April 6, 2021

Creating a More Inclusive Camp

This article is about opportunities to create truly inclusive camp environments by eliminating physical and social barriers. Camp staff members will learn how to see things through the lens of a child having a disability and ways to adapt the physical environment to accommodate that child so that they can participate like any other kid ready to enjoy camp. The goal is for kids to be kids and not looked upon as different, allowing them to participate fully with their able-bodied peers by removing barriers.

Consider Sally who is twelve and in a wheeled mobility device because of spina bifida. She is smart, curious, and wants to attend camp this summer with her good friend Meg who is able-bodied.

Is your camp prepared for Sally? Are the facilities accessible so that Sally and Meg can move freely together and be included in all activities without special accommodations? If not, this article will provide insights and creative ways to adapt the environment.

I will refer often to Universal Design. Universal Design is dedicated to designing spaces where everyone is given what they need to succeed. While grounded in ADA, it offers more potential for an environment that embraces inclusion and equality. Universal Design dares us to look further than differences in physical and cognitive abilities or disabilities to create an environment that is designed with everyone in mind. In short, Universal Design has the potential to make a camping experience healthier, safer, more rewarding, and friendlier, and requires continuous improvement toward the ultimate goal of full inclusion. We see Universal Design as a process that enables and empowers a diverse population and are committed to designing spaces and places that are based on Universal Design Principles.

The Vision

The very first thing you should do is to familiarize yourself and other camp staff with your mission and value statements. Understanding these drivers create the backbone for your organization’s inclusion practices going forward. Ask yourself, “how can we live our values through our facilities?” Some examples include statements such as “accessible to all, inclusive of everyone, and allowing everyone child to participate.”

How will your program and facilities support your vision and values? After reaching clarity and truly understanding your organization's mission, keep things simple by identifying what you believe to be the biggest barriers. Let us go back to Sally and Meg.

  • Can Sally access the beach and interface with the water?
  • Can she enter the main building through the same door as Meg?
  • Is there ample room in the restroom for Sally to maneuver and have easy access to the sinks, mirrors, faucets, and hand dryers?
  • Does the toilet stall provide for privacy, independence, and a place for her to temporarily place a backpack?
  • Does Sally have multiple choices of where she can have lunch with Meg and other friends?

Assuming some of these are answered with a “no,” it is time to think outside the box for creative ways to accommodate Sally.

Creativity begins with making sure all staff, volunteers and vendors understand what you are trying to achieve—an inclusive environment for all children as we all have diverse abilities. Based on the challenges you have listed to accommodate Sally, it is important to identify reasonable expectations. Making a few simple changes to the physical environment can make all the difference in helping kids feel the same and not different. Below, are some examples to get you thinking and we will explore how to adapt your unique situation throughout this article.

  • Can Sally enter the building with her able-bodied friends? This is a basic requirement that begins the inclusive experience for all. It all starts with properly locating the accessible parking spaces and having an accessible path to the buildings from the parking lot.
  • Can Sally access the beach and campfire area? Universal paths are just as important outdoors as they are indoors. Gravel or mulch materials used on paths are very difficult for many users so use a hard surface.
  • Is the restroom accessible? Restrooms are most often a barrier to users who have limited mobility or use a mobility device, yet a very necessary space for all. Think about the user experience beginning with ease of opening the door and maneuvering space within the restroom. A simple single user, or family restroom is a great option to have available.
  • Do you have multiple seating opportunities for campers while having lunch or engaging in a craft exercise? Providing a flexible furniture arrangement that is moveable and has enough space to maneuver around is the best place to start.
  • With Sally in a seated position, can she reach the same items as Meg? Reach range is critical for access and independence. A simple strategy is to arrange all items in a vertical manner instead of horizontal, so as an example, milk is located on all shelves not just the top shelf.

