How to help youth with special needs get the most out of Scouting

Scouting is a Safe Haven For All

Outside the swimming pool, a crowd grows. Scouts squeeze in, some standing on tiptoes to see what the fuss is about.

Inside the fence, Willie Deuster keeps swimming. He’s the remaining participant in the mile swim — a summer camp tradition at Beaumont Scout Reservation in Missouri. The swim tests the endurance of body and mind, and as Willie slowly tallies lap after lap, his cheering section has a collective realization: There’s no stopping this guy.

It’s not the fact that the others finished their mile two hours ago. Or that it’s getting close to dinnertime. And it’s certainly not that Willie has athetoid cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

Willie’s story is hardly unique. In unit meetings and summer camps across the country, Scouts like Willie encounter a welcoming environment where they’re Scouts first and Scouts with special needs second.

In this country, young men and women who have special needs or disabilities are often segregated. There are extracurricular activities just for them. They’re placed in separate classes at school and on special sports teams.

Not so in Scouting. Scouts with special needs are placed in dens and patrols with everyone else — a practice called “mainstreaming.”

“Scouting is probably the one place where a youth who has a disability can be treated as one of the boys without any label attached,” says Tony Mei, a Scouter from Novato, Calif., and chairman of the BSA’s National Disabilities Awareness Committee. “The Scouting program is structured in such a way that a youth who has a disability can achieve — and be accommodated where appropriate.”

As many as 15 percent of Scouts have a disability or a special need — some physical, but most involving cognitive, behavioral or learning disabilities. So there could be several such Scouts in your pack, troop, team or crew.

Parental Guidance Suggested

Hunter has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD. One evening, he starts picking on his sister. His mother tells him to leave her alone. He starts banging on the piano. His mother tells him to go to his room. He throws stuffed animals into the hall. Again, his mother tells him to stop.

“You tell me all these things I can’t do,” Hunter says. “But what can I do?”

It’s a light-bulb moment for Mom. From then on, she gives positive direction instead of negative, and their relationship improves dramatically.

Jane Grossman, a Scouter from St. Louis who is vice chairman of the National Disabilities Awareness Committee, says she had her own light-bulb moment when she heard a psychologist tell that story.

“Behavior is a form of communication,” she says. “Look at what the behavior is trying to say, and address the problem that is causing the behavior, not necessarily the behavior itself. Look for a positive way to redirect the Scout by letting him know what he can or should be doing.”

Rick Smith of Hastings, Minn., edits the Disabilities Awareness Committee’s quarterly newsletter, Abilities Digest. He says parents, Scout leaders and the Scout himself should have an open discussion before the young person joins the unit.

They should discuss any necessary physical accommodations, as well as prescribed medications and a plan for administering them. But they also should talk about stuff you can’t summarize in a doctor’s note, like advice about the activities or environments the Scout might require to relieve stress and remain in control.

“The troop doesn’t need — and can’t use — detailed medical reports about Scouts,” Smith says. “They need the parent’s practical insight to help manage day-to-day behavior.”

A Scout Is Kind

Back at the pool, Willie is still going strong. So is the crowd, which has grown in size and hasn’t stopped cheering.

Willie’s support team includes a rotation of buddies who join him for a few laps. The Scouts have each other’s backs. Sometimes that means helping a fellow Scout with physical disabilities to climb a mountain or swim a mile. Sometimes that means being there for a Scout with mental disabilities as he earns a merit badge or completes a service project.

The cool part is, the Scout with special needs isn’t the only one who benefits.

“It is a two-way street when youth with disabilities are included in the unit,” Mei says. “Often the benefit is even greater for the other Scouts because it gives them a first-hand appreciation of what the Scout with a disability can do.”

In its effort to mainstream Scouts with special needs, the BSA allows these Scouts to advance using requirements and a pace that most benefit them.

