As the coordinator of a summer and winter camp for children who are blind and visually impaired, I expect total inclusion. During a summer program a few years ago, we tackled the prejudice of a head lifeguard who told our campers that the kayaks were “all broken” in lieu of letting children who are blind use them. (That excuse lasted for as long as it took us to “educate” him about the capabilities of our children.)
This coming Martin Luther King weekend, the winter camp is going again to Indian Head Resort in New Hampshire, courtesy of the Rhode Island Lions Sight Foundation and the many local Lions Clubs, (including Warwick) which contribute to this worthy cause. It is an excellent opportunity for younger children who are blind to learn that they are capable of almost anything, including listening to others to develop friendships, learning etiquette and eating skills, and doing the latest dances with the DJ. (It should be no surprise that our campers are experts at line dances.)
When recently talking to my right hand “man,” a dedicated teacher of the visually impaired who arranged some of the activities last year, I asked if she had checked with Loon Mountain to see if our kiddos could go sledding at their facility, only a few miles from the resort. She indicated they were denied access “because the children were blind.” She instead arranged for sledding to take place at an alternate facility, King Pine. An hour away on a school bus on the twisty, windy, snowy Kancamagus Highway was a tortuous trip not only for the driver but also for those campers with a tendency towards motion sickness. If they could see, they would be horrified to look over the side of the road to see what looked like driving on the edge of a cliff with a long way down.
It was unbelievable to me that Loon Mountain, home of the New England Disabled Sports Program, denied our campers access to sledding! Furious like a mama bear when her cubs are not treated fairly, I did research to confirm that Loon is, in fact, legally obligated to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act that guarantees equal access. I contacted the director of the sports program, even though they are not officially a part of Loon Mountain; my thinking was that she would understand. And she did, promising to help. The next day, she called me back to inform me a high level meeting with Loon’s upper management and lawyers had been scheduled to discuss the situation, could I just review a few details with her so she could be prepared? The major question was, “How was sledding done last year at King Pine?” The answer: one camp counselor, (generally a volunteer teacher), would help the child get in the tube at the top of the hill, telling them when the “coast was clear” to go, and another counselor would meet them at the bottom, helping them get out. It was a simple method that worked well with our group, and prevented anyone from prematurely starting his/her slide and possibly running into someone else on the way down, and also prevented the children from willy-nilly walking in front of other sliders, lest they be thrown to the ground like a bowling pin. “Hmmmm,” she pondered. “Did you ever ride two to a tube?” Ever the safety worrier, I indicated they were not allowed to go down two to a tube because of the possibility that they would bump heads, something that had happened a few years back on a smaller hill. (Believe me when I say that blood and snow do not mix well!) She then asked the million-dollar question; “How do you tell them when to turn?” The sledding hill at King Pine goes straight down with no turns. “Hmmmm,” she said again. Sensing her hesitation, it suddenly dawned on me that their sledding hill might be more than a hill, and, quite possibly, might be a MOUNTAIN! She described the many banks, turns, other sledders, trees and snow makers that would be obstacles along the way down while sledding at a pretty high rate of speed. Embarrassed, I burst into laughter and apologized profusely. Quite simply, there was no way our campers would be able to manage such a difficult sledding hill. She seemed relieved that this was my conclusion, and we parted amicably as I sheepishly asked her to pass along my apologies to those who were going to attend the meeting.
Equal access is well and good, but not in this case, (although she did graciously offer to teach our campers to tandem ski.) This bull in a china shop became a mouse under the radiator when reality was pointed out to me. I learned that there are some times when equal access is not safe access at all!