Imagine a day where your child is making new friends, singing camp songs, and playing outside. They feel included. They’re well cared for. They’re trying new things. And you’re off doing something else while this happens.
For many parents of children with disabilities or special health care needs, this vision might seem impossible. After all, how could your child be safe without you? How could you find a camp that would support them?
But they do exist. There are different types of camps that support children and adults with disabilities and special health care needs, places where they can learn, grow, and just have a good time.
Camp is a lot of fun. During the games, songs, and group activities, children learn new skills. They can solve problems, practice being social with their peers, and build up their confidence.
And it’s also a good way for your child to build independence by practicing what it’s like when you’re not in charge of every part of their care.
As parent Rosemary Alexander said, “I believe in the process of letting go of our children with disabilities, and I think that sending them to summer camp is a great way to start!” You can read more of her experience in Going to Camp: A Conversation about Letting Go.
On top of all these benefits, camp might also be the first place where children with disabilities or special health care needs get to:
It’s often hard for children with disabilities or special health care needs to get these experiences in their everyday lives. They might not meet other children with the same diagnosis in their school or town. And school is structured and scheduled in a different way than camp, usually without as many choices.
Camp is a chance for your child to grow. Building independence isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s a step-by-step process. Camp gives you and your child a chance to start with 1 or 2 days apart, then a week, and then more as you are both ready for it.
Camp also gives parents a much-needed respite. Maybe that’s chance to spend time alone – or with your partner, other children, or friends.
There are different kinds of camps that might serve children with disabilities or special health care needs. Some are overnight camps for a week or more during the summer or on school breaks. Some are day camps. And others are weekend camps during the school year.
If your child hasn’t gone to camp before, starting with a day camp or weekend camp is a good way to test the waters and see how you and your child do. Some places also offer family camps – you can try it out together before your child goes on their own.
There are 2 main types of camps: inclusionary (or mainstream) camps and camps designed just for children with disabilities or special health care needs.
Inclusionary (or mainstream) camps include children with disabilities or special health care needs along with typically developing campers. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires camps to make reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities and special health care needs. So you and your child might be able to find camps that match their interests and meet their needs too—from classic summer camp to science camps at NASA or an aquarium.
Some camps make sure to give their staff special training. Camps run by organizations like the YMCA, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Camp Fire, and some religious groups often train their staff to work with children with disabilities or special health care needs.
If you’re thinking about sending your child to a mainstream camp, check on what day-to-day accommodations the camp can give. Although the camp may make ADA-required accommodations, not all camps will have staff trained to meet your child’s needs. See our section below on finding out if a camp is right for your child.
There are also day and overnight (sleepaway) camps especially for children with certain disabilities or special health care needs. Some of them are:
Here are some ways to find other camps in your area:
Here are some ways to find out if a camp will be right for your child:
To get your child (and you) ready for camp, there’s a lot of packing and preparing. And there’s some important paperwork that you can get together to send with the camp application. (Once you gather it, you can keep it in a care notebook to use later too.)
Other parents have said that it’s a good idea to include:
It’s also tricky to get yourself, your child, and your family ready to let your child go to camp. See our blog post by a camp director on Getting the Most Out of Camp for tips.
One of the challenges about sending your child to camp is that you can’t see them or talk to them every day. If you want a way to keep track of how your child is doing, and make sure their medical needs are being met, you can talk to the camp about staying in touch about important things.
One way to do this is to make a communication plan with the camp director on how to share information while your child is at camp. Remember that the camp counselors are taking care of a lot of children, so the plan needs to be simple, easy, and work for both your family and the camp staff too.
Before your child goes to camp, here are some questions you can answer for them:
Here are some important things you might want to include in your communication plan:
While you can also talk to your child about how you might be able to reach each other if you really need to, you’ll want to be sure the plan you have with the camp is in writing and that all staff agree to and sign off on it. That way, everyone is on the same page.
Camp can be expensive. Here are a few ways that other parents have found to get help paying for camp:
It’s never too early to start thinking about camp. Most summer camps put their applications on their websites by the end of January and fill up fast. So, even when it’s a rare cold day in Texas, it’s time to think about camp.
Allowing your child the freedom to go to camp on their own might be their first taste of independence. They get a chance to see what the world looks like outside their own home or school. It might help them feel like it’s okay to try new things. That’s an important step in the process of growing up and transitioning to adulthood. Camp is one way to help your whole family get a picture of what this will look like and start building that independence early.