More than 26-million Americans have some type of mental or physical disability. The state of West Virginia leads the nation in the percentage of its citizens who have disabilities. At 22 percent, it's more than twice the national average. For families living with this issue, the state sponsors a unique opportunity to improve the quality of their life.
Watch out! A fierce water balloon fight has broken out. Kids between the ages of 1 and 8 race about the lawn pummeling each other with the brightly colored balloons. Nothing is sacred, everything, from the sidewalks to the children and even the instructors, is wet. Only when the last balloon has burst and the children begin to calm down, does it become apparent that these kids have some special needs. A boy who was firing his waterlogged missiles from atop his brother's shoulders slides into a wheel chair, a small girl wears neon pink hearing aides, and a pair of twins have electric blue leg braces. Welcome to the seventh annual session of Camp Gizmo.
Organizer Pam Rousch says it's a camp like no other. "We bring families together with professionals and brothers and sisters and it's an opportunity just to sit for a week and brainstorm about what kind of assistive technology or modifications might help the child or family," she says.
The camp is held on the campus of the Schools for the Deaf and Blind in the state's eastern panhandle. For a small fee, any West Virginia family whose child has a disability may attend the weeklong summer session. This year, 15 families have signed up. Each one is paired with a team of specialists and counselors who work specifically on improving the quality of life for that family.
While that may sound like a typical activity schedule, camp co-founder Kathy Knighton says staff members do their best to make it fun. "During the day we have a camp. It's called kids camp," she says. "We have siblings and professionals and even kids of the counselors and we create a naturally inclusive environment. While the children are in kids camp the adults are in workshops and we provide workshops on a variety of topics."
Those topics include feeding methods and safety, parents' legal rights and computer modifications. But perhaps the session parents are most interested in is switch making. Instructor Virda Richard demonstrates how many ordinary household items can be adapted to be more "friendly" to kids with disabilities by simply equipping them with a remote on-off switch. "Say a child has cerebral palsy, and they have difficulty playing with toys, with these type devices you can insert them into battery operated toys, tape recorders, just anything battery operated and when they touch the switch, it'll activate the toy," she says.
In addition to workshops for the parents, there are several learning labs for the whole family. One of the switches made during the morning workshop helps a child who can barely lift a finger turn on the radio, while a colorful contraption of bars and hinges helps a child with cerebral palsy take her first steps.
Mrs. Knighton says the variety of labs is growing larger every year. "We try to provide that information piece," she says. "We have a computer lab to try out different computer access systems, we have a make and take lab, we have an augmentative communications lab, which would be voice output communication for a child."
In the communications lab, kids who can't speak use a device called a Dynavox with a programmable computer synthesizer to converse. The child simply presses a picture ON the computerized box and the synthesizer says the word.
Older children use a keyboard to control the artificial voice, so they can carry on more complex conversations.
But there's more to Camp Gizmo than workshops and labs, there are plenty of just plain kid activities too, from swimming to puppet shows to camp fires. The most popular activity is a combination of education and fun called horse therapy. Both kids with disabilities and their brothers and sisters love to take turns riding the camp's gentle patient horses, Magic and Prissy.
Therapist Amy Weese says some of the kids were reluctant to ride at first, but by the end of the session they didn't want to get off. "It has been proven that it teaches autistic kids to talk. Kids have to give the horse commands and the horse has to respond to their commands. So it's an excellent motivational factor for kids with autism. For kids with cerebral palsy, it helps build up the trunk, different flexibility. It helps with balance as well," she says.
Seven year old Peter McCartney has several disabilities which leave him unable to walk or speak, yet anyone can hear how much he enjoys riding. His father Eric says this activity may not be high tech like some other aspects of the camp, but it is having an immediate impact. "His control over his body is improving. He's moving his leg muscles in horseback riding, which we feel is making his legs stronger, and he's improving his head control," he says.
With so much excitement, sometimes kids become over stimulated and need a place to decompress, so the Gizmo staff created a special room. Soft music plays in the dimly lit space that contains a hammock style swing, a wading pool full of soft bits of yarn, and several crates of dried beans for the kids to roll around in.
Counselor Ingrid Kasic says everything in the room serves a therapeutic purpose. "What we wanted to do was create a space where children could come and experience the different sensory experiences, things that would be tactile as well touches," she says. "We also wanted to experience movement as well as some fiber optic lights, and some heavy cushions, so they can get some deep pressure on them."
Campers spend an average of 30 minutes a day in here, with their families. These group activities don't happen by accident or because they're easy to organize. Camp founder Kathy Knighton says there's a greater purpose for the inclusion. "It's important that the family comes to see how the child interacts with others, and this way the family can see what the speech pathologist says about swallowing or feeding, what the physical therapist says about positioning and not only is that important for educational purposes, but at home. You have a total picture of the child and you're affecting his school, home, and community," she says.
Eric McCartney says the best part of coming to camp is that he's established the kind of support network his son can continue to use as long as he needs it. "The people here really want to do what's best for the children," he says. "It doesn't stop here. You can call them on the phone, they've been at the school, very caring."
Kathy Knighton says she's glad Camp Gizmo has been able to help families like the McCartneys, and hopes to see them back again next year. She's already got plenty of new ideas for the eighth session of Camp Gizmo.