Finding Disability Joy Through Camp
If I were to sum up The Painted Turtle, a camp for kids with serious medical conditions, in a word, it would be joy. After two summers working there as a cabin counsellor, I can fully affirm its transformative impact on campers, counsellors, and staff alike. As someone who was diagnosed with JIA just before starting university, I soon noticed significant barriers to accessing my education and physical environment due to the adjustments required by my chronic pain. I learned that in most places, having an equitable right to navigate the world is not a given but a constant (and sometimes losing) battle. Without a supportive community, this battle can lead to isolation, making joy and connection more challenging.
The Painted Turtle, part of the broader SeriousFun camp network, aspires to offer a “year-round, life-changing environment and authentic camp experience for children with chronic and life-threatening illnesses” (Who We Are). And indeed, it lives up to this mission. A vital part of this camp is its commitment to enabling every child's involvement in every activity— the ropes course, horseback riding, and much more. The camp ensures accessibility for campers rather than presuming certain activities are beyond their capabilities. Physical abilities and health requirements aren't viewed as hindrances or barriers to overcome. Rather, health-related experiences become avenues for connecting with fellow campers and staff who have undergone similar challenges.
As a counsellor, one of the most meaningful experiences is listening to kids relate to other campers about their experience in hospitals, dealing with intimidating medical procedures, or facing challenges in schools related to their disabilities. It's incredibly important for them to realize that they're not alone in these journeys and that there are people who understand them and see them for their whole selves. I met kids and other adults with juvenile arthritis for the first time at camp. I also got to meet other counsellors and volunteers who were former campers and have a variety of medical conditions and experiences. Connecting with them, learning from their experiences, and building a supportive community has been an invaluable part of my experience. As is the disability-related humour we can share.
I often think about how working at any other summer camp would be a huge challenge for me right now due to my disability. It would place a heavy burden on me to explain myself and advocate for understanding from others. I might be viewed as “not fit” for the job without being recognized for the other qualities that I bring. However, at The Painted Turtle, it is easier to be authentic and not have to constantly explain myself and my physical limitations. Through my experience, I've become a role model for younger campers, kids with my condition and those who can relate to me because we are part of the disability community.
Disability joy, a term I first encountered while listening to the podcast Disability After Dark, describes a significant part of what camp is. It's a place where campers can experience a sense of profound belonging that can lead to connections and community. Everyone lifts each other up and celebrates our unique experiences. When I'm at camp, I often feel an overwhelming sense of joy because I know I wouldn't have discovered this community if it weren't for my medical condition. I firmly believe that finding joy in disability is crucial. There are small moments of connection with someone who understands you or big moments like getting to do a ropes course for the first time. There are times that the entirety of camp cheers you on because you successfully self-administered your medication for the first time. This joy helps keep us going and fighting for a better future, especially on our hardest days.
“Who We Are” The Painted Turtle, 25 Mar. 2019, www.thepaintedturtle.org/who-we-are.