Accessibility and Inclusion Best Practices Applied to the Built Environment

As early as possible, begin to think about your camp's accessibility challenges. If you are just not comfortable with making an assessment, bring in a Universal Design professional for a day to walk the camp and help you create a list. Realize there are most likely many easy adaptations you can make. Ask yourself "how can I make adjustments to my camp’s physical environment to create a more accessible and inclusive experience for all?”  “How can a camper with a disability attend, maintain their independence, and not encounter any physical or social barriers?”  As a reference, I co-authored a research paper published in the April 2021 Disability and Health Journal titled “Participation by Design:  Integrating a social ecological approach with Universal Design to increase participation and add value for consumers.” In this case, a social-ecological approach is complementary to the Universal Design of the built environment and recognizes that human behavior is a function of the person and the total environment in which they exist. There are eight environmental barriers and supports to participation that you should think about to create a more inclusive camp.

At the cornerstone of inclusive best practices is an understanding of equality versus equal access. Equality is defined as "the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities."

From a Universal Design perspective, this definition is expanded allowing individuals with diverse abilities with choices just as someone who is considered able bodied. For instance, Sally should be able to take the same path of travel around the camp as Meg. Sally may choose a different path to stay with her friend, but she may not for any number of reasons. It becomes her choice, and she is not forced to take another path because the physical environment is not accessible to all. An important exercise for camp staff is to just walk around the camp and look for obstacles and organize camp-wide activities on accessible paths. Do not consider a path or space for subsequent activities if it does not work for everyone.

Sometimes a simple ramp can be constructed (per code) that everyone can use to make buildings and slight level changes seamless. The ramp is a deceptively simple solution promoting equality even if it is a temporary one. A ramp allows everyone to use the same path of travel at one’s own speed while minimizing potential accidents. Remember that 80% of accidents happen on stairs so ramps, when designed properly, have the potential to reduce accidents.

There is a clear relationship that exists between physical accessibility and social inclusion. Inclusion benefits all children, their skill and social development, and most importantly, their quality of life. Simply put, the goal should be to allow all to fully participate. The result is a smile on the face of a child at camp in a mobility device who has access to the fire pit and can roast a marshmallow next to her able-bodied best friend. Having friendships and interpersonal connections is a normal and expected necessity of life that enhances an individual’s well-being. An inclusive society relies on the existence of accessible environments that allow everyone, with or without disabilities, to be placed on an equal footing. If this happens, life will be easier, healthier, and happier with everyone learning and growing together.

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil law that has its roots in the civil movements of the 1960s. It was signed into law on July 26, 1990, and prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, and access to state and local government programs and services. It is not a building code although many municipalities commonly refer to ADA when designing their facilities. When planning a change to your facilities, you need to consult your local permitting municipality and understand their building codes and accessibility requirements. ADA becomes the underpinning for Universal Design strategies.

While it is a good start, Universal Design offers far more potential for inclusion. Universal Design dares us to look further than differences in physical abilities or disabilities while creating environments that are designed for everyone. It is estimated that 20% of the population or 1.3 billion people globally have some form of disability. Together with their friends and families, it represents approximately $8 trillion in spending. Universal Design is built on the seven principles below.

Universal Design recognizes that differences in ability are within each of us, and therefore, our spaces and access should better represent the world we live in. Some disabilities are disclosed or observable while others are not. Because of this, it is important to focus on the seven principles when planning your camp for the incoming kids. Thinking about Sally, here are a couple of areas that I would focus on to provide her and her friends a great camp experience:

