It kicked off with “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Beside a porch turned into a makeshift stage, gaggles of teenagers looked on as camp counsellors unfurled a sheet. With a big yellow moon overhead, the excited staff stuck sock puppets through the hanging blanket. Then, with as much gusto as sock puppets can muster, the googly-eyed characters plunged into the signature Queen tune.
The audience lapped it up: cheering, shouting. Their laughter filled the still-warm night. A cluster of smiling girls, seated on a picnic blanket, clapped while other fans rocked out within the lines of old school chairs. Spectators danced and swayed like ripples over a pond.
Squam Stock isn't just any party. The fiesta etches a special place into the memory hundreds of children. For some, it's the experience they await all year.
Hints of its uniqueness are sprinkled within the commotion — an obedient guide dog sitting beside his owner, wheelchairs rocking in time with the beats. Squam Stock marks the final hurrah for youth who've called the Squamish Easter Seals camp home for a week — and one more night of “being normal.”
Nathan Shipley happily observed the party from the back. His week at camp was full of “cans” as his disability — quadriplegia cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects his limbs — was tossed aside. The 18-year-old braved the giant 30-foot swing, stayed up late, had a shower instead of a bath for the first time in three years and met a bunch of new friends, something he doesn't come by easily in the outside world, he said.
“I don't have very much [friends]. All the friends I made are from here,” Nathan said.
Nathan thinks it comes down to education. People often see his motorized wheelchair before seeing him. On public transit, he gets called “cute” by seniors who tease his hair.
Camp counsellors go through “sympathy training,” an exercise Nathan believes could benefit many people. They practice feeding each other, they spend time in wheelchairs and experience a period of time during which they're not allowed to talk. The training brings about understanding, Nathan said.
A lot has changed in how society perceives people with disabilities since the camp's opening in 1972. It was only a year after the camp's ribbon cutting that British Columbia quietly repealed its Sexual Sterilization Act, legislation introduced to keep the societal cost of caring for the disabled in check.
Backing Nathan's educational theory, the Sea to Sky School District is on the cusp of implementing a system officials feel will eliminate the idea of “special” needs. The district's new project-based learning focus hands pupils individual plans, each with its own goals. The onus is on students to achieve their desired outcomes and the teacher is simply there to guide them.
The new model is a departure from a class in which students are either above or below an academic average. As a result, special isn't special anymore, said Lisa McCullough, the district's superintendent. It's an enormous stride away from traditional teaching.
“It is a huge shift,” she said.
Education practices have changed significantly since the 1960s and '70s, when students with disabilities were housed in separate facilities, said Marilyn Caldwell, the school district's director of instruction for student services. The concept of inclusion came about in the '80s. Throughout the '90s, students themselves were teaching the teachers a lot about creating a successful, inclusive classroom.
Today, diversity is the new “norm,” Caldwell said. The next generation is far more accepting than that of their parents, she noted.
“People are individuals,” she said. “That is the way we now see people.”
It will take a number of generations before society truly reaches equality, awareness and acceptance of disabilities, said Stephen Miller, the British Columbia Lions Society for Children with Disabilities president who oversees the Easter Seals camps. People with visual disabilities will always be noticed, but Miller believes the key to integration is through knowledge.
“It's like racism,” he explained. “We really wouldn't have any racism if parents taught their kids from an early age that we are all equal.”