The giggling wouldn't stop in 10-year-old Sabria Alston's tiny bedroom at Kamp A-Kom-Plish, a residential summer camp nestled in the woods of Southern Maryland. About a half-dozen girls were crammed inside for an impromptu dance party one afternoon last week, taking turns wiggling around to the heavy bass blaring from the stereo.
Sabria never got up from her bed. She has cerebral palsy, and her walker was across the room. But she bobbed her head and smiled as her roommate, 12-year-old Brady Hebard of Baltimore County, jumped and turned and flipped her white-blonde mop of hair from side to side.
"We should team up for the talent show!" Alayna Davis, an 8-year-old from Upper Marlboro, told the other girls.
"I can't dance," Sabria said. "I can't dance like they do."
"Well, you can just dance in your wheelchair," Alayna suggested.
Sabria shook her head and clarified herself: "I'm not saying I'm not able to dance. I'm saying I have no rhythm."
There is little that Sabria will admit that she is unable to do because of her disability, which has weakened her limbs. Sabria's mother, Princelena Marshall of Baltimore County, said that the more likely scenario is that she has to tell her daughter, " 'Bri, maybe you can't do that.' . . . She thinks she can do everything."
That's why Marshall sent her daughter to Kamp A-Kom-Plish, one of a growing number of summer camps across the country that bring together children with and without disabilities. The percentage of accredited camps that have tailored service for children with physical or mental disabilities has risen from 9 percent to 13 percent in the past two years, said Harriet Gamble, director of communications for the American Camping Association.
There are about 100 accredited summer camps in the Washington region, according to the American Camping Association, including several designed for children with special needs, including diabetes, autism and spina bifida. But fewer than a dozen are listed as focusing on children with and without disabilities going to camp together.
Kamp A-Kom-Plish was founded on 108 acres in the Charles County community of Nanjemoy about seven years ago by Melwood, a nonprofit group that works with people with disabilities. The camp enrolls about 40 children between ages 8 and 16, most from the Washington area, for one- or two-week sessions throughout the summer.
About half of the children do not have a disability. Leah McLeod, an 11-year-old from Alexandria, for example, picked the camp because she could spend several hours every morning learning to ride and care for horses. Some campers have physical disabilities, while others face mental or emotional challenges. Everyone joins in regular camp activities: boating, soccer, swimming, traversing ropes courses, scaling a climbing wall.
"Other camps weren't accepting kids that could really make it in their camp," said Heidi Aldous-Fick, the camp's director. "It's easier for kids to participate in a recreation program that's inclusive than a school situation almost."
Mainstreaming children with disabilities into regular classrooms, a practice also known as inclusion, has been around since the 1970s, following the civil rights movement and the passage of a federal law that became known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.
But parents of special education students have long said their children are left in the lurch once school closes for the summer. Some parents are reluctant to send their children to specialized camps because of the stigma associated with them or concern that they might not be challenging enough. And although federal law requires that all summer camps accept students with disabilities, some parents say the reality is that they are often resistant.
"No one comes out and says it," Marshall said, "but I always make sure I announce [Sabria's disability] beforehand: 'She walks with a walker, but don't let that scare you.' "
Gamble said there are limits to what camps can provide, often because of the terrain surrounding the camp or the intensity of the recreational program. But Jennifer Skulski of the National Center on Accessibility, which is run by the National Park Service and Indiana University and promotes inclusion of people with disabilities in recreation, said camps have made large strides since the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed 14 years ago, such as building more paved roads, installing access ramps and improving health facilities.
The accommodations at Kamp A-Kom-Plish are subtle: The pool has a graded entry that makes it easy for a wheelchair to roll down to the water. There is a paved ring around the central campfire and a wooden ramp on the basketball court to help children in wheelchairs make shots.
"We're trying to get the message across that this is a camp for everyone," said Joanne McDonald, vice president of community living and leisure services at Melwood. The group is based in Upper Marlboro, and though it runs programs across the country for people with disabilities, Kamp A-Kom-Plish is the only such facility it operates.
The camp costs $535 for one week and $1,135 for two weeks. A registered nurse visits the camp daily and is on call at all hours, as is a doctor. A medical assistant lives at the camp.
Several children are attending with a sibling who has a disability. Alayna and her older brother, Julian, 14, checked in with sister Breanna, 11, who has Down syndrome.
"I don't have to separate them," said their mother, Tiffani Sterling-Davis. "They can learn together; they can be in a diverse environment together. It's just really exciting for me."
One afternoon after lunch last week, Alayna knocked on Sabria and Brady's bedroom door.
"This is the secret knock," she whispered to a guest.
"It's not so secret anymore," Leah cried out from inside the room.
Alayna walked in, and Breanna soon followed, closing the door behind her. Several girls had gathered inside, trying out lip gloss and trading CDs.
A few counselors peeped in and smiled. They chided the girls for keeping the door closed but otherwise left them alone. The girls prefer it that way -- they need time to just be together.
"We've only known each other for two days, and it feels like two weeks," Brady said. "We're, like, all sisters."