SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
There's a summer camp for kids with disabilities that does things a little bit differently. Instead of accommodating the campers' physical challenges, therapists make activities a bit tougher. They're trying to strengthen the children's ability to navigate the world. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN visited one of these camps.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Twelve-year-old Priceless Garinger is repurposing a plastic spoon to scratch her elbow underneath a bright pink cast.
PRICELESS GARINGER: Right there - where you bend your arm, it itches right there.
FARMER: That itchy left arm is wrapped from shoulder to fingertips. This is her strong side. It's the other that's been a problem since she was born with cerebral palsy. Everyone in this day camp has a condition that's weakened one side of their body. Others have survived a brain tumor or stroke.
UNIDENTIFIED OCCUPATIONAL THERAPIST #1: Boom. There it is.
PRICELESS: Yeah, there it is.
FARMER: Priceless attempts a high-five with a new friend and takes her turn on the indoor obstacle course at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital. She rides a modified zipline and drops into a pit of overstuffed pillows.
UNIDENTIFIED OCCUPATIONAL THERAPIST #2: Woohoo. Oh, let go. Yay.
FARMER: The occupational therapists cheer her on but don't rush to help.
UNIDENTIFIED OCCUPATIONAL THERAPIST #2: All right. Climb out.
FARMER: The struggle is the point. She finds a way out then lays down on a scooter, trying to propel herself with a hand that's hard to control.
UNIDENTIFIED OCCUPATIONAL THERAPIST #2: Put that hand flat.
PRICELESS: I'm not going anywhere.
UNIDENTIFIED OCCUPATIONAL THERAPIST #2: You've got it. Go. Go.
FARMER: Her therapist gives her a little boost toward the finish line.
UNIDENTIFIED OCCUPATIONAL THERAPIST #2: And hit that buzzer - record time.
FARMER: This kind of rehab is known as constraint-induced movement therapy. It's increasingly used with kids who have cerebral palsy. But there haven't been big studies showing it's any better than traditional physical therapy. Researchers found the gains often go away, and some kids become overly frustrated.
STEPHANIE FRAZER: If the families have never heard of it before, it's kind of like, what? You're going to cast their good arm and take away their really functional hand?
FARMER: That's occupational therapist Stephanie Frazer. She says constraint therapy can seem mean. This day camp started a decade ago as part of a research project at Vanderbilt University, but it was temporary and shut down when the study concluded. Frazer revived it in 2015 because she's a believer.
FRAZER: Whenever we're casting that good arm, the brain is like, oh, I have this other arm here. And they start using it more, and it starts creating pathways. And they actually make a lot of progress in a really short amount of time.
FARMER: Nudging the kids to use their nondominant arm is even part of snack time.
PRICELESS: Thank you.
FARMER: Campers stab blocks of cheese with pretzel sticks.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLOWING BUBBLES)
FARMER: Some blow bubbles in their juice, partly out of frustration. This is the third summer for Priceless, who wasn't exactly enthusiastic when she started. But she's old enough to understand how useful two hands can be.
PRICELESS: I want to play with my iPad and watch TV, to turn on the TV with the remote.
FARMER: The parents are even more motivated because they're thinking of adulthood and independence. Laura Garinger is Priceless' mom.
LAURA GARINGER: Well, you know, she talks about wanting to drive. So she's going to need to have two hands to drive.
FARMER: And Priceless has big dreams that are hard for her mom to talk about.
GARINGER: She hopes to be a police officer. So sky's the limit. We'll see.
FARMER: It seems like the idea of that touches something. Why?
GARINGER: It's probably not realistic. But I always tell her she can do what she wants to do when she grows up. So we'll see.
FARMER: The first step for Priceless is strengthening her arm enough for a proper high-five, or even a two-arm hug.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOW SONG, "SHAME")
PFEIFFER: This story is part of a reporting partnership between NPR, Kaiser Health News and Nashville Public Radio.
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