where campers selected an activity or program of high interest during club time, was another equitable versus identical activity example described by ICs. These clubs of choice provided opportunities for campers to discover common interests and shared talents among peers of varying abilities, creating a foundation for friendship and moving camp further along the continuum toward social inclusion.

Sustainability of Effort

Camps are recognizing their progress along the continuum of inclusion, as well as the positive benefits this progression is having on staff and campers with and without disabilities. Senior staff have made a commitment to continue the inclusion initiative despite the termination of external funding. However, this commitment comes with financial challenges. It requires a commitment to fund a year-round IC, additional support staff to serve as floaters (providing support where needed versus being assigned to a particular cabin), more in-depth and ongoing staff training for a broad range of staff, and the continuation of efforts to make camp more physically accessible. One considerable step camp leaders took was to secure the support from their boards of directors. They also have sought additional grant funding and donations to support inclusion. On several occasions, an “endowment of inclusion” was identified as a necessary and long-term strategy in support of inclusive camp.

Furthermore, administrators and ICs of this cohort have taken it upon themselves to instruct other camps under the Foundation for Jewish Camp umbrella on how to move along the continuum of inclusion. They formed a “Community of Practice” as a vehicle to share best practices for inclusive camp. They also presented these practices at an annual Leadership Assembly held by the foundation. It is obvious that these camps are committed to maintaining and continuing their progress along the continuum of inclusion.

What Does This Mean for Other Camps?

In three short years, six camps made significant progress along the continuum of inclusion. Their success in a short period of time demonstrated that inclusive camp is feasible and attainable. The cohort demonstrated the fundamental strategies that other camps may learn to pursue. These camp practices lay the foundation for inclusive services to be scaled up to other camps across the country. A quote from one of the camp’s blogs stated it clearly: “Each camper wants to feel accepted and respected, no matter what their differences may be. By showing campers that accepting our differences makes everyone’s camp experience better, the resulting friendships, confidence, and personal growth can be life-changing.”

Role-play Scenario Example

Oppositional Jan

Directions: Role-play and change what the staff should do to avoid a challenging behavior using the 4 P’s (Pick your battles, Prepare, Prune, Praise). Use bold info to help!

Background information: Jan is a ten-year-old camper. Jan gets into arguments very easily and has a difficult time coping when told “No,” and will not admit when she has done something wrong. When you attempt to discuss a challenging behavior with her, Jan will argue and say she did nothing wrong. She has a twin sister at camp and is always vying for attention from peers and adults. She loves camp and loves Robbo, the staff member who serves as the camp’s song leader. She has wanted a guitar pick from Robbo since the first day of camp.

Scenario: Jan falls during the Maccabiah relay race and goes to the emergency room. She fractures her wrist and the doctor gives her a splint. In her cabin she starts to complain to her counselor that the splint is too tight. The counselor takes Jan to the infirmary to seek advice from the nurse. The nurse says she will rewrap the splint to make it looser. After the nurse takes off the splint, Jan refuses to put it back on again. Her counselor rolls her eyes in frustration and says, “You have no choice. You have to put on the splint in order to stay at camp. This is a safety issue.”

Jan says, “No, it’s unfair, I won’t be able to swim or go on the ropes course.” She starts to cry, throws a trash can, and attempts to escape from the infirmary without her splint.

Her counselor yells, points a finger at Jan to stay in the infirmary, and says, “That’s it. If you leave the infirmary you’ll have to go home. Our job at camp is to keep you safe.” Jan tries to run away from the infirmary and is blocked from leaving by her counselor standing in front of the door. After the incident, counselors attempt to discuss the incident with Jan. She is adamant that she has done nothing wrong. Jan is put on a behavior contract. The contract states if Jan throws things or talks back to her counselors again, she will be sent home from camp.

Note: Role-play scenario courtesy of Rachel Adler of JCA Shalom Malibu

Photo courtesy ofMcGaw YMCA Camp Echo in Fremont, Michigan.


Austin, D. R., & Lee, Y. (2013). Inclusive and special recreation: Opportunities for diverse populations to flourish (6th ed.). Urbana, IL: Sagamore.

Brannon, S., Arick, J., Fullerton, A., & Harris, J. (2000). Inclusive outdoor programs benefit youth: Recent research on practices and effects. Camping Magazine, 73(4), 26–29.

Carter, M. J., & Smith, C. G. (2016). Recreation therapy with individuals living in the community: An inclusive approach (3rd ed.). Urbana, IL: Sagamore.

Dillenschneider, C., & Burkhour, C. (2010) Universal design in recreation. In Human Kinetics (Ed.), Inclusive recreation: Programs and service for diverse populations (pp. 137–158). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Laszlo Strategies. (2013). Preliminary Research on Special Needs in Jewish Overnight Camp. Retrieved from:

National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Children and youth with disabilities, Retrieved from

Schleien, S. J., Miller, K. D., Walton, G., & Roth, C. (2017). Evaluation of the FJC Ruderman/Alexander Inclusion Initiative. Greensboro, NC: InFocus.

Schleien, S. J., Ray, M. T., & Green, F. P. (1997). Community recreation and people with disabilities: Strategies for inclusion (2nd Ed.). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Van Belois, A., & Mitchell, J. B. (2009). Summer residential camps: Promoting social interactions and self-efficacy among young adults with special needs. Camping Magazine, 82(6), 40–43.

Kimberly Miller, MS, CPRP, and Stuart Schleien, PhD, have a long history of collaboration in the study and implementation of best practices in inclusive recreation. Both have been published and presented broadly on the topics of inclusive recreation, camp, volunteering, and community inclusion.

Ginger Walton, MSN, FNP, CNLCP, has a nursing background with extensive experience guiding families in planning for the lifelong needs of their child with a disability. Stuart and Ginger are co-executive directors of InFocus, an advocacy organization that empowers individuals of varying abilities who are marginalized by society to create more welcoming, accessible, and accommodating communities.

Lisa Tobin, MS, a diversity and inclusion consultant, has worked with camps across North America to plan for successful inclusion of campers with disabilities.