Thomas McKenna’s involvement in school camps for The Gap State High School led to more students with disabilities participating in the program and transformed the experience of the camps for students with disabilities. Just as importantly, inclusion of students with disabilities has expanded the learning that results for all students by adding to the creativity of the program and the long-term impact of more diverse social experiences.
Somewhat by chance, in his first year as Senior School Case Manager at The Gap SHS, Thomas was asked to attend the Year 7 camp in support of a student with disability. Up till this time it was rare for students with disabilities to be involved in camping. During the next few years this changed. As a result of his knowledge of disability support and belief in the outcomes of school camps, he became known as “The Camp Guy,” with inclusion becoming an important attribute of all year level camps. Thomas’s support for students started before the camp by holding information sessions for parents and students with disabilities. Further, he liaised with school and camp staff to ensure the voice of students with disabilities was included in preparations. He made it clear that this was not about compromising the proposed activities – students with disability were not be put in “bubble wrap” as he referred to it – but to ensure activities would maximise the benefits for all students. “I have helped create a culture where every student has the access and opportunity to successfully attend camp. I have opened the door for students to showcase their skills amongst non-disabled peers, with success.” Thomas says. Since the initial development of inclusive practices in the school camping program, the principles of inclusion have extended to other out-of-school activities including being a camp leader on international trips to the Keppler trail in New Zealand for more than two weeks, and India for more than three weeks. Thomas’s approach is grounded firmly in rigorous research and continuous professional development. Thomas is enrolled at the University of Queensland as a PhD candidate in Education with a focus on students with disabilities experiences with school camps. He is an elected member of the Queensland Teachers’ Union state panel for disability education and also a member of the Queensland Association for Special Education Leaders. Now employed as the Head of Special Education Services - Senior Campus at Capalaba State College, he has continued following his passion by supporting most camps, most recently being a camp leader on the year 7 Canberra trip in term 3. Congratulations Thomas on your nomination.