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Space Camp: Helping students with disabilities reach new heights

Discover how space camp is empowering students with disabilities to define their own success.

A space camp student standing inside a full space suit smiles at the camera.

Where few have gone before 

When Perkins student Kyle Butt first arrived at space camp, he was totally taken aback. It’s a sprawling campus of block shaped and curved buildings. Massive windows cover entire walls and numerous space crafts are all over. “It was surreal because when I looked at it, I was like, this is where I’m sleeping? I was confused and astonished at the same time. I was con-stonished.”

Kyle is talking about Perkins Outreach Space Camp — his favorite of the 16 fun and educational Perkins Outreach courses available to students with disabilities across the U.S.

Since 1997, Perkins Outreach has brought students with disabilities from all over the Northeast to Alabama to participate in SCIVIS (Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students), a fully accessible week-long summer camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.

The camp mimics the training of real astronauts and NASA scientists. There are audio instructions in all flight simulators. Braille activities and assignments are the default. Everyone uses their mobility devices across campus. It’s all the action packed learning any kid could hope for, and even more essential for kids with multiple disabilities.

This was going to be the first time I was taking a flight on my own without my parents. I was actually kind of nervous about going, but my mom convinced me to. I’m so glad she did.”

Kyle Butt, Perkins student
Students lining up outdoors getting ready to enter the space center.

Countdown to lift off

Getting to space camp is a mission all on its own. For many students with disabilities, a Perkins Outreach trip will be the first time they travel without their family. Traveling is always a little stressful, but for a disabled child, the steps and details multiple quickly. Medications, breaks, doctor’s notes, mobility devices and more need to be accounted for. 

As with all parts of the journey, Perkins is there to help. Staff work with families directly to create packing lists, describe and prepare for the airport environment, and answer any pressing questions leading up to the trip.

Courtney Wescott, Associate Director of Perkins Outreach Short Courses, always has the family’s needs in mind. “We just try to reinforce that we’re going to do what we can to make sure it’s a safe experience, a fruitful experience, and that everyone’s going to do it in a different way.”

The goal is to remove as many obstacles as possible during the planning process. Families need to feel prepared, and students should feel confident. We don’t want logistics to overwhelm what would otherwise be a fun and exciting week at camp. 

A student belays down from a large climbing wall while a staff member spots for them from the ground.
Students take part in a crafting activity using glue, wood, paper, and glue.

Learning through living 

According to Courtney, “If Outreach were to have a guidebook it’s going to be the expanded core curriculum.” Each Perkins Outreach program provides students with disabilities with meaningful real world experiences, so participants can build on existing skills and learn new ones.

This emphasis on building skills for life is what’s known as the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC). Tailored to the needs of each student, this curriculum is vital for setting children with visual impairments, including those with deafblindness and additional disabilities, up for success after graduation. This can mean anything from navigating a theme park, to making their own bed. Space camp fits the bill by touching on all areas of the ECC. 

At camp, there are around 200 students to hang out with. Kyle won the “Right Stuff” award by taking time to help others navigate campus (an orientation & mobility skill). “I would guide them where they need to go. I would give them cues like ‘this is over here’ and ‘Yeah, come over here, this way’.” 

It’s just a different level of interaction and there’s no differentiated instruction when they’re in Outreach. Everyone’s using their cane. Everyone has the same expectations. Nobody’s being pulled out for a class. Nobody’s being pulled out for an OM session. It’s an even playing field.”

Courtney Wescott

Being surrounded by peers all working on the same skills is validating. An informed and supportive environment leads to higher levels of confidence and participation. Students are able to take part not because these tasks are “easier” but because they’re accessible. 

Perkins Outreach programs like Space Camp give students with disabilities the chance to learn about their abilities and interests. Learn more about Perkins programs and resources.

A student is seated inside a flight simulator while a staff member provides instructions from the right side of the seat.

*Some quotes have been edited for clarity, but are still authentic to the interviewee’s original comment.

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