A surprise at 'family camp'

When my husband and I attended family camp this summer, we had not expected the campers to include a group of special-needs adults. That was the first surprise. The second was how much this group enriched our camp experience.

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    President Obama greets guests after speaking at an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act on the South Lawn at the White House on July 26.
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When my husband and I signed up for “family camp” this year, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I never went to sleepover-camp as a child, though every summer my parents and we kids set out in our loaded VW bus on a glorious camping vacation.

That some overnight camps in the US open up to families after their summer charges have gone home was a new concept to me. The web site for the Pennsylvania camp that we selected hinted at what was to come: archery, horseback riding, rock climbing, boating – fun activities that might also challenge someone who sits in front of a computer all day.

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We did all those things, and they stretched us in a good way. So did something completely unexpected: the presence of about 10 developmentally disabled adults and their individual counselors. Together, they made up roughly half the number of campers.

As we met each other on opening day, I wondered how this integration would work. Would it subtract from the experience somehow?

The exact opposite happened. It was heartwarming to see the excitement of these individuals as they took part in new activities, and then openly expressed their gratitude. Each person had a unique and wonderful talent or quality: These campers were musical, hilariously funny, good with animals, die-hard Yankees fans.

Love surged within and between the two sets of campers as interaction and teamwork developed. On a canoe trip, my husband discovered what strong paddlers his special-needs boaters were. They managed the mini-rapids with skill and finished first.

On July 26, the US celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Census Bureau used the occasion to put out a fact sheet on people with disabilities. It stated that 16.1 million people have cognitive limits or mental or emotional illness, including mental retardation. That’s 7 percent of the population that is 15 or older.

The Act has gone a long way toward mainstreaming people with physical and mental disabilities, giving them “the right to live in the world.” It’s the world’s privilege to have them.

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