5 ways summer camp fosters kids’ healthy development

Horseback-riding at an Easter Seals campJune is only 10 — count them, 10 — days away! That means our respite staff and therapists are eagerly planning activities for the four summer camps we at Easter Seals Crossroads coordinate each year, and more Easter Seals staff across the country are preparing for their summer camps, too.

Summer camp is an experience for kids of all abilities as it offers ways for them to engage in relationships, build communication skills, explore and learn through problem solving, increase playing and movement – all of which are developmental milestones.


Having fun at an Easter Seals summer camp

I spoke with Claire Werner, an occupational therapist at Easter Seals Crossroads, and Joelle Samples, our respite manager who maintains two of our summer camps, to find out why summer camp is so beneficial for kids with and without special needs. They gave me 5 reasons kids of all abilities should attend summer camp:

  1. Playing: Children learn from doing. At camp, they look to their left and observe what their peer is doing. Then they look to their right and observe what another peer is doing. There is a good chance that after observing behaviors, the child will participate in them as well. Seeing behaviors exhibited by peers of their age group is important. In addition, play time often incorporates sensory experiences of seeing, touching and hearing through finger painting, gross motor playing on the playground, and water play, which is often the favorite part of our summer camps!
  2. Relationships: At CampAbility, the staff-to-child ratio is primarily one-on-one. Strong and trusting relationships are formed quickly between camp staff and children. And at our week-long Gadget Camp, all the children who attend utilize augmentative communication devices. This camp environment gives them the opportunity to see other children their age use similar devices. Children begin to build relationships with others whom they see as similar to them. Proper socialization experiences provide children with an opportunity to learn from one another and to develop important life skills and friendship bonds. Values, societal norms, and cultural guidelines are learned through a lifelong process of interacting with others.
  3. Communication: Summer camp is full of activities, field trips and time spent winding down after a long day. Communication and language skills are often the invisible benefit from a child attending camp because they are communicating all day long to their peers and camp staff. Children who utilize communication boards and augmentative communication devices learn new words associated with camp activities and begin to form a vocabulary that will stay with them for life.
  4. Exploring and Learning: Camp activities stimulate a child’s desire to explore their environment and learn through new experiences. Placing hands in shaving cream, blowing bubbles, or drawing are all ways in which children begin to learn through problem solving while utilizing their senses in different ways. Sometimes children are hesitant to participate in these experiences during daily life due to sensory processing disorders, but camp provides them with the ability to explore these things at their own pace and to participate with their peers through supports as needed by the staff.
  5. Movement: Summer camp is all about enjoying the summer weather. At our Camp ROCKS, children and young adults participate in rock climbing, basketball, horseback riding, nature hikes and other fun outdoor activities at Bradford Woods. These kids may be participating in an activity for the first time and are encouraged to do so through the support of their peers and camp staff. A favored CampAbility field trip is at Center Grove High School where children interact with football players on the field to experience physical movement in new ways.

At Easter Seals, we understand the importance of identifying developmental milestones in children before the age of 5. Summer camp is a great opportunity for children to build the foundation of important developmental skills that will stay with them for their life time. Visit the Easter Seals free Ages & Stages Questionnaire to see your child’s developmental milestone progress. And check out Easter Seals nationwide camp directory today.

Related Stories and Resources:

Hear first-hand about one young teen’s first time at summer camp.


Hollywood Takes Action on Meaningful Employment for Vets


Rob Riggle in Easter Seals 2015 PSA video

I’ve heard people say that Hollywood is tough, but when the going gets tough, the tough get going. That’s certainly true of the veterans who worked on the latest public service announcement for Easter Seals Dixon Center. These men and women, who comprised most of the cast and crew, busted their chops to create an outstanding PSA that took months of prep, a 19-hour shoot day and many more weeks of post-production.

We were able to work with so many former service members because of the Easter Seals partnership with Veterans in Film and Television, a nonprofit networking organization that seeks to unite current and former members of the military working in the film and television industry. This very successful group helped us select Air Force Combat Camera Officer Jim Fabio from more than 50 directorial candidates (all veterans) and made the connections that have enabled us to hire 45 vets across all three of our PSAs.

