Camping with disabilities
Choose your site, pitch your tent, and it’s not long before you’re relaxing in the peace and quiet with a well-earned cup of tea, having sent the kids off to explore. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
Many of us take for granted the simple pleasure of setting up camp wherever we like, but for individuals living with a disability, a night in a tent isn’t always so straightforward.
Unfortunately, not all campsites are accessible for everyone. Although the disability discrimination act does say that ‘reasonable adjustments’ need to be made to support people with disabilities, there isn’t legislation saying what specific facilities need to be in place. This means it is very much down to the individual site owner to interpret what constitutes a ‘reasonable adjustment’.
Of course the facilities available may often be dictated in part by the physical landscape – a campsite set in a wooded valley may struggle to make the whole site as user friendly as one on flat ground for instance – but in these cases sites may well have designated disabled plots that have easy access to the main buildings.
Many campsites and listing services try help by indicating whether or not they cater for people with a disability, often just with the addition of the phrase ‘disabled access’ or the standard wheelchair symbol, but descriptions on websites or in camping guides can be vague at best, misleading at worst.
For the Camping and Caravanning Club for instance, a park qualifies as having ‘full disabled facilities’ if it has “A fully functional disabled facility for wheelchair users, including level access shower and equipment”. That’s great if you are a wheelchair user, but actually there is a massive and complex range of disabilities, and being accessible isn’t just about installing a few ramps and toilets with low sinks. The camping experience can also be improved if members of the site staff are in a position to sympathetically help a camper with any disability. The Club, for one, runs a Disability Awareness seminar as part of its site staff’s on-going development programme – something not advertised in a standard listing of site services.
Because individual disability needs are so varied, it is very difficult to find detailed facility information for any one park. It’s worth doing some research though – the Disability Friendly Holidays website (see further info) has a database of over 80 wheelchair friendly campsites in England, Scotland and Wales, and makes a good starting point for a search. Angie Gardiner, a keen camper and mum to Richard, a wheelchair user, became so frustrated with the lack of information available that she even started her own website – web: caravanable.co.uk – which lists sites that have at least a shower, sink and toilet with disabled, ramped access.
Don’t let a lack of information put you off - a lot of campsites will do their best to provide facilities that are as accessible as possible, and if you have specific additional needs, these can often be catered for on a case by case basis. The best approach is to call your campsite beforehand or, if possible, pay them a visit. Be clear about your needs and most places will be honest and realistic about the facilities they can offer.
If you fancy a more structured camping experience, you could always try a holiday at a specialist disabled camping site such as Woodlarks. Woodlarks is set up especially to provide camping experiences for adults and children with all kinds of disabilities. They offer weeklong camps, and have the facilities to give disabled campers the opportunity to experience a range of different activities and make new friends. Activities range from an aerial runway with a specially designed safety seat to Sailability sailing - surely something for everyone. A team of experienced volunteers led by a camp leader runs each camp. Anyone who needs extra care has their own helper to support them during their stay.
So if you or someone in your family has a disability and you’re anxious about the idea of camping, don’t be. Yes there may be some extra planning involved, but camping is an adventure for everyone, and the sense of freedom and independence you get from a holiday under canvas is well worth the effort. As the following stories show, camping really is something that can be enjoyed by everyone, whatever your disability, so what are you waiting for?
Adam Wood, 22, is deafblind and has learning disabilities. Adam has already enjoyed one camping holiday with Sense, the charity for deafblind people, and is going on another this year. Here Adam’s mum Gillian tells us about Adam’s experiences of camping and the challenges it presents.
“I obviously have only a limited understanding of how Adam feels about camping, as Adam can’t tell us about that sort of thing himself. Adam is deafblind and has learning disabilities – he can speak, but his communication is limited to experiences that he’s learnt about and learnt language for, and those experiences need to happen several times for him to make the connections. I do know though what I learnt when I took him to the Sense holiday, picked him up, and the information that came back from the carers.
“Before this holiday Adam has camped with us as a family a couple of times. He did find it a little bit strange, being surrounded by fabric walls rather than hard walls, and as a family it poses difficulties for us because there are no physical boundaries, and Adam will wander. It also means there is more work involved beforehand in finding out what facilities there are and whether they would be possible to use with Adam.
“Most people see a disabled sign and they see someone in a wheelchair, but it’s a whole different set of difficulties when you’ve got a sensory loss. You go into a disabled toilet for instance and they’re designed to be in reach of people in wheelchairs, whereas I’m trying to get Adam to stoop to use a sink that’s too low for him - it presents enormous difficulties.
“The camping trip with Sense was run as part of a music festival – I’d seen it advertised and thought it might be something different for Adam, but my husband didn’t think he would cope with it. The leader on the holiday had taken Adam on other holidays in the past and thought he would get a lot out of it. Everyone at Sense thought it was a good idea too.
“I was concerned that Adam may not settle to sleeping on an inflatable bed and that he would be difficult to manage but it went very well. He settled down and got used to it very quickly. Adam is very used to sitting at a firm, solid table to eat his meals so it was a new experience for him sitting in a camping chair and not having a table for every meal. The whole trip was a good experience in adapting to a different way of doing things for Adam.
