Serving Scouts with Disabilities
It wasn’t too long ago that those with disabilities were actively excluded from life of mainstream society. If they didn’t automatically look, think, act or speak like everyone else, they were often shunned. If they were given similar opportunities, they were segregated away from others. Accommodations for special needs Scouts were rare.
Fortunately, thanks to some fiercely passionate parents and other advocates, things have changed. Those who are physically, intellectually, and neurologically different are now encouraged to participate alongside everyone else in school, sports, band, and other social clubs.
Likewise, Boy Scouts of America encourages its units to welcome youth of all abilities into their troops.
But the journey to full inclusion and rank achievement is not always clear and easy for those with disabilities.
In the past many troops did not feel they had the adequate resources to properly accommodate some potential members.
The issue today is not necessarily the lack of accommodations provided by BSA, but the lack of awareness that they exist, both by troop leadership and parents of special needs Scouts.
Another potential problem could be the lack of willingness of the troop leadership, its members and/or the Scouts parents to push for assistance despite knowing help exists.
It’s for all of these reasons, both past and present, that the Boy Scouts of America created the National Disability Awareness Committee for Special Needs Scouts. It’s mission is to to help all youth who joins its ranks for feel welcomed and included.
Yes, there are some troops that are specifically designed for special-needs Scouts only. But the organization would argue that those scouts are best served in regular patrols. Everyone benefits by including those with differences.
I heartily agree. That is why my autistic daughter has joined a regular inaugural girls BSA troop.
All in the Family
My husband is a Boy Scout “lifer”. He earned his Eagle Scout rank and received the Vigil Honor of Order of the Arrow. He worked at a few Scout camps and now serves as a troop Scoutmaster and Wood Badge staff. To say he’s deeply committed to Scouts is an understatement.
My son also earned his Eagle Scout. Like his sister he also has autism. But he started right at age 11 and had a lot of support from leadership. We did not request any special needs accommodations as we felt he was progressing through the ranks well-enough.
My daughter entered Scouts at age 15. She has greater difficulty understanding auditory information and memorizing the Scout Oath and Law. Due to these conditions, we are seeking accommodations that will enable her to progress at her own comfortable pace and in her learning style.
I became an Assistant Scoutmaster both to help her and other leaders best serve her. Because our entire family is so involved in Scouts, we are heavily networked to people who will help my daughter succeed.
Despite her challenges, we are committed to helping her forge her own path in Scout as far as she is willing to go. I believe firmly in the power of Scouting to build solid life skills and self-confidence, as we have witnessed with her brother.
(Read my article HERE on why I believe Scouts is the one of the best organizations for those on the spectrum.)
A Special Needs Parent’s Role in Scouts
I understand many parents won’t involve themselves at this level, and that’s okay.
But to ensure the success of a youth in Scouts, it’s vital that the parent be a vigilant advocate for his/her child’s entire Scouting lifetime.
To help me better understand how Scouts BSA accommodates special needs families, not only for myself but other families, I reached out to Julie Hadley. She is the Disabilities Awareness Committee Chair for our council (Hoosier Trails).
I consider Julie a special education expert not only in Scouts but personally and professionally as well. She is mom of three, all of whom had a range of educational challenges. She has also served as a special education teacher since 2007. As she put it, “I have been on both sides of the table for IEP meetings. The good, the bad, and the ugly.”
I asked Julie a range of questions related to special needs accommodations in Scouting programs. I believe her answers will help any new Scout and Scouting parent start off on the right foot.
Scouts BSA Accommodations Q & A
1. How do parents go about asking for accommodations with their own scout troop?
Parents need to talk to the scoutmaster and troop leadership as soon as their child joins a troop or pack. The way things have been in recent history, parents are not asking for accommodations until almost time for the youth to age-out. Parents are talking to the scoutmaster a month or a few weeks before the youth turns 18, when they see that he is not going to make Eagle (Scout).
2. What kinds of accommodations can they ask for?
This absolutely depends on the needs of the scout. What accommodations do they receive at school? No two scouts are the same, so accommodations are absolutely individualized. My guidance is that parents talk to the scoutmaster and discuss what accommodations the school is using.*
*Side note: Later on, the parents and scout leaders will work on formulating the right accommodations using the Individual Scout Advancement Plan ( BSA-ISP-form.pdf (250 downloads) ). Bring along your child’s IEP to help figure out the right accommodations with troop leadership.