I’m honored by the actions of retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel, actor and comedian Rob Riggle, who volunteered his time to play a leading role in the PSA as an executive interviewing a job candidate who happens to be a veteran. I’ll let the PSA speak for itself. It serves as an example of the quality work product veterans produce on a daily basis in the civilian sector, whether for their companies or communities.

This PSA became an opportunity to tangibly support our cause by offering Hollywood powerhouses an actionable connection to veterans. Two years ago, my former boss, Admiral Michael Mullen (former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) spoke at a Variety event in Hollywood. One of the audience members was award-winning director, producer and writer Judd Apatow. Judd was so impressed after hearing Admiral Mullen that he reached out to Easter Seals and asked what he might be able to do. Since then, Judd has hired multiple veterans for his productions. He also served as a mentor to our director Jim Fabio and overall advisor on this PSA.

Hollywood is often accused of being all talk, but the work done on this PSA is another instance that demonstrates just the opposite. Please take a look at the PSA. If you like it, I’d encourage you to share it on your social media sites like YouTube. Bzzz!

Watch the PSA with Rob Riggle now!


5 questions college-bound students with disabilities should ask now

graduates-free-stockI am pleased to introduce Judy Shanley, Assistant Vice President of Education & Youth Transition here at Easter Seals, as a guest blogger today.

by Judy L. Shanley, Ph.D.

When young people leave high school to attend college, their services, expectations and procedures change. The US Department of Education has produced a nice publication on the service differences between high school and college. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) assures students with disabilities (whether those disabilities are significant or mild) that as long as they meet the eligibility requirements and documentation requirements in college, they should be provided accommodations and supports aligned with their needs.

All colleges have a disability resource center or student support center that can help students identify the most appropriate supports to facilitate their learning, and the costs for these services are often absorbed by the college. Services like extended time on tests, note-takers, tutoring, alternate formats and so on are offered in inclusive college programs so that students — regardless of their disabilities — can access them.

Alternately, some higher education programs focus exclusively on a particular group of students, such as those with learning disabilities. One prominent college is Landmark College in Vermont, whose programs are specifically tailored to students with learning disabilities. Landmark College is a private school, just like any other private school, and tuition is considered high. Financial aid is based on family financial assets and is a needs-based program. When selecting the right sort of college for you, you might ask the following questions

  1. What academic and social support services am I likely to need in college?
  2. What services can a particular college provide?
  3. What is the process for accessing these services?
  4. What is tuition?
  5. How much financial aid, or other financial support can I get (student loans, grants, and so on)?

Two other great higher education and disability resources I recommend are the Association on Higher Education & Disability and the HEATH Resource Center.

One last thing — I always encourage visits to college campuses, and many colleges offer a transition-like program where you can spend a weekend on campus to learn more about the services. Talk with academic advisers, disability support professionals, and other students to get a “feel” for the variety and availability of support services — I have known students with learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities who have attended two-and four-year colleges (both public and private) and have been successful!

Related Resources:

If you are a young women with a disability, you may find support, advice and inspiration through Easter Seals Thrive online


Author of “El Deafo,” CeCe Bell, reveals the book’s backstory

RevisedChapter4PanelsWe are extremely pleased to introduce Cece Bell as a guest blogger today. Her graphic novel El Deafo is a loose biographical account of her childhood living with deafness, and it won a Newbery honor this year.

by Cece Bell

One of the more uncomfortable experiences I sometimes have as a deaf person is when I cannot understand the person speaking to me. And so, the person speaking to me gets annoyed with me, or even angry. Perhaps the person thinks that I am not listening, or that I don’t care. They don’t know the real reason, which is simply that I cannot hear them — or anything, for that matter — very well.

The easiest way to deal with a situation like this is to say, “I’m sorry. I can’t hear very well. Could you repeat that?” I am able to do that now. But for years and years, I couldn’t. I was too ashamed.

About seven years ago, I was in the check-out line at our local grocery store. Annette the cashier was never all that pleasant — her gruff manner made her really hard to lip-read. That day I was preoccupied with who knows what, and so I wasn’t as attentive in my lip-reading as I usually am. I couldn’t understand anything she was saying.

As I floundered around trying to make sense of all the usual “find everything OK paper or plastic have any coupons that’ll be $120.43 debit or credit” Annette became increasingly agitated with me. Her usual gruffness turned into real anger. I was flustered, and after paying for my groceries I rushed with my cart out of the store.

