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Issues 2 & 3




Thinking of camp this summer?

By Dan Wilkins

camp can't feel my legs t-shirt
The Camp Can't Feel My Legs t-shirt

Camp Attitude. Camp Courageous. Camp Miracles Can Happen. It's sappy, patronizing names like these for camps for kids with disabilities that made us at The Nth Degree do the "Camp Can't Feel My Legs" t-shirt.

The names set the wrong tone and, because of that wrong tone, garner the wrong kind of attention. They perpetuate both the myth and the current reality.

I acquired my disability as an adult. The downside of that is that I grew up barely knowing anyone living with a disability. I cannot remember anyone with a disability -- except for a friend of my sister, who had a hearing impairment. So, when I began the rolling portion of the program, I did so with no information, and a shitload of assumptions. For the average biped, gaining a new and unique perspective is one of the benefits of knowing someone who is living with a disability, as is having someone to call upon should disability suddenly become a part of one's own life.

I can only imagine what it would have been like having had a chance to hang, as kids, with some of the folks I now know. Fun, to be sure -- and life probably wouldn't have been filled with so much uncertainty the first few years after rolling the Camaro in 1980. There is a cool awareness that comes from sharing time in the world.

There are three options in camps for kids living with disabilities:

Option 1: Segregated camps. Historically the most prevalent, and sometimes (but not usually) run by people with disabilities, these camps often provide the first time for kids to meet other kids with disabilities. They usually employ (specially?!) trained staff. They hopefully (!) have accessible buildings, grounds, attitudes and activities -- but some don't. Depending on the attitude and vision of the camp staff, they may offer great potential for kids to build disability community and esteem. But they fall short on the reality of what it is like to interact in the integrated world. By their nature and appearance, they perpetuate the myth of separation; of delineation between non-disabled people and those with disabilities.

Option 2: Integrated camps for kids with and without disabilities, run by an established, mainstream community service agency like the YMCA, developed by good hearted non-disabled folks wanting to do the right thing -- but usually with an ill-trained staff and no real connection with our culture. Kids with disabilities are invited (usually with media hoopla) only to later be patronized, over- (or under-) protected and, often, left behind on field trips because of inaccessible vehicles or poor planning. I've seen it happen. There is a big, big difference between a camp designed for able-bodied kids that allows disabled kids to attend, and a camp designed for kids with disabilities -- by folks with disabilities -- that allows non-disabled kids to attend.

Which leads me to Option 3: An integrated camp for kids with and without disabilities -- developed and operated by a group of folks with and without disabilities who have a progressive understanding of Independent Living: of our struggle, our movement and our culture.

Camp Cricket, at The Ability Center of Greater Toledo, is such a camp. It is our belief that there is nothing more empowering to children than to give them a sense of place in the world, something bigger to which they belong. It's held daily in summer on our 16-acre wooded site, with a fully accessible play structure and other accommodations. Kids attending Camp Cricket are made to feel welcome from Day One. They begin to understand, through familiarity, that The Ability Center is a place they can come to when they need support and understanding.

Kids with and without disabilities are introduced to and become familiar with each other. They are also introduced to productive, working adults who act as role models and advocates for them. (Tim Harrington, our Executive Director, is a former camper and camp counselor. How cool is that to share with kids! He even has pictures on his wall of campers sitting in his big Executive Director's chair).

Kids are also introduced to disability culture, to its history and contribution, and to all that disability community has to offer. Camp is offered to kids in two age groups: 6- to 9-year olds, and 10- to 14-year olds.

We should promote the importance of well-conceived and well-operated integrated camps that have as their goal and philosophy the empowering and connecting of all kids. The added benefit is that we're building a generation of kids who understand, feel comfortable with and appreciate each other.

It's the only way we'll ultimately change the world.

Dan Wilkins runs The Nth Degree, a catalog company "specializing in products, designs and stories for the interdependent living, inclusion, diversity and the disability rights movement." He chairs the Board of Directors for The Ability Center in Toledo.

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