The Canteen is a tribute to all things Jewish sleepaway camp. Hosted by the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), this blog is written by campers, alumni, parents, and camp professionals and is a place to talk about parenting, camp fun, projects, crafts, recipes, and more – all tied back to Jewish holidays, traditions and, of course, camp!
We all have certain styles and habits, skills and abilities. In teams, social circles, family units, workplaces, etc., these differences naturally complement each other to form cooperative and supportive environments. The community works together essentially to balance each other out and to support each other based on their specific strengths, talents and styles.
No two people are the same, and what benefits one person, benefits many. It is not a shocking premise, but it is most true in the world of inclusion. The concept of Universal Design proves this to us. The concept involves designing products, spaces and environments so that they can be used by the widest range of people possible.
“Universal Design takes into account the full range of human diversity, including physical, perceptual and cognitive abilities, as well as different body sizes and shapes. By designing for this diversity, we can create things that are more functional and more user-friendly for everyone.” (Universal Design.com).
Universal Design was initially put in place to address issues of accessibility for people with disabilities. But is has transformed our society at large in important ways.
One visible example that is very familiar to us is curb cuts. They were initially designed for wheelchair users, due to the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) which mandated their widespread implementation. Yet they are useful for all of us: Pusihing baby strollers, rolling luggage through city streets, riding our bikes up and down sidewalks, and more. There are automatic doorways which we use when we are carrying our groceries. There is the accessibility of smartphones, with voice interactions which has been mirrored in voice commands at large. Or when a teacher posts assignments and notes online for the students, including those with poor executive functioning skills who is a slow note taker as well as any student who simply wants easy access to the information without carrying a pile of books around.
What might Universal Design look like at camp if we used some of the principles of this design?
Equitable Use – It would help to avoid stigmatization. The dining hall can be a noisy and very over-stimulating place for campers regardless of whether they have sensory needs or not. Offering an outdoor picnic table outside of the dining hall could be an alternative that is available to any camper who would prefer a less stimulating dining experience at one or at all meals. One camp offers an outdoor song session as an alternative to the louder and more rambunctious dining hall singing that is such an integral camp experience. Campers with and without diagnosed sensory needs enjoy the quieter option. It is important that this space is known as a quiet meal area as opposed to the quiet space for “special kids”.
As camps update their swimming pools we see zero entry being added to the pools. Not only does this benefit a wheelchair user but it also benefits the new swimmer or the child who might be scared to get all the way into the water.
Flexibility – Many camps provide some activity choices to campers based on the campers’ interests. For required components, such as athletics, camps could aim to provide options within that activity. If the goal is that each camper must engage in a physical activity each day, then multiple options can be provided within a particular period (such as walking or running around the track or field for the period), a sport option, and a fun movement option (such as an obstacle course). Multiple bunks can be combined during an activity period to allow for more flexibility. What is exciting for one camper may not appeal to another. The goal should be to give campers choices that capture their interests and fuel their autonomy.
Easy Information Access – Picture schedules and charts are a great way to achieve this. We can go beyond job wheels at camp. We can use pictures to remind campers of such things as what to take with them when they leave the bunk in the morning, what the bunk nighttime routine is, or the steps to the recipe that they will be cooking at their cooking activity. Pictograms could be hung on the wall. These ideas not only benefit campers who might have difficulty processing information, but are also useful for the camper who wasn’t paying attention or has difficulty with organization. It is useful for the counselor who now no longer needs to repeat the answer to each camper but can simply reference the chart or picture schedule.
Use of visual aids can be more complex as well. At one camp they use a screen to project the birkat hamazon after each meal. There is a cursor that moves along on the screen to indicate what word is being sung. The words are written in Hebrew and are also transliterated. It’s a great idea for the child who has trouble following along, as well as for the child who is unfamiliar with the prayer and might have been embarrassed to use the prayer card at the table.
Multiple means of engagement – In program planning throughout the camp curriculum the approach of one-size-fits-all should be eliminated. The camp program should not present barriers. For example, when planning your group trip outside of camp you might aim for a destination that will engage multiple interests. Instead of going to a place that only has a rock climbing wall you might select a location that also offers bowling. In camp, the zip line should not be your only option for an activity. You might want to make sure that the low ropes course is open as well. Your dance competition for color wars should not be judged solely on how precise the dance moves are executed but on how the team worked together to choreograph and to teach each other the steps and on how supportive they were of each other.
For a camper who has a difficult time sitting through services, she could be given a fidget toy to hold in her hand or perhaps have the option of standing up. Counselors can be trained in ways to adapt the environment so that the camper can engage it successfully.
Reinforce a culture of kindness – Staff attitude also plays a role in kids’ success at camp. The motto should be “Flexible and supportive to all.” Embrace the idea of equity over equality, where each camper gets what they need to be successful instead of getting what everyone else gets. If counselors don’t know about the differences between kids, then they’re not going to be effective counselors as a whole. Universal design means universal success.