I was halfway to my car in the vast, hot parking lot when Annette suddenly reappeared at my shoulder and spat out, “You FORGOT your RECEIPT.” I thanked her through gritted teeth and was completely in tears by the time I got to my car.

In a haze of frustration and crying my eyes out, I replayed that unfortunate interaction over and over the whole drive home and fantasized about what I should have done and what I should have said. Why didn’t I just pull out my hearing aids, shove them in Annette’s face, and say, “I can’t understand you. I’m deaf. See?”

But that’s not what I did, because I’ve never done something like that. I had been deaf for over thirty years back then and I couldn’t say those words—I just couldn’t.

When I got home, I told my husband Tom what had happened. He immediately called the grocery store to complain. Tom said everything I should have said. When he hung up, he informed me that the manager had had lots of trouble with Annette, and so he was going to demote her to the meat department.

A victory for sure, but a hollow one for me. I should have been the one complaining to the manager. I should have fought this battle myself.

For days afterward, I thought about Annette and how terrible she had made me feel. I thought about how terrible I had made myself feel for not speaking up. I wanted to vent, so I started a blog called El Deafo. El Deafo was the name of my childhood superhero alter ego, the one who said the things and did the things I wish I had said and done, but only in my daydreams.

Starting that blog meant I was ready to stop being ashamed of something that isn’t at all shameful in the first place. I was ready to face the music, even if I couldn’t hear it that well. I was ready to tell the world. I AM DEAF.

That blog was the spark for my graphic novel, El Deafo, an autobiographical graphic novel that chronicles my childhood experiences with deafness and friendships. Writing El Deafo forced me to re-examine the shame I had felt and to put that shame behind me. El Deafo tells the world that I AM DEAF, and the incredibly positive responses that I have received since its publication have proven one thing: sharing your differences with the world does indeed make you a stronger person. I made my own life so much better when I wrote El Deafo. I can only hope that it might help others, too.


Just a delay, or autism?

Minolta DSCRecently a large company invited me to speak at a neural diversity day. Speaking at corporate events isn’t something that I think of when I think of my job, but that’s exactly the reason that this avenue is so important.

The attendance wasn’t the greatest — in fact, at 22, it was rather low. The numbers are irrelevant, though. It’s the impact my presentation has on the people who are there that matters.

You see, for those already aware of what the autism spectrum is, there are plenty of places to look for information on the disorder. But what about a parent who thinks their child might have autism? For a person like this, it may be difficult to justify attending a workshop like mine, especially if they’ve been told by their doctor what my parents were told for so many years: “Oh, don’t worry about your child, he’s a bit delayed in some areas but that’s because he’s just smarter. He’ll outgrow it.”

Those words are exactly what a parent at this presentation had been told. I gave an abbreviated version of my presentation, and the 55 minutes flew by. I got plenty of applause when I was done, and as I was walking out with my Easter Seals Midwest coworkers, a woman from the audience stopped us and just broke down crying. I froze. I don’t really know how to react in this situation, so I just listened to her story.

The more she told me about her child, the more he sounded like me. Fixations, obsessions, and a fascination with anything that spins. The doctor had told her the same thing my doctor had told my parents, and for the first time in her life she had an answer as to why her child is the way he is. “Aaron, coming here was the most important thing I’ve ever done,” she told me. “For once I have hope.” Those are five words I will never forget.

Related Resources:

If you’re curious about your child’s development, take the Ages and Stages developmental screening on www.MaketheFirstFiveCount.org.


And the winners of the Disability Film Challenge are…!

Disability-Film-Challenge-LOGOI’d like to introduce Nic Novicki, the founder of the Disability Film Challenge, a 48-hour short film competition. The film challenge’s purpose is to motivate disabled and non-disabled film makers to be proactive in the film industry and to supply them with a means of exposure for themselves and their projects. Plus, it’s fun and there are prizes! Nic is announcing the winners here today on Easter Seals blog.

I am a little person actor, comedian, and producer who has been working in the industry since the age of 7.  Though I have been lucky enough to work as an actor on shows such as Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos, early on in my career I didn’t always get offered the best parts or would get typecast due to my stature. So I started worked behind the scenes and produced features, short films, web series, live events, and commercials.