Dawn Wooldridge, 44, has Episodic Ataxia, one of the cerebellar Ataxias, a progressive degenerative neurological disorder that affects balance and co-ordination. It can also affect speech, sight and hearing and walking can become increasingly difficult.
“I’ve only had my diagnosis for about ten years and it’s only been in the last five years that my condition has really deteriorated. I’ve been in a wheelchair for two years.
“I always camped in tents as a child, and then as an adult we had a caravan. We do like to go to places that the caravan can’t go though – we like exploring the West Country and its narrow country lanes - so when we do that we take the tent. We camp in the tent at least once or twice a year.
“We don’t really need any special equipment, we’ve just adapted what we’ve got. We take our own chemical toilet so I know I’ve always got access to a toilet, as not all of the campsites are very good with their amenities. The camp kitchen I use came out of a trailer tent and we screwed on some legs from on old coffee table someone threw away at a jumble sale, so it’s now a reasonable height that I can sit in the wheelchair and cook and wash up.
“We did have to buy a new tent that I could get in and out of, and it needed to be a lighter frame tent. We used to have a big old ridge tent, which was fine access wise, but needed at least two of you to put it up and I’m not that helpful now when it comes to putting things up! I do help push the poles through, as I can sit in my chair or on the floor and do that, and then my husband runs round and pegs everything in.
“We try and check out the sites as much as we can but sometimes you do just have to turn up and see. Some places say ‘disabled access’ but there isn’t even room to get a wheelchair in the toilet. We stayed on one site recently where I couldn’t get down to the shower block, but we were only there for two nights so I just washed in the tent and washed my hair with a jug and bucket.
“I love my freedom, I love my camping. It’s some ‘normality’ – something that I used to do and can still do and still enjoy. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it, because you can. I say go for it! The only thing stopping anyone from camping would be themselves.”
Jackie Nickels is mum to four children with autism, aged from eighteen to five. Jackie is the branch officer for the National Autistic Society Torbay branch and runs ASrUS Tigers, a social group for children aged 10-16 with autism and their siblings. Jackie is currently organising a camping trip for the group, which will involve 20 children with autism camping in tents. Her 15-year-old daughter Hayley recently tested the campsite that the Tigers will be staying on.
“I work almost as hard with the parents, trying to get them to try new things, as I do with the young people, as sometimes it can be quite scary letting your child do something that you’re not sure they will be able to cope with. I’ve come up with the brainwave this year that they should be going camping!
“My daughter went on the camping trip for three nights to trial it out, as it’s not until you actually do something that you find all the pot holes. It’s really rough and ready camping – no toilets, no plumbing, no electricity - I wasn’t sure she would cope, but she did. She loved it, and we’re all fired up now. We know we’ve got to make adaptations for our children but it will fantastic, the self growth in the kids will be amazing.
“A lot of the adaptations are just being mindful of the condition. They are going to have to go with what we’ve got. It was a real shock to my daughter as she’s used to having her phone with her all the time, she doesn’t like being without electricity, she doesn’t even like using public toilets and suddenly she was having to use a hole in the ground! But she coped. With a lot of careful handling and a lot of support, she coped. And I’m confident that so will the other children.”
Jackie is also confident about the benefits the camping trip will bring to the young people with autism that she works with. “They’re going to have to stretch themselves out of their comfort zone. They’re going to have to be open to new experiences, and our children do not like change or new experiences so it’s going to be a real challenge for them.
“There are a lot of sensory things that if you’re child’s not on the autistic spectrum you wouldn’t think about. Levels of noise on site for instance. Or lighting. A lot of our children are scared of the dark, so it’s about making sure there is adequate lighting or other form of comfort. You need to put in place systems that make them feel safe enough to challenge them out of that comfort zone.
There are plenty of household tools designed for those who have difficulty using standard implements. And many can be adapted for camping by those with limited mobility. However, there are now a small number of tools being designed purely for camping. One such is the £14.99 EasyLever – a device that makes peg extraction easy for those with little movement or strength. Just insert one end under the peg and rock the lever back to effortlessly pull it from the ground. For details – including a video showing the device in action – or to buy, visit theeasylever.co.uk or call 07977 424869.
'Top five equipment musts' – ideas for useful gadgets or camping equipment from the Disability Living Foundation (DLF)
- C2 Talking Compass Battery operated with voice output. Suppliers include Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) Tel: 0303 123 9999 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Directional Tactile Compass Suppliers include RNIB – details above
- Trial Messenger Maps Large print tactile maps using a range of standard symbols. Suppliers include Fieldsman Trials Ltd email: email@example.com
- Ez Squeeze Can Opener Opens on release of a slide button at the top of the handle
- Wheelchair Kovers Protective covers for storage of a range of wheelchairs. Suppliers include Mobility Smart Ltd email: firstname.lastname@example.org
DLF is the UK’s leading source of impartial, expert information and advice on equipment to help disabled and older people continue to live full and independent lives for as long as possible. For more equipment and full suppliers details please see the DLF website: livingmadeeasy.org.uk
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