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LETTER: Special needs children are routinely left out

‘It is a human rights violation to be excluded on the basis of disability’
Sandra Di Curzio and her 12-year-old daughter Chiara McGettigan. Di Curzio is upset because Zajac Ranch in Mission was unable to accept Chiara for an overnight camp unless Di Curzio provided 24-hour one-on-one support. (Deborah Caswell photo)

Re: “Chilliwack mother upset her daughter with Down syndrome, autism excluded from Zajac Ranch camp,”, Oct. 26, 2022.

I would like to clarify some misconceptions about the situation I encountered with Camp Zajac when I applied to have my daughter attend camp a week in July.

Camp Zajac is the only special needs camp that is locally available. Camps for typical children have routinely rejected our daughter, as well as recreation centre day camps, dance schools, group sports, daycares, etc. We never drop our daughter off anywhere without full disclosure of her flight risk and behaviour concerns and she is always accompanied by either my husband, myself, or a trained respite worker must be with her at all times for any and all activities. We attend with her and stay with her for the duration of the activity.

When I applied for my daughter to go to this camp, which is actually a wonderful camp, my application form repeatedly stated that she was a flight riskeloper. I also said she needed one-on-one care; they provide this for the campers, but had already allocated all of their workers. At that point, they said that since my daughter needed one-on-one care and they didn’t have the staff, we would have to provide our own personal support worker (PSW). We did so. We were prepared to pay our own PSW, to have the PSW stay with her the entire time she was at the camp, and then take her home at night so the staff wouldn’t have to deal with any safety issues if she tried to run. We were also going to pay full price for the camp even though our worker was only going to take her for four of the five days of camp.

The PSWs are not supposed to be parents; the camp is meant to be a break for both the parents and the children and give our kids a chance to spend time with their peers. My husband was also unavailable as we have another child.

The president told us repeatedly that they were not a day camp. When I asked how they could keep her safe at night, at no time did they say they had the staff or any safety measures in place (e.g., alarm). Since they admittedly could not keep her safe, we said that our worker can take her back home at night, come back in the morning dressed, fed, and ready to go and stay with her all day. The only thing we asked the staff to do was unlock the gates for our worker to come in every morning. They don’t close the gates until the evening, so my worker would have just left with my daughter. We didn’t ask the staff to do anything, except to let her go home at night. The camp said no. If she didn’t stay overnight, she couldn’t go. I said that even if we had a second worker, if they fell asleep, the camp had no safety measures in place, which necessitated us taking her home at night.

Contrary to the comments and criticism that I received (online), we were not going to drop my daughter off, leave her unattended with the staff and expect them to look after her for the week. We proposed the solutions of providing a PSW and paying all of her expenses as well as taking her home at night because the camp admittedly didn’t have the staff or safety measures for my daughter. The answer was “no’ over and over, there was no wiggle room because they had “always done it that way.” My husband and I had a Zoom meeting with Carmen Zajac and a representative from Inclusion BC and they talked about the impact on them because of my persistence. Carmen was abrasive and rude and most definitely not willing to work with us. The only thing we asked for was for the staff to unlock the gates four mornings of a five-day camp.

The point of the story was that my daughter, like many children with special needs, was excluded from yet another place. This has been a pattern for the last 12 years and this was the first time I challenged it – because it was a camp dedicated to special needs children. On their website, it says, “Every kid should get to go to summer camp – let’s work on that together” a quote attributed to founder Mel Zajac. We tried hard to make it work, but ultimately, my daughter missed out. Unless there is a change in perspective and staffing, the same hurdles will exist in the future with this camp. It’s one thing to say they can assist next year and another to put up barriers on all staff levels, which is what really transpired.

Other parents of special needs children shared their stories with me; I am by far not alone. It is a human rights violation to be excluded on the basis of disability; our view is that is exactly what happened here.

Sandra DiCurzio

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