Nic Novicki

Nic Novicki

After learning how to produce, I soon realized that I had to take my career in my own hands in order to get the types of roles and projects that were interesting and challenged me.  Today, I am a proud member of the Producers Guild of America and recently when I was participating in a 48-hour film race for the Producers Guild, it occurred to me that I might have been the only filmmaker with a disability that was going to be making a film.

I was reminded once again that the disability community is not represented enough in the mainstream media.  One in five people have some form of disability, yet people with disabilities represent less than one percent of characters on TV shows and movies.  It is even rare to see people with disabilities behind the scenes.

I thought to myself, if I come up with a short film challenge that incorporates people with disabilities, I can help them get further involved in the business and provide visibility to an underrepresented and vibrant community.

The idea behind The Disability Film Challenge is to give both disabled and non-disabled filmmakers a reason to work together. Every film has to have an actor, writer, director, producer, or crew member with a disability. 

The winning films screen at the world renowned TCL Chinese Theater during the Hollyshorts Film Festival and filmmakers are set up with big-time Hollywood mentors as well as winning Dell computer packages.

The challenge, now in its second year, keeps growing!  This year we had three times the amount of people enter as we did last year.
After a difficult selection process I am proud to announce the winners of the 2nd Disability Film Challenge

The 2015 Disability Film Challenge Winners

Best Film: Bumblebees
Jenna Kanell, the writer, director and producer of Bumblebees will receive a Dell Precision M4800 Mobile Workstation and will be mentored by Producer Lynn Hendee (Ender’s Game) who is the President of Chartoff Productions.

Best Filmmaker: Passengers
Dickie Hearts wrote, directed, edited, produced and starred in Passengers.  He will receive a Dell Venue tablet and be mentored by Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber, Something About Marry, etc).

Best Actor: Spanish Love 101
Steve Way who played Steve in Spanish Love 101 will receive mentorship from casting director Pam Dixon.

Social Media Award: I Understand You
Stephen and Lori Saux won the social media award for creating the best marketing campaign.  In the 2 weeks of the campaign they were able to get over 6,000 youtube views, through: twitter, blogs, facebook, and a website they created for their film. They will receive a Dell Venue Tablet and a meeting with Bret Ingraham who is a Manager of Public Relations at Mattel, Inc.

On top of doing the 48-hour film challenge we are also doing free workshops to give disabled filmmakers more skills throughout the year.  Last year we did an editing workshop at the Producers Guild of America:

This year we did a camera and editing workshop at Youtube Space LA too.

We are looking forward to doing more workshops and challenges in the future and getting more disabled people involved in the media!  It is so exciting to me to see the progress so far and I already can’t wait for next year!


Great video to help kids with autism make gifts for Mom


How-to video for kids with autism to learn to make gifts for moms

My husband and I are taking off this weekend to visit our son Gus in his group home in Wisconsin. Gus won’t understand that it’s Mother’s Day, but as always, it will be great just to be with him.

Children with severe disabilities can find it challenging to express their feelings on Mother’s Day without guidance from a parent, teacher or caregiver. That doesn’t mean a family shouldn’t celebrate, though! Children with disabilities can mark the day in small ways that can speak volumes. Sometimes Gus signs a simple card. One year we took a scribble Gus had drawn and transformed it into a pin. This year, Mike and I are treating ourselves to a night in a favorite hotel after our visit with Gus. For us, Mother’s Day won’t be just one day. It’ll be an entire weekend.

If you are looking for ways to celebrate Mother’s Day, a company called Rethink Autism might have an idea for you. They’ve created a free YouTube video with a few tips on how to teach a child with autism to appreciate Mom by making a gift or even using a microwave oven to make a meal. I checked out the video myself — it’s straightforward and easy to understand. Take a look and see what you think — I’m off to pack. Happy Mother’s Weekend!

Meet some Amazing Moms who were inspired by their children to invent things!


