Future Reflections          Special Issue: Sports, Fitness, and Blindness

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Summer Camps

by Barbara Cheadle and Lisamaria Martinez

Summer camps are always an adventure, and an integral part of the growing up experience for children. Every year, as winter winds down and spring approaches, savvy parents start doing their summer camp research. The parents of blind kids begin with one extra choice to make when they start looking around for programs; that�s the consideration of whether to send their kid to a regular camp, or to a specialized camp for blind kids or kids with disabilities.

Regular camps have two very significant advantages: first, there are so many more kinds and types of regular camps to choose from in regard to location, theme or emphasis, cost, and structure (day programs or residential); and second, regular camps provide an almost ideal opportunity for socialization with sighted peers. The biggest hurdle to enrollment is that generally camp directors and staff will need to be educated about the capacities of blind kids, and need encouragement and guidance in how to fully include the child. Discrimination based on fear or ignorance does still occur, but is less likely to happen today than in years past. Advance planning, good educational materials (such as the articles in this issue), and gentle but persistent advocacy for your child will usually yield good results.

Specialized camps have some advantages, too. Some specialized camps are blindness skills training programs with recreational activities on the side. Others are more like regular camps with a purely recreational, sports, or thematic focus (i.e., a music camp or math camp), but have the advantage that all modifications for blind students are built into the program. Both types of programs give kids the chance to meet and make friends with blind peers. The most enlightened of these camps are also a rich source of blind role models and mentors in the form of adult and junior counselors, instructors, directors, dorm/cabin monitors, and other staff positions. Such camps also tend to encourage and model independent movement off the sports field as well as on it. Camp rules and policies reflect an emphasis on independence: canes are generally required or encouraged; kids carry their own food trays and bus their own tables; there are no special privileges or jobs granted to partially sighted kids based upon their vision; and campers are generally responsible for themselves and their possessions just like their sighted peers in regular camps. On the other hand, some specialized camps are founded on the premise that blind people need lots of help and special modifications. Although kids will meet other blind kids at such camps, and even have fun with some of the activities, parents should carefully consider whether the trade-off--an atmosphere that encourages dependency--is worth it.

There are also camps that accept children with a wide range of disabilities, or those with very specific disabilities--camps for children with juvenile diabetes, for example. These are sometimes good choices for blind kids with additional disabilities. However, astonishing as it may seem, the directors and staff of these camps may not be any more knowledgeable about blindness than members of the general public. Which means that they may not be any more receptive to including a child with vision loss than a regular camp is. It�s generally best to assume that advance planning, persuasion, and educational materials are helpful whatever camp you investigate for your child.

Here are some simple tips for parents to consider as they investigate summer camps for their blind children:

1. Do insist that your child use his or her cane to get to all activities within the camp. Be skeptical, for example, of a camp that has special guide ropes strung up on the campgrounds to assist blind campers to certain areas. Consider this and other modifications and policies, and ask yourself, �Will this camp encourage and support my child�s overall independence?�

2. Do prepare your child throughout the year to be age-appropriate in self-help skills such as bathing, washing hair, keeping track of his/her possessions, getting a soda out of a machine, etc. Be proactive. Don�t let a lack of personal care skills be a barrier to some wonderful camp opportunities.

3. Do arrange to get camp materials--pamphlets, rules, policies, schedules, and so forth--in Braille or other accessible format so your child can read it her- or himself. Be sure that she or he has reading material for free time at camp, too. A good Goosebumps book can be a big favorite with cabinmates after lights-out, or around the campfire when it�s time to share ghost stories.

4. Don�t assume that special camps for blind children are the best type of camp for your kid. Investigate. Talk to other parents of sighted and blind kids about their kids� camp experiences and consider what is best for your child.

5. Do let your child follow his or her interests when selecting a camp. If art is what your child enjoys, and an affordable art camp is available, by all means, go for it. Try to put your biases or doubts about how blindness might be a barrier aside. Camps are a great place to safely explore interests and develop dreams.

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