3. How can scouts with disabilities get an extension on the age-requirement to achieve the Eagle Scout rank?
There is a common confusion: an “extension” is not what special needs scouts need.
Special needs Scouts need to complete the form REQUEST FOR REGISTRATION BEYOND THE AGE OF ELIGIBILITY. That registration stays with the council and we approve it as a committee.
Extensions are specific for only extra time and are approved by National. They are difficult to get and the youth has to have some life changing event that they have had no control over. National does not approve many of these.
4. How might a special needs parent role be different from a non-special needs parent role in a scout troop?
Special needs parents know all too well that their child is going to need extra support. Like every parent, we volunteer to support what our children get involved with.
Possible roles for special needs parents include: educating troop leaders on what their child needs and educating other youth on those special needs. I have seen parents jump in with both feet and become part of troop leadership.
5. What should the leadership of a troop do to ensure full inclusion of the special needs child into a regular troop?
Start with open honest conversations with the parents, asking some of the tough questions. Learn about the disability, and learn what the youth needs or doesn’t need. Troop leadership needs to know what parent expectations are. Troop leadership needs to ask the youth what they want to accomplish in scouts.
6. Is training providing for troop leadership to better understand the special needs of their scouts? Who does that training and how do they go about asking for it?
University of Scouting offers special needs training. University of Scouting happens at various times of the year in our neighboring councils. Classes are taught by volunteers with a lot of experience in that area.
Training Expo in our council hold special needs classes that are taught every year on various topics. Training Expo occurs every February and class topics are suggested by individuals who volunteer to teach the class.
Troop Leadership and parents are free to contact me and I will help with educating leadership or directing them to someone in their area that have a lot of experience.
Training is always a hot topic when everyone is a volunteer.
7. What should be considered when joining a special needs troop (if available)? Is there a link to find them in someone’s local area?
When joining a special needs troop or forming a special needs troop, figure out the primary goal for your child. What experiences do you want for your child?
The best way to find out if we have special needs troops is to call council.
8. What are the ways the family of a special needs child can advocate for him/her beyond the troop level?
That’s an interesting question that I’ve never been asked. The best answer I have is to contact our committee and work with the committee.*
*Side note: Those on a Council Disability Committee can serve as an intermediary between the special needs scout and his/her family and troop leadership if a problem arises. The committee member can assess the situation from all sides including the Scout’s, helping everyone come to a resolution. Sometimes that resolution can be positive if a plan-of-action is put into place long before he/she ages out. But if the Request for Registration Beyond the Age of Eligibility form was not completed, the process can be much harder.
Sometimes if troop leadership is not willing or able to accommodate the requests of the special needs Scout, often he or she moves on to another troop and/or is not able to achieve the highest rank desired.
9. Is there a troop assessment instrument to measure how inclusive a troop is of a special needs scout?
There is, not to my knowledge, an assessment like this. This would be interesting and something that would have to be re-evaluated with every change in leadership. For some troops that happens every couple of years…and some troops it is MANY years between changes.
10. Where can special needs families go to get more resources to help meet their needs?
There are several special needs and scouts webpages. National (Scouts BSA) has resources listed. There are special needs trainings with the national committee at Philmont (New Mexico) every summer.
How to Access this Important Accommodation
The most important lesson is that it’s best to file the REQUEST FOR REGISTRATION BEYOND THE AGE OF ELIGIBILITY form as soon as a special-needs Scout joins a troop. For my daughter, I plan to do this very soon.
To get the process started, be sure to follow these steps:
1. Contact your council’s disability committee to start the paperwork: registration-beyond-the-age-of-eligibility-1.pdf (170 downloads)
2. Schedule a meeting with parents, Scoutmaster, committee member and Scout.
3. Parents and Scoutmaster(s) work together to complete the paperwork.
4. Submit the paperwork to the committee member.
5. Decision will be made by the committee to accept the form.
Rely on the expertise and guidance of those in the Disability Committee of your council throughout the years your child will be in Scouts. They represent the best of Scouting because they are committed to making sure your special needs Scout has the opportunity to grow and achieve great things among those who care.
For more information, visit the Disabilities Awareness page on the Scouts BSA website.
For disability assistance with the Hoosier Trails Council, visit their Facebook page “Hoosier Trails-Disability Awareness”.