Future Reflections Jan/ Feb/March 1985, Vol. 4 No. 1

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THE BLIND CHILD AT CAMP

by Doris Willoughby

(Note: This article is helpful for many other situations beside actual camping, including Scouts, dancing lessons, organized sports, etc.)

Would a special camp or a regular camp be better for my child? Should he/she go to camp at all this year? . . . As is so often true, the answer depends on the characteristics of the particular child, and on the characteristics of each camp which might be available to you.

Regular Camps

Thirty years ago it would have been almost unheard of for a blind child to attend. Today it is often done; however, careful planning is still important for best success.

As you look into various camps, be sure to apply the same evaluations you would use if your child were not blind. Is the camp well-run, with a good reputation? Are safety and health regulations carefully observed? Are the types of activities and the length of the session suitable for your child at this age?

During these very first inquiries it may be best not to mention blindness. Otherwise you may find yourself talking to a receptionist who is reluctant to describe the camp's regular programs because she assumes none of them could possible be suitable for a blind camper. First get the basic information about the camp itself; then, if you are interested, talk with the appropriate staff member in detail about your child's needs and interests. The suggestion to avoid mentioning blindness at first may seem inconsistent with our general advice to be frank about it; certainly it would be most unwise to enroll a youngster and approach the first day of camp without having discussed blindness at all. In getting information, however, one must somehow get the basic facts without their being distorted by misunderstandings and misconceptions.

Once you find a camp that looks right, start early to make plans. Fall is not too soon to start working toward the following summer. Early exploration allows plenty of time for research and troubleshooting; and the staff can more easily be objective and positive when they need not act immediately.

Most camps are privately owned and therefore not subject to all the same laws which require public schools to include blind children. However, if your state has a strong "White Cane Law," it will required that facilities open to the public must be open to the blind. Civil rights laws also apply. The matter is complicated, however, by the camper's being a minor and still learning the techniques and methods which a blind adult would use. It is not quite so simple as when a blind adult might say, "I am a mature person and can be responsible for myself. I have mastered the techniques I need for participation in these activities."

Personal contacts are valuable in encouraging a positive attitude. Are you a member of the church which sponsors the camp? Would the local Lions Club take an interest? Does the school principal know the camp director? Put the staff in touch with others who can explain and demonstrate techniques -- blind adults, itinerant or resources teachers, other parents, etc. Often the staff will be more easily convinced by someone other than the child's parents -- after all, they may assume, parents always think that their own child are angelic and able to do anything. One of the best talking points is to show your child's previous success in a rather similar situation -- as, a day camp or a single overnight trip before planning a week at camp. It is also helpful to show the success of another blind youngster.

If your approach says, "I will be glad to provide ideas and methods for including my child smoothly in the daily activities," you will at the same time by implying (very tactfully) "It is indeed possible to include my child, and I am sure you would not want to discriminate unfairly." Offer copies of the books A Resource Guide for Parents and Educators of Blind Children and Your School Includes a Blind Student, available from the National Federation of the Blind. Give specific suggestions such as the following:

Boating or canoeing: No one will be alone in a boat anyway. A blind person can paddle or row as well as anyone. He/she would even be able to steer safely in many situations, with verbal direction.

Swimming (including emergency swimming in case of an overturned boat): Teach skills by moving the youngster's body through the motions, and/or by having him/her examine another person's motions by touch. Sounds such as voices can show where the shore is.

Ball games: Often a specific position is especially appropriate for the blind player, and he/she might be assigned to play there longer than usual. Examples include the center in football, the server in volleyball, and extra fielders in softball. Running may be toward a sound or with a partner. Beeping balls can be helpful, but are not as helpful as it might appear. Also note that usually there is some choice of activities, and if the blind camper finds ball games difficult or uninteresting, he or she might spend more than the typical time in, say, water sports.

Arts and crafts: Provide a tactual medium. Examples include clay; sculpture with natural materials such as rocks and pine cones; macrame; leather work.

Religious instruction: Written materials may be prepared in Braille, large print, or recorded form, or they may be real aloud. If the usual source for reading matter cannot provide religious materials, seek out volunteers who can. Also consult the central publishing house for your religious denomination, and agencies which may specialize in religious materials for the blind (for example, the Jewish Braille Institute of America, Inc., 110 E. 30th Street, New York, N.Y. 10016).

Music: Written music can be transcribed if necessary. Playing an instrument is done by touch and ear anyway. In fact, if you face a problem here, it is likely to be too much time spent with music because of the stereotyped belief that music is especially suitable for the blind.

Hikes: The blind camper can use his/her cane and simply move with the group. In difficult terrain it may be helpful to walk with a partner.

Nature study: Let the blind camper touch objects and living specimens whenever possible. Provide models or verbal descriptions when necessary.

Dressing and self-care: Any youngster old enough to camp overnight should be able to take care of personal needs. If your child has difficulty, work with the school on a specific program for learning.

Talk with the camp staff about your child's methods in clothing management, eating, independent travel, etc., to avoid their unwittingly giving too much help or the wrong help.

