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Summer camps meet special needs for all kids

Summer camps offer all kids fun, structured freedom with many invaluable benefits. Children with exceptional needs are no exception.

Some parents of kids with challenges may often forget that aside from the special needs, their child like every child has additional needs as well. Like other kids, children with special needs need to laugh, play, make friends and feel accepted. Like other children, kids with special needs need to be kids!

Going to school provides a great deal of social interaction. Kids make friends and interact with peers. But due to mainstreaming in many schools, there may only be a limited number of children with special needs per grade.

One major benefit of summer camp for kids with challenges is that they have the opportunity to meet other kids just like them. They meet friends they can relate to who battle the same battles they do. For example, a child with spina-bifida might go to a spina bifida camp and meet many other kids with spina bifida. This helps children with special needs see they’re not alone and they’re not so different. With this in mind, the benefits of summer camp for children with special needs are actually amplified. 

But the prospect of going to summer camp can still seem daunting to parents and kids alike — how can you be sure that your child will get the attention he or she needs? Will your child be able to participate fully? What about the other kids? Will your child make friends? Will the camp counselors understand your child's special needs?

The good news is that there are more camp choices now than at any other time for kids with special needs. From highly specialized camps to traditional inclusion camps that accommodate kids with special needs, there are options for every child. With careful consideration of what will benefit your child most, along with thorough research, you should be able to find the right camp for your child.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires all camps to make reasonable accommodations (such as the installation of wheelchair-accessible ramps) so that kids with special needs can attend. So, camps that had never had a child with special needs attend before may now be on your list of possibilities as well.

Inclusionary (or mainstream) camps do just what their name implies: They include kids with special needs in their groups of children who don’t have special needs. Most of these camps started out serving only a general population of kids with minor challenges, but they've gradually changed as the needs of the families they serve have changed.

There are also camps designed just for kids with special needs, including kids who have learning or behavioral problems, kids with specific chronic illnesses, and kids with mental or physical impairments. Many of these camps accept kids with a variety of needs, but some camps specifically encompass children with the same challenges (such as camps for kids with diabetes, cancer, speech or hearing impairments, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, etc.).

Here are a few things parents should keep in mind before choosing a traditional or special needs camp for their child:

  •  Is the camp is accredited by an organization such as the American Camping Association (ACA) or the National Camp Association (NCA)? Does it meet the organization's standards for kids with special needs, including facility and staffing requirements?
  •  What training and experience do the directors and counselors have in working with kids who have needs similar to your child's?
  •  Are there other families you can contact whose children have attended the camp that might be willing to discuss their experience with you?
  •  What is the ratio of counselors to campers? For children with severe disabilities, the ratio should be at least one counselor for every three campers.
  •  What are the camp's health and safety procedures? What about the facility? Is there a registered nurse on-site? Have  emergency arrangements been made with a local hospital?
  •  Can parents visit the camp to see the program first-hand? Do they have sessions year-round? If it's a mainstream camp, are special efforts or programs in place to integrate a child with special needs? Is it accessible for children with limited mobility?