Saturday, August 8, 2009

Summer Means Camp -- for All Kids

Friday was my daughter Chloe's last day of summer camp -- a six-week program with 500 students, 100 of whom have some type of disability. The model is full inclusion. All kids do all activities, to the best of their abilities, and they learn from each other.

Since Chloe is non-verbal, we relied on daily notes to tell us how she was doing -- and every note assured us she was not only learning, but also having fun. My favorite story was when a child approached Chloe's counselor and asked, "Does she speak sign language?" The counselor said she understood a little, and he signed "friend," played with her the rest of the day, and gave her a hug at the end of the day. The next day, he brought in his favorite stuffed animal so she could play with it. And as he paid more attention to Chloe, the other children did too.

The inclusion model was new for us. For the past three years, Chloe has been in a special school with other children with autism and other delays. This fall, she will attend a public elementary school, and camp showed us how important it is for her to be with typical children even though she requires a different type of instruction.

ABC News recently featured summer camps for children with disabilities. Sean Nienow, director of the National Camp Association, says, camp "is just part of Americana, and if you've got children with particular special needs it's just very difficult for them to readily fit into a mainstream setting."

Peg Smith, the chief executive officer of the American Camp Association, said 17 percent of all accredited summer camps provide programs for children with special needs. "The world today recognizes that kids need to be kids first, regardless of illnesses or special needs," she said. "It only makes sense that the camp experience, if it's truly designed for young people, is accessible to all kids, regardless of their disabilities."

As much as I appreciate the camp that Chloe was able to attend -- and will probably attend for many more summers -- I can't help but think that the high costs of these specialized programs put them out of reach for so many families. I hope that as more people learn about their benefits, they will attract more support and be able to open opportunities for more children.
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