Preparing for Summer Camp: Disabilities and Special Needs

campsiteSummertime means summer camp for most Scouts. Every Scout wants to take part and, more importantly, have fun. This takes preparation, especially for Scouts with special needs.

The unit leader should take some time to think about each Scout as an individual and how each will react to summer camp routine. This is especially true of new Scouts who have not attended camp before. Identify roadblocks: features of camp life that prevent the Scout from participating or feeling comfortable. Make sure that one or more unit leaders watch for those roadblocks and are ready to help bring the challenge within reach of the Scout’s abilities.

Involve the camper’s parents in the planning process. Invite them to attend camp with the unit if appropriate. All campers have buddies, but those with special needs should have a buddy who understands their disabilities and can help with roadblocks.

If Scouts have anxieties about unfamiliar places, make the camp familiar ahead of time. For example, one venture crew produced a videotape of their campsite. This helped smooth the transition from home to camp. In another case, campers actually visited the camp ahead of time and saw their assigned campsite, the trails, and the activity centers.

Mobility poses a challenge, especially on camp trails. Use a camp map and pay attention to travel needs when planning a camper’s activities. Some campers with Down Syndrome, for example, have low muscle tone. They tire easily from walking repeatedly back and forth between the campsite and activity areas. After lunch, instead of walking all the way back to the unit campsite to “rest” for an hour, campers and buddies should just hang out in the dining hall to wait for afternoon activities.

Campers with wheelchairs should be familiar with camp trail conditions. The unit should plan to bring a set of tools to maintain wheelchairs or other mobility equipment. Bolts often shake loose on bumpy trails.

Camp staff are another resource. Contact them ahead of time about each camper’s special needs or restrictions. The staff may have suggestions for appropriate activities or alternatives for ones the camper should avoid. A bit of forewarning also lets staff and counselors make adjustments where possible. Not all camp directors can adapt their programs, but all strive to give campers a fun and rewarding experience.

When arriving at camp, leaders should identify a “cool zone” in each area the campers can visit. This is a quiet place campers can go to when feeling overwhelmed, over-stimulated, fed-up, etc. This is good for any Scout, not just Scouts with special needs. Caring leaders realize sometimes everyone needs a break to gather themselves. “Cool zones” should be within view of the leaders responsible for the area. Planning and preparation can make summer camp fun for everyone.