This can include allowing Scouts to remain in the program beyond the age of eligibility, complete merit badges using accommodations and even earn the Eagle Scout award after age 18. Willie, for example, was 20 when he attempted to swim a mile.

The process for using accommodations is straightforward, and your council can help. Start by reviewing Section 10 of the Guide to Advancement at

Mei’s favorite example of this is when a Scout who is blind told him he had earned the Astronomy merit badge. Mei was curious, and he asked how the young man completed requirement 4A: Identify at least 10 constellations in the sky.

“His merit badge counselor punched holes in paper plates and held them over his head outside at night, in the right place for the night sky,” Mei says. “The Scout used his hands to feel and identify the constellations.”

Not only is that a perfectly acceptable way to adapt the merit badge requirement, but it’s also kind of genius.

“We need to be creative in ways to help the Scouts be successful,” Mei says.

Listen and Learn

You talked to the Scout’s parents. You read the BSA’s Guide to Working With Scouts With Special Needs and DisABILITIES (available for free at
You attended sessions at your council’s University of Scouting.

That’s all great, but the most underrated resource for strengthening the way your unit accommodates Scouts with special needs, Grossman says, is by asking the Scouts themselves.

“If help is wanted, let them tell you how to help,” she says. “Most want to — and can — do a lot more for themselves than the untrained person realizes. Never let them use their disability as an excuse. Never do for them what they can do for themselves.”

When at last Willie finishes his mile swim — having covered 1,750 yards in 3 hours and 10 minutes — a cheer erupts.

He’s a Scout being celebrated for what he can do instead of what he cannot.


  1. I love this, but what about the Special Needs Scouter. As diagnoses for autism, ADHD, and others increase in children, they also increase for adults. Mostly due to better tests and better understanding of these disabilities. As a Scouter on the Autism Spectrum we have lots of information and advice for working with Scouts, but I do believe some investigation needs to occur in working with the Special Needs Scouter.

    • Excellent David. I hope you take the opportunity to be an advocate for yourself and other scouts with disabilities. I believe that most leaders want to have a great program that includes everyone but need guidance and the knowledge to do so, especially if they are not familiar with various disabilities.

  2. “Asking the Scout himself”…you are assuming that the Special Needs child can speak. This is a great article written for people who have no experience with Special Needs kids. Where is the article for parents who have these children? We know what “mainstreaming”, positive reinforcement and behavior is a form of communication (especially for the non or limited verbal). Do you have an AT (Assistive Technology) badge?

    • exactly Diane Accomodations are lacking at scout camps for wheelchairs, My son had to camp away from his troop at times because of lack of accessibility, or should I say “capability”. Transportation to go up to the shooting range or archery range is sometimes not existing As a leader, I’ve attended training sessions and roundtables where leaders are not being properly trained for leadership techniques or ways to modify or help.

  3. I am a A.S.M. with a son who has low functioning autistic, speech delayed and other disibililties. There is no doubt these scouts can be very successful in the scouting environment. Scoutmasters working with the scout’s parents and with the scout himself are the key to success. The more information the leaders have of a special needs scout, a more effective program can be developed for the scout that conforms with the rules of advancement and earning of merit badges. Leaders and parents just have to think outside the box. An excellent example of this is the merit badge leader who punched holes in the paper plate to simulate the stars. For non-verbal or limited verbal autistic scouts, in our troop to satisfy the requirement in Communications MB, the five minute speech, we allowed our scout to use his tablet that had numerous pictures of different dogs. The scout was able to tell his audience the breed of the dogs. Very simple, but yet it fulfilled the requirement. Again, special needs scouts can be successful, but it will take the scout, his parents, the troop, and the adult leadership working together.

