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 2m. 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 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 US, from Alaska to Pennsylvania. Camp Abilities in Ohio, Florida, and Saratoga Springs, New York, are slated to open next summer.
The model has also resonated globally: There are now Camp Abilities-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,” she added.
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 and Australia, along with more than a dozen from US colleges and universities, served as volunteer counselors for the Brockport campers, aged 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 US in 2009, is blind and uses a walking stick.