  • Keep things flexible allowing for furniture arrangements and spaces to quickly change to accommodate a wide range of campers. This includes high tables for those who may have difficulty bending and lower tables for those who are in mobility devices or of short stature. Provide both soft seating and firm seating with arms on chairs. Supplies should be reachable without having to stand up and aisles should be wide enough and not congested.
  • Information and signage should be easy to read from about twenty feet. Use larger fonts and contrast the words from the sign background. Use low reflectance materials for all signage. Allow the location of the signage to be read from multiple locations and make it prominent.
  • Minimize potential accidents by removing clutter and sharp angles on furniture, fixtures, and casework. Remember that the human body does not have a 90-degree angle on it so when we accidentally run into one, we feel it. Other types of accidents can be avoided by using a contrasting color on protruding objects that cannot be moved such as building columns. If you have steps instead of a ramp, use a contrasting color on the floor and landings versus the individual steps. This simple strategy provides a visual cue to the user that a level change or step is about to happen, and always provides handrails per code.
  • Doors are a form of barrier to many individuals. A couple of times per year, tune-up and lubricate your camp doors so that they are easier to open while at the same time minimize any thresholds (better to eliminate) or flooring material transitions on site. The idea is to walk around the camp, identify any trip hazards, and put together a plan to eliminate them.
  • As an able-bodied individual, it is relatively easy to maneuver through just about any space, but operating a mobility device, using crutches, or having a visual impairment is not. Put yourself in the place of someone who is not able-bodied and move through the space thinking about clearances, being able to turn around, or transferring to a chair. Can you do it? In this case, you need to provide enough space between tables and under tables for knee clearance.
  • For those who need some downtime from sensory overload, consider a quiet room where someone can go and get away from the activity. Use a floor lamp instead of overhead lighting and paint the walls light blue or pink. Provide a couple of different seating options, a plant or two, and a pair of headphones. Physically, make sure it is in a part of the facility where it is generally quieter but can also be easily supervised.
  • We all perceive information differently adding to our uniqueness and diverse abilities. Neurodiversity can be defined as the individual differences in brain functioning regarded as normal variations within the human population. We do best when we interact, learn and experience space at our unique, neuro-norm. In response to this, try to utilize multiple modes of communication, and supplement verbal communication with text and vice versa. As you observe your group of campers, you might have to slow things down a bit and provide better clarity.
  • Above all keep it simple and take advantage of what you have. Be creative while seeking ideas from fellow staff members as the best solutions are from a collaborative viewpoint. Even small changes can make all the difference to a young camper who may be new to a camp experience.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided some new lessons for us but also reinforced several Universal Design strategies already in practice. Maybe we can pause and see the pandemic as an opportunity to think differently about our facilities. The increased need for personal protection devices should be located at multiple levels so they are easily reached which is consistent for coat hooks and shelves.

Universal Design best practices promote the use of no-touch fixtures especially in restrooms so that individuals who cannot grasp a handle can still operate the toilet, soap dispenser, sink, and hand drying equipment. The physical opening of key doors such as building entries and restrooms is avoided with auto-opening doors. If a door handle must be touched to operate, many organizations are using automatic door handle sanitizers that provide a metered mist each time the door is engaged. Social distancing strategies can be applied on an individual level, group level, and operational level. An example of the overlap between social distancing and accessibility best practices is when you rearrange chairs in the dining hall to increase the distance between them. This simple, no-cost change allows for better accessibility for those who need it while at the same time supports what has become a physical, social norm.

Prioritizing Facility Upgrades, Camper Expectations, and Economics

You will most likely have to make some choices when it comes to facility upgrades. Where can you get the biggest bang for available resources? Over the years of executing Universal Design assessments for organizations, we have applied a lens that looks at a combination of positive user impact and economics. We refer to it as a “P strategy” defined as follows:

  • A P1 Universal Design (Priority 1) strategy is one that is no or low cost with high impact to the users and organization.

  • A P2 Universal Design (Priority 2) strategy is one that is higher cost and innovative to the organization with a relatively positive impact on the users and organization.

In other words, implementing P1 strategies is a way to capture the low hanging fruit resulting in minimal cost while great for the diverse abilities of campers. P1 strategies are the simple but highly effective things you can do to provide a more inclusive camp. The P2 strategies can come on-line when you have a donor who is passionate about your story in creating a more fully accessible camp experience for all.

Once you have decided on a plan, an effective way to meter your overall investment is to create a few simple measures. For instance, measures can look something like:

  • We want to create a more inclusive experience for campers.
  • We want to eliminate physical and social barriers for everyone.
  • Our facilities are accessible.
  • We want all campers to be engaged in all activities.

At the end of a camp session, you can survey campers and their parents by asking these same measures in the form of a question. How did we do? Based on the responses you will learn what you can improve upon while continuing to build a base of future campers and their families. Your staff will learn the cycle of continual improvement while improving the quality of life for everyone who visits your camp.