Special camps for the handicapped

Why, if blind children can attend regular camps, is there any need at all to consider special camps for the blind or the handicapped? Again, it is a matter of the characteristics of the particular camp and the particular camper. A special camp may offer services and options not readily available in a regular camp, and you may want to consider it in situations such as these:

* Your child is multiply handicapped.
* Your child is extremely inexperienced and hesitant, and you feel that a sheltered situation is needed as a first step before a regular camp.
* The special camp actually teaches alternative techniques such as Braille and cane travel.
* This special camp costs less or is closer to you; or, the special camp is eager to include your child, while the regular camps seem resistant.
* There is the opportunity to socialize with other blind children.

Any of these can be a valid reason for choosing a special camp, and in most parts of the country there is at least one such camp. Let us look at each reason in turn, and note some cautions and considerations for each.

1. Is a special camp really needed if your child is multiply handicapped? a good test is to ask, "If my child were not blind, but did have the same other handicap(s), would I be selecting a special camp? If the answer is a clear yes, then you have your decision. If the answer is "no" or "maybe," then keep looking for alternatives. You may decide to select a special camp at this time but work harder toward making a regular camp possible in the future.

2. If your child is inexperienced and hesitant, redouble your efforts to work with his or her school to build skills and confidence. If you do decide that a special camp is the best choice at this time, beware of the tendency to let that become a permanent decision. Insist that the special camp work with you on specific plans for a regular camping experience in the near future, not merely in vague terms. Urge them to offer actual training programs in the skills needed for independence.

3. If you are fortunate enough to find a camping situation that actually gives lessons in Braille, cane travel, and other techniques, this can be an excellent choice. Occasionally a "summer school" (more typically held at a residential school for the blind), with certified teachers and regular lessons, is transplanted to a camp setting and offers a most creative combination of fun and education.

This happy state of affairs, however, is much more rare than it might seem. All too frequently, a "special camp for the blind" -- often a rather sheltered and undesirable one at that -- masquerades under the name of "education." Ask probing quesitons and insist on specific details. Is time actually spent in instruction, or are they merely saying that some of the staff can read Braille? If there is instruction, is it at the level needed by your child? If the camper is already fluent in reading and writing Braille, what will the camping experience add?

4. Our world is complex, and sometimes we do need to make decisions on the basis of what is available and affordable. None of us have the energy to fight every battle, or the time to search out every possibility.

At the same time, let us not be too ready to accept the less desirable or the last resort. If the regular camps are unwilling to accept your child, why are they unwilling? Have you asked the president of the National Federation of the Blind in your state for suggestions about your local situation? If school teachers recommend a special camp, have you probed their reasons and discussed how to help your child become more independent?

If the local supermarket offered your child a free or inexpensive box of candy bars, you might accept and you might not. You would first consider whether you wanted your child to have all that candy. If the candy would harm the child's teeth or health, it is not a bargain even if it is free. Apply the same test to a camp: however available it may be, do not accept it unless it really is desirable for your child at this time.

How could a camp that is especially for blind or handicapped children actually harm your child? It might set the precedent that he/she needs to be sheltered and cannot do well in a regular situation. It might teach (by instruction or by example) methods that are outmoded -- such as depending on a sighted guide rather than using a cane. It might provide a great deal of contact with other youngsters (or even adults) who are very dependent, have unfortunate personal mannerisms, and lack social skills. (We do not mean to belittle children with such problems. We merely say that it is unwise for any youngsters -- including one who has these problems -- to spend time only with these children. He/she should also have contact with normal, well-adjusted youngsters.) The camp might encourage far too little independence in general, thus giving your child the message that he/she cannot or need not develop real independence. Unfortunately, even agencies for the blind sometimes have such stereotypes and misconceptions.

If a regular camping experience seems unworkable, and if you are not pleased with a special camp, perhaps the best solution at this time is no camp at all. Work with the National Federation of the Blind to develop better choices for next summer or the one after that. Blindness should not force a child to miss the valuable experience of being away from home, with congenial friends, in a rustic setting.

5. There is great value in meeting others who are blind. On the other hand, interests, intelligence, family background, and many other things are important in choice of friends and have no relationship to blindness. Before assuming that the camp is the best place to meet blind friends, consider: (a) The abilities and interests of the particular children at the camp (b) Other possible opportunities for meeting normal, well adjusted blind youngsters and adults.

6. We add a final note about camps for the handicapped in general. Even if other blind children have attended before, and even though the staff are helpful and open-minded, they may lack specific knowledge about the best methods for certain activities. Discuss you child's methods in eating, clothing management, travel, etc., in much the same manner that you would if there had never been a blind camper there before. Even if the staff are very familiar with methods for the blind, they will appreciate finding out just what your child already knows. And you will want to be sure you approve of the camp's methods.

Conclusion

We believe in your child. We believe that you, as a responsible parent, can make wise decisions about camps and other recreational opportunities for your child. If you would like specific suggestions on local situations, contact the president of the NFB in your state, the editor of this newsletter, or the NFB Parents of Blind Children Division. The president of this organization is Susan Ford, 3241 Walter Ave., St. Louis, MO 63143. Telephone (314) 644-1121.

Doris Willoughby is a well-known teacher of visually impaired children and author of several books for parents and educators of blind children. For more information about how to order her books, write to: National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson St., Baltimore, MD 21230.

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