BROCKPORT, New York (Reuters) - On her first attempt ever at the long jump, the applause came before 16-year-old Dah Ku even broke a stride.
“Follow the clapping sounds, Dah Ku,” cried Marielhi Rosado, Ku’s counselor at Camp Abilities, a developmental sports camp for the blind, visually impaired and deaf-blind at the College at Brockport, State University of New York.
Ku, who is visually impaired, followed the noise from Rosado’s hands and ran 14 strides down the track before abruptly stopping. A few false starts later, she jumped six feet.
Rosado, an undergraduate studying orientation and mobility for the blind at Florida State University, teared up and clapped in celebration.
“This is only her first full day at camp and she’s coming along so much,” Rosado said of Ku, whose family moved from Thailand to Utica, New York, two years ago and who speaks limited English. “By the time Friday comes I know she’ll be even more independent and confident,” Rosado said.
Ku is one of 52 students who recently spent a week at the not-for-profit camp, founded in 1996 by Lauren Lieberman, a professor at the College at Brockport and an internationally known researcher and author on adaptive physical education.
The goal of the camp is twofold, using sport to foster independence and confidence in youngsters with limited sight and to form a basis for research into teaching methods and adaptive curricula.
Since its inception, the Camp Abilities model has expanded to other independently funded locations in the United States, from Alaska to Pennsylvania. Camp Abilities in Ohio, Florida and Saratoga Springs, New York, are slated to open next summer.
The model has resonated globally too: There are now Camp Ability modeled camps in Costa Rica, Finland, Guatemala, Ireland and Ontario, Canada. Similar camps in Latvia, Turkey and Brazil are in the planning stages.
“This is the next generation of people with visual impairments,” said Lieberman, gently motioning toward the College at Brockport’s swimming pool, which was teeming with campers - some, like Ku, swimming for the first time. “I see them as being independent, competent, leaders and I know that sport will help others and themselves see that too.”
Lieberman, who is sighted, got the idea for Camp Abilities - which is funded entirely by donations and grants - from her own positive memories of summer camp growing up in Pennsylvania.
“Kids with visual impairments go to able bodied camps, but often they’re not fully included, because people don’t know what to do with them,” Lieberman said.
That is not the case at Camp Abilities, where each camper is matched one-to-one with a counselor most likely training for a career in adaptive physical education or teaching the blind and visually impaired.
This year 80 graduate and undergraduate students from Brazil, Ireland, Australia, along with more than a dozen from American colleges and universities, served as volunteer counselors for the Brockport campers, ages nine to 19.
“The campers think they’re learning something from us, but we’re learning twice as much as they are,” said Adam Dwyer, an adaptive physical education major at the College at Brockport. “This experience has changed me; it’s going to make me a better teacher.”
Dwyer, from Hornell, New York, was paired up with Ahmat Djouma, 16, of Utica, New York. Djouma, whose family moved from Sudan to the United States in 2009, is blind and uses a walking stick.
Although he has limited exposure to sports during the school year and never stepped into a swimming pool until his first Camp Abilities last year, the teen is eager to try every sport the camp offers: Judo, fishing, tandem and circular biking, beep baseball, track and field, goalball, swimming, canoeing, rollerblading, archery and horseback riding.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Djouma as he took a short break between a swim in the pool and a two-person canoe outing with Dwyer. “I don’t do these things at home and never did in Sudan. My favorite thing to do is outrigger canoe.”
While fun is a priority during the week-long camp, the campers’ activities fuel significant research in the fields of adaptive physical education, teaching and psychology.
“We don’t poke and prod them,” Lieberman said. “We do a lot of interviews and I think it is cathartic when kids with visual impairments get to say what they’ve experienced.”
Researchers from around the world have come to Camp Abilities to view Lieberman’s work. “In Brazil we have all heard about Camp Abilities and the work Lauren Lieberman is doing,” said Otavio Furtado, a doctoral candidate at the University of Campinas in São Paulo.
His team of six researchers was in Brockport to conduct research with Lieberman on swimming teaching methods for the visually impaired. “She’s grown the field of adaptive PE a lot in the past 10 to 20 years.”
Other researchers at camp this year included a team from the University of Nevada - Reno and the State University of New York’s Cortland and Brockport colleges, who used an ongoing National Science Foundation grant to help develop new recreational games for children with visual impairments.
A University of Wisconsin researcher is examining how Camp Abilities relates to the Expanded Core Curriculum in American public schools.
Data from past years’ research projects has led to the development of a multimedia curriculum for educators on how to teach children with visual impairments; assessments specifically designed to test the fitness of youth with various disabilities; the development of new sports products and equipment for visually impaired youth; and more.
“The research that comes out of Camp Abilities is just tremendous,” said Joe Strechay, manager of the CareerConnect Program of the American Foundation for the Blind. “Typically students with visual impairments are not included in physical education or at least not included to the full level of their abilities. But Lauren is changing that.”
Strechay, who lost his vision to eye disease at age 19, was visiting the Brockport camp to share his personal story with teen campers and to encourage them to stay fit, active, and engaged in their communities.
“It’s so impressive what they do here,” he said, as he stood between a group of visually impaired children fishing for bass in the Erie Canal and another group playing basketball on outdoor courts. “I totally wish I had these types of experiences growing up. I‘m happy they do.”
Reporting by Caurie Putnam; Editing by Arlene Getz