As an increasing number of Jewish summer camps welcome campers with disabilities, it becomes more important to understand the experience of these campers and that of their neurotypical peers. In this study, campers with disabilities and neurotypical campers participated together in a photography activity. Photographs and their accompanying narratives were analyzed, yielding three categories of results: (1) camp community and responsibility (2) Jewish experience at camp; and (3) challenges and opportunities. Results are discussed in terms of enhancing the experience of inclusion at camp for all campers.
Our work demonstrates the potential for methods rooted in photography and group discussion to be used to understand the camper experience. We have focused on the intersection of inclusion and Jewish engagement. Our small sample size means that the study should be used to raise questions for future consideration and research by camp professionals and academics. Beyond this, we recommend the continued, and expanded, use of photography and other modes of self-expression as methodologies that (a) reduce reliance on participants’ verbal acuity and (b) integrate more organically into the ecology of the camp setting. Not only does the latter provide a more naturalistic setting for research, but it also minimizes disruptions to the campers’ routine and, importantly, avoids the potential of neuroatypical campers to be seen as objects of research. Research can also focus on the impact of paired activities on neurotypical campers. In fact, one of the camp leaders focused on this theme in providing feedback about our work, wondering if such structured one-on-one interaction provides an “experience for a typical camper [that is] deeper in its impact than” the more diffuse experience of going “to a Jewish summer camp where there were campers with special needs.”
Importantly, the study also highlights the benefits of inclusion for neurotypical and neuroatypical campers. The campers seemed to enjoy and learn valuable lessons, and it would be instructive to consider the ways in which this camp and others might continue to expand work in this area moving forward. It would also be worthwhile to reflect on the Jewish educational opportunity this presents. While the campers shared positive reflections of their inclusion experiences, the “Jewish piece” was notably absent from their responses. An exploration of how the camp may offer a Jewish context and vision may yield some interesting and possibly unanticipated educational outcomes.
To that end, the research also offers opportunities to consider campers’ Jewish experiences and camps’ Jewish educational mission. The findings suggest that campers have some meaningful Jewish experiences at camp— namely relating to community, nature and prayer. Further conversations about how to build on these bright spots and address challenges would be fruitful.
Finally, we see the potential of initiatives like this—whether they incorporate formal research or are for feedback by practitioners or a combination of both—to amplify the often-muted voices of youth with disabilities and provide opportunities for them to exercise agency in shaping their environment. Kleinert, Harrison, Fisher, and Kleinert (2010) point out that communication skills, including the ability to communicate how others may assist them, are foundational to effective self-advocacy for those with disabilities. Though it may seem paradoxical, professionals working with youth with disabilities must seek innovative ways to scaffold self-expression of needs (and it is notable that Kleinart el al. include the use of photographs as aids to self-expression) at the same time setting up conditions that minimize the help needed (Pledger, 2003).
Kleinert, J. O., Harrison, E. M., Fisher, T. L., & Kleinert, H. L. (2010). “I can” and “I did”—Self-advocacy for young students with developmental disabilities. TEACHING Exceptional
Children, 43(2), 16–26. doi:10.1177/004005991004300202
Pledger, C. (2003). Discourse on disability and rehabilitation issues: Opportunities for psychology. American Psychologist, 58(4), 279–284. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.58.