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Accommodating Disabilities at Summer Camp

Federal prosecutors have issued one of their periodic reminders about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), this time about upcoming summer camps. The ADA does apply to most summer camps, requiring those organizations to make “reasonable accommodations” for campers with physical or behavioral disabilities. While camps have to assess each situation individually, there are some important principles for determining what is a reasonable accommodation.

  • Staff training usually is a reasonable accommodation. We most often see this situation in chronic illnesses, such as juvenile diabetes. If a layperson can be trained to do essential tasks such a checking blood sugar and administering medication, then your camp needs staff trained in those tasks.  
  • If the requested accommodation causes an undue burden, then you can refer the camper to a more specialized camp. For example, a medically fragile child may require professional care beyond the skills of your existing staff. Providing that professional care may be an undue burden on your existing staff and budget.
  • You are not required to adopt accommodations that "fundamentally alter" your program. For example, you do not have to dismantle a zip line to keep a child with physical disabilities from feeling left out. You may need to work with the child's parents and professionals to find an alternate activity, or even work out some safe form of minimal participation, but you do not have to completely alter the activity for the other children.
  • In general, you do not have to hire a new staff member to accommodate a given disability. Again using the example of a medically fragile child, you do not have have to hire an additional person with a particular medical license to be available for that child. Remember, however, that most staff can be trained to handle many chronic medical conditions, such as epilepsy or juvenile diabetes.
  • Behavioral problems are disabilities that require reasonable accommodation. You need to train your staff to handle common behavior problems. You also need to train them to recognize common mental health challenges, such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Whether your staff can handle these challenges or you need to refer the child for professional help will require case-by-case analysis.
  • You do not have to accommodate children who pose a direct threat of harm to themselves or others. For example, if you have a child who is aggressive towards other campers, you do not have to accommodate that behavior. Similarly, you can disenroll a child who constantly elopes or fails to heed safety instructions. An indirect threat, such as taking too much of a counselor's attention that leaves the other campers unsupervised doesn't fit in this exception. It may cause an undue burden, and you need to analyze the situation under that standard.
  • You generally do not have to hire someone to work one-on-one with a camper. Many children can participate in a camping program if they have a constant attendant to help them process information or navigate rules. In most of those situations, you can require the child's parents to pay for that one-on-one care.

ADA compliance is a complex field, requiring careful analysis of the particular facts in each case. You can find more information at the American Camping Association website, or consult with an experienced attorney who can help you evaluate your options.

Under the ADA, summer camps, whether private or run by municipalities and counties, must afford reasonable modifications to ensure that children with disabilities can participate fully in camp programs and activities.  Camps must evaluate each child on an individual basis and train their staff in the requirements of the ADA.  Camps must also pay for the cost of any reasonable modifications necessary for a child with a disability to participate in camp activities.


ada, americans with disabilities act, camps, ausburn_deborah, youth services law