With the new year just beginning, a fresh start is on everyone’s mind. However, it’s also a time when parents can be proactive about the future — by scouting out the right summer camp for their children. Because of all the considerations involved, the task of finding that ‘perfect fit’ can be more challenging for parents of children with special needs. Fortunately, expert advice exists to help all families create happy summer camp experiences.
According to Jennifer Lazlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, “There are two kinds of camps: a camp for just kids with disabilities or a camp for everyone with an inclusion program.” The differences are significant, and there are benefits to each.
Exclusive or inclusive?
A camp exclusively for children with disabilities is beneficial in that kids get to be with their peers — other campers who have the same or similar difficulties. “It is frequently good for kids with a mobility challenge,” explained Mizrahi. “Typically, inclusive camps have a lot of activities like rope climbing and canoeing.”
It can be frustrating for a child with physical disabilities to be unable to fully join their peers in assorted activities. Additionally, a camp solely for children with disabilities will most likely know how to handle every possible situation that could arise.
On the other hand, inclusive camps provide children with special needs “the benefit of being able to make friends with their typically developing peers, and vice-versa,” said Mizrahi. “The inclusion aspect benefits both typical and special needs campers.”
However, Leslie Seid Margolis, managing attorney at Disability Rights Maryland, explained that flexibility on the camp’s part should be a huge item on the checklist when searching for an appropriate camp.
She explained, “Maybe a child with autism has some sensory issues and really doesn’t like getting his or hands dirty, so arts and crafts might be an issue. It could be a child with Down syndrome who needs a little extra time to learn a skill.” It may benefit the camper to attend a camp that is happy to accommodate, either getting a little bit of extra help for the camper or finding a different craft or activity that will make the child more comfortable.
“The key is reasonable,” Margolis concluded. The camp shouldn’t have to completely change everything to adapt to a certain child. Look for a camp that is willing to be flexible and make accommodations for your child.”
Ideally, a camp will be required to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act and accommodate disabled children. However, it is important to ascertain whether a camp is required to comply — if the camp is run by a religious entity, for instance, it might not be obliged to provide all of the help a child needs. Accommodations can differ depending on the disability of the child.
The trust factor
The essential thing for a parent to look for when sending their special needs child to camp, however, is trust.
“Parents need to be able to trust that they can tell a camp their kid’s specific needs and trust them to make sure that it will be taken care of,” said Mizrahi. “Sometimes it will fail if there is not trust — a parent won’t feel comfortable telling the camp about a kid needing ADHD medication daily and the kid will be kicked out for being too hyper without the medicine.”
Advanced planning and an honest exchange of information can facilitate the formation of a trusting relationship. For parents, this means giving as much detail as possible regarding what their children’s needs (such as medications, behavioral concerns, etc.). Conversely, the camp staff should be welcoming and willing to work with parents to figure out how best to help their individual child grow and learn.
Parents also may want to share with a camp strategies that have proven effective for their children in other settings.
“Things which have been successful in the school setting such as behavioral support can help too,” said Margolis. “If parents are willing to make school staff such as counselors accessible to camp staff to help consult and plan if there is something potentially complicated, it always helps to have someone they can ask for guidance.”