Any physical improvement you consider should look through the lens of safety. A goal of Universal Design is to minimize hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. Complying with local building codes is a must and they continue to be updated on a regular basis. It is a good idea to meet with your building official and review your plans with them early on which will prevent doing things twice. Camp staff should be briefed on all safety protocols and Universal Design strategies in place. Safety is especially important when considering tripping hazards, steps, handrails, slopes, visual cues, protruding objects, proper lighting, reach range, wayfinding graphics, doors, and clearances.


In general, equipment considerations should always consider ease of integration into your program, flexibility, and safety. Your equipment selections should accommodate a wide range of individual preferences. As an example, for any elevated platform you should provide ramp access, and in fact, from an equality perspective, do not even provide an additional set of steps. Create a statement that everyone uses the same path of access to the platform. A fishing dock can also be accessible with a few minor adaptations which is good for everyone. Keep in mind that an accessible path leading to all equipment or venues is equally important such as a hard surface without trip hazards along the way.

Many camps provide programming around a challenge or low ropes courses. There have been several advancements made over the years to make these elements accessible and truly a team-wide bonding experience. As opportunities continue to expand in challenge course programming and zipline adventures, it is imperative that you consider the inclusion of any individual who chooses to participate in the experience and at whatever level they desire. This is best done by creating a sense of welcome, training all staff to be comfortable working with all participants, providing the necessary equipment for adaptations, and maintaining a facility that is accessible to all.

Low ropes course elements can be adapted to Universal Design by using additional spotters, making minor construction changes, or utilizing specialized equipment. Research has found that several modifications to low ropes elements are currently being used or developed for use in camps.

A commonly modified ropes element is the Nitro or Prouty's landing, where a team of participants hold a rope and swing across to a platform or landing area. Modifications include using a mechanical advantage pulley system that lifts wheelchair participants in full body harnesses.  This allows them to swing across to the landing using a swinging or traversing platform, a rope chair, or using a rope with a rubber stabilizer in the bottom of a loop to hold the loop open and provide for easier foot removal.

A variety of ropes course elements were studied to determine how usable each is for persons with a disability. The first consideration for each element was whether it is usable for a person with a disability as it is. The second consideration is what adaptations can be made to that element so that a person with a disability can have a similar experience without changing the intent of that element if it was not usable as it is. Some of the elements are easily adjusted to make them more usable for all populations without changing the adventure experience. Other elements cannot be adjusted but adaptations to the rules can be made to allow a person with a disability the opportunity to experience success at a specific element. Some other elements were not usable at all for persons with a disability, but they could share in the group bonding process of problem solving and spotting to help their group accomplish the goal of certain elements that may be physically impossible for them to conquer on their own. Instructor attitudes towards persons with a disability may also determine the success that they will experience on a ropes course.

If your camp has swings, consider adding a wheelchair swing. It can easily be integrated into the playground setting and invites kids of all abilities to get in on the fun. There is a good chance it could be the highlight of your camp and the first time a camper in a mobility device ever experienced swinging. They are a game changer.

In summary, the equipment should be flexible and provide for best practices in safety, appropriate size, space, approach, reach and participation by all campers. The staff needs to be appropriately trained on use of the equipment and the abilities of the incoming campers.

In Conclusion

We should all be working toward the same common goal of inclusion. Inclusion can be achieved if you have the courage and creativity to look through a different set of lenses…a lens that is not only from an able-bodied camper. Start by promoting inclusion amongst staff and campers by educating them about disabilities and planning for differences upfront. A camp is a wonderful environment to enjoy, learn and grow together. For Sally and Meg, their memories from summer camp will last a lifetime.

“Best Practices for Inclusive Camps” is out now! It provides a practical take on the inclusion of youth with diverse abilities based on the newly developed Standards for Inclusive Recreation Programs. This book is intended as a resource for camp professionals, and all who work with young people in camps, after-school, and other youth programs making sure no kid is left on the sidelines. Michael Perry, AIA, DIAD, LEED AP, who leads the Progressive Companies Universal Design consulting practice wrote chapter 3 focusing on facilities, equipment, and accessibility.

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