The Smashing Pumpkins and Easter Seals Come Together on Big Issue


Billy Corgan and COL. David Sutherland on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” talking about veteran issues

Making it happen. Getting it done. Those are traits I admire, and this week they are on full display at Live Nation in an announcement made by Billy Corgan and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Before going any further, I must issue a disclaimer. I hail from the Stevie Ray Vaughn generation. Until two months ago I was not all that familiar with The Smashing Pumpkins, let alone Billy Corgan, the band’s lead singer. Then a colleague from the Teamsters sent me a video of the band’s new single, “Drum + Fife,” with an invitation to speak with Billy after viewing it. The video was awful. And awesome. It epitomizes the suddenness and the sadness of war. Yet the final scene also touches on a hope for future connections and the optimism and opportunities ahead when service members return to their communities.

One week later I was meeting with Billy, who was experiencing what so many civilians go through. He wanted to lend a hand but didn’t know how to start or where to go. Fate brought us together and today, as part of Live Nation’s Summer Concert Series event in New York City, he is announcing a movement to drive awareness about the potential of our veterans and military families. (Or, as I describe it in military-speak, “the greatness in our formations.”) This effort will coincide with The Smashing Pumpkins The End Times tour (with Marilyn Manson), which will begin July 7.

I appreciate Billy’s effort because it encourages action. It’s about igniting fan involvement, action and support of the veteran community in hometowns across the country. It’s about promoting social consciousness and solutions, sharing innovative approaches and connecting those who have served. One way to do this is through local Easter Seals affiliates, who provide services ranging from adult day care, to job training, to camping, recreation and respite programs.


The Smashing Pumpkins tour poster

Billy and I have dubbed this effort “New Beginnings: Reaching America’s Vets.” It’s a play on words of his tour name, The End Times, because coming home should not be the end. It should be a new beginning for these brave, talented men and women.

Keep an eye on Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins this summer. I’ll be going to my first show in the next few months, and I’m looking forward to putting Billy’s plan into action.

And if you are a veteran or member of a military family, reach out to your local Easter Seals. We might be able to make your transition back into the community a bit smoother with caregiver support, employment skills training and respite services, among others.

If you want to be inspired, buy a ticket to the concert, buy the album, but you must listen to Drum + Fife. Giddy up!


What’s it like to work at Easter Seals headquarters?

What goes on at Easter Seals headquarters way up on the 24th floor of Willis Tower? Instead of sharing a long list of things we do to advance our mission, from developing new programs and resources to fundraising, we thought we’d share a video from two people with a fresh perspective—our most recent interns, Renee and Samantha.

Thanks for all your wonderful work, Samantha and Renee!

If you’re interested in working for Easter Seals too, take a look at our job openings and send us your resume.

Or, if you’re looking for employment or job training assistance, check out Easter Seals employment resources here.


Questions about Jack Gantos’ books about a boy with ADHD

Joey-Do-book-by-GantosAfter my children’s book about Seeing Eye dogs, Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound, was published, I was asked to join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

Membership has its privileges.

Tonight SCBWI members are invited to attend the Zena Sutherland lecture at Harold Washington Library Center here in Chicago. Tonight’s lecture, the 33rd annual, will be given by Jack Gantos.

Mr. Gantos has written books for all ages, from small children through adults. His novel Dead End in Norvelt, featuring a fictional character named Jack Gantos, won the Newbery Medal in 2012, but he’s best known for his Rotten Ralph series of picture books for beginning readers and his Joey Pigza series for older children.

The two Joey Pigza books I know about are Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key and What Would Joey Do? The books are written from the perspective of an elementary age boy, Joey Pigza, who has Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and while they might be good for adults trying to get into the head of someone with ADHD, I’m not so sure kids with ADHD — especially those who are having difficulty at school or with peers – should be encouraged to read them.

In What Would Joey Do?, Joey’s grandmother tells him she won’t die until he has a real friend. This friendship-thing is so important to Joey’s grandmother that he pretends to have a friend, and his grandmother dies the next day. Through all this, Joey’s parents aren’t really much help to him.

In Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, Joey doesn’t seem to be able to manage his own behavior, the school and his mom seem unable to meet his needs, and “special education” takes place down in the boiler room away from the rest of the kids.

If I get a chance during the Q&A tonight, I’m going to ask Mr. Gantos why he decided to portray Joey Pigza as such a brave boy without giving him any support from his family, and no hope for any on the horizon. Stay tuned for his answer in a future post!