Scouts with Disabilities and Special Needs
Contact: Claudia Wolfson
Since its founding in 1910, the Boy Scouts of America has had fully participating members with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities. James E. West, the first Chief Scout Executive, was a person with a disability. Although most of the BSA’s efforts have been directed at keeping such boys in the mainstream of Scouting, it has also recognized the special needs of those with severe disabilities.
The Boy Scout Handbook has had braille editions for many years; merit badge pamphlets have been recorded on cassette tapes for the blind; and closed-caption training videos have been produced for those who are deaf. In 1965, registration of over-age Scouts with mental disabilities became possible—a privilege now extended to many people with disabilities.
The basic premise of Scouting for youth with disabilities and special needs is that they want most to participate like other youth—and Scouting gives them that opportunity. Thus, much of the program for Scouts with disabilities and special needs is directed at (1) helping unit leaders develop an awareness of disabled people among youth without disabilities, and (2) encouraging the inclusion of Scouts with disabilities and special needs in Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops, Varsity Scout teams, Venturing crews, and Sea Scout ships.
There are many units, however, composed of members with similar disabilities or special needs—such as an all-sight-impaired Boy Scout troop or an all-hearing-impaired Cub Scout pack—but these members are encouraged to participate in Scouting activities at the district, council, area, regional, and national levels along with other youth. Many of these special Scouting units are located in special schools or centers that make the Scouting program part of their curriculum.
The National Capital Area Council has established its own advisory committee for youth with disabilities and special needs. This committees develops and coordinates an effective Scouting program for youth with disabilities and special needs, using all available community resources. James Hamlin is the National Capital Area Council professional staff member responsible for the program for members with disabilities. BSA also provides a Scouting for Youth With Disabilities Manual.
Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Varsity Scouts, and Venturers with disabilities and special needs participate in the same program as do their peers.
The BSA’s policy has always been to treat members with disabilities and special needs as much like other members as possible, but a local council may make some accommodations in advancement requirements if necessary. A Scout with a permanent physical or mental disability may select an alternate merit badge in lieu of a required merit badge if his disabling condition prohibits the Scout from completing the necessary requirements of a particular required merit badge. This substitute should provide a “similar learning experience”. Full guidelines and explanations are available through the local council and on the Application for Alternate Eagle Scout Rank Merit Badges, No. 58-730. The local council advancement committee must approve the application. A Scout may also request changes in the Tenderfoot, Second Class, and First Class ranks. The procedures are are described in the Boy Scout Requirements book, No. 33215.
This policy is designed to keep youth with disabilities and special needs as much in the mainstream as possible. Practical suggestions are made to leaders as to approaches and methods they can use. Thus, a youth in a wheelchair can meet the requirements for hiking by making a trip to places of interest in his community. Giving more time and permitting the use of special aids are other ways leaders can help youth with disabilities and special needs in their efforts to advance. The unit leader plays a crucial role in that effort.
BSA local councils have formed cooperative relationships with agencies, school districts, and other organizations in serving disabled people. Many of these organizations have played a part in the development of literature, audiovisual aids, and media in braille for Scouts with disabilities and their leaders.
Each year, the BSA presents the national Woods Services Award to an adult in Scouting who has demonstrated exceptional service and leadership in the field of Scouting for disabled people (given by the Woods Services in Langhorne, Pennsylvania). The Woods Services Award is the highest recognition awarded by the BSA in this area of service. The Torch of Gold Award is available for similar presentation by local councils.
Other national support projects include materials relating to disabled and special needs people in the National Camping School syllabi as well as production of special manuals on Scouting for youth with emotional disabilities, learning disabilities, physical disabilities, visual impairment, and mental disabilities and those who are deaf. A week-long training course for people working with youth with disabilities is offered each summer at the Philmont Training Center.
In August 1977, the first handicap awareness trail was incorporated into the program of the national Scout jamboree at Moraine State Park in Pennsylvania. More than 5,000 Scouts participated. Since then, many local councils have created their own awareness trails, designed to make nondisabled people aware of the many problems faced by people with disabilities and special needs. Recent Scout jamborees have continued this tradition. Some local councils hold handicamporees that feature camping and outdoor activities for youth with disabilities.
An interpreter strip for Signing for the Deaf can be earned by all Scouts.
Requirements and a pamphlet for a Disabilities Awareness merit badge are designed to help many thousands of America’s youth develop a positive attitude toward individuals with disabilities and special needs. This attitude, based on study and personal involvement of people with disabilities, creates an excellent foundation for acceptance, mainstreaming, and normalization of those who are disabled. The learning experiences provided by working toward the Disabilities Awareness merit badge help produce changes in the attitudes of America’s youth as they pursue new experiences and then share their new knowledge with friends.