    • Excellent ways to incorporate the communication devices and iPads in scouts’ work. As a parent and leader of a troop with disabilities I, too, do these things. Unfortunately, the leaders without the background don’t have the same “outside the box” quick thinking because they merely might not be exposed to it. I wish the organization would include more help for all leaders

  4. This is an excellent example not only of the simple and creative accommodations the program can make for Scouts, but how ingenious adults help extend the Scouting program into the special needs community. There is an entire demographic of special needs boys who crave the activities, social engagement, and cognitive challenges Scouting provides (in addition to the 3 Aims of Scouting!).

  5. I reread this article today. I’ve been in touch with our regional office about our situation and I am moving through this process. Two things come to mind.
    1- As in our case, how do you handle the scout who had developed a disability during the course of his journey to Eagle?
    2- Beyond basic advancement, what about programs that provide more advanced training but aren’t directly linked to advancement like NYLT? This goes beyond the unit, potentially to the district or council’s ability to accommodate the scout.

  6. I just went to Webelos camp with my son. There were three stations of shooting sports. There were only right eye dominant bows and bb guns. My son has light perception only in his right eye. His left is not very good either. The shooting area was off limits to non shooters and instructors. The instructors didn’t pause long enough for my son to ask for help. My son also just wants to be like everyone else, so he shot blind. Literally.

  7. I had the privilege of being the Eagle Mentor for a young man with autism to complete his path to Eagle. He was very able to plan and lead in his project to find and catalogue grave sites for a local cemetery. His project was chosen as the best project of the year for his district and went to finals with two other Eagle Projects at council level. His mother and I, and the community are very proud of him and his accomplishments. He recently attended the 2017 Jambo and am sure he had a great time.

  8. Although attitude is more important than equipment, it is only common sense to have basic adaptations available, such as ambidextrous or left-handed bows and guns, sandbags or blocks, eye patches etc.. A well-trained instructor should be able to adapt to the needs of youth with disabilities, and there should be enough trained range staff to provide 1:1 support, whether the young person has a physical impairment or needs additional supervision because of a learning / behavioral need. The unit leader / den leader needs to be aware of any youth with special needs,include them in the risk assessment for the activity, and inform the camp organisers in time for them to ensure that additional support is available. As an instructor it always helps to know in advance that a camper has additional needs, so one can “be prepared”. That said,about 1:10 of Scouts will be left-hand dominant, and a good number will have a dominant eye that is different to their dominant hand … this is not a disability issue, it is normal variation that qualified instructors are trained to deal with! A Scout with a visual impairment should have a “spotter” who can say where a shot went. Having been a shooting instructor on day camp, I suspect that the instructors were under pressure to move large numbers of kids through the range so that everyone got to shoot, with the risk that you get a “one size fits all” approach. It should be possible for a parent or leader to speak to the Range Officer / Safety Officer before shooting starts, and to make him/her aware that a shooter has additional needs.

  9. Ian very good points and advice to parents and leaders. I appreciate instructors as yourself that look at the range as accomodating all who shoot. What we need to do to is train leaders in knowing the “little things” which help with meeting the needs for each activity. Not all people have a child with a disability in their daily lives and aren’t familiar with thinking of “needs” like a parent does. In Boy Scouts, the parents are always leaders in the troop, therefore, not on outings. I think that parents and leaders working together is very important. Pre-meetings before an activity for explanation of the activity may help parents and leaders create a check-list which they can bring to the activities or pre-talk to instructors so they can help plan, too, like you mentioned. So many times we went to an activity and my co-leaders knew they had to adapt but thinking of little things like bathrooms, getting to the archery or rifle range but terrain is not appropriate for wheelchair then is there another way to get there, at rifle ranges its usually get up to platform with steps, archery ranges are usually on flat land but not always. What can be helpful also for vision impaired shooters is a beeper at the target. A beeper ball can be connected to a pulley system that can be sent to the target, just like the target sheet. We use this technique in adapted PE. I’m very grateful to have good trained instructors such as yourself out there. And for the instructors under pressure to move the shooters along, well, part of adapting is also adapting to the time frame of someone who needs extra time and extra help, adding to already anxiety issues doesn’t help.

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