How to help with special needs advancement

Last year in Virginia, blind triplets made history by becoming Eagle Scouts. But Leo, Nick and Steven Cantos aren’t the first Scouts with special needs to achieve success in the movement. Ever since its founding, the BSA has attracted members with physical and mental disabilities. Many of these Scouts or Venturers have gone on to earn top awards.

For these young people to be successful, adult leaders must understand how to handle advancement for members with special needs.

What special needs qualify for special treatment?

All sorts of conditions could affect a Scout’s ability to advance, including physical disabilities and traumatic brain injuries, Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorder. The real key is whether the disability is permanent and severe enough to warrant accommodations.

What accommodations can Cub Scout leaders make? 

Since the standard in Cub Scout advancement is doing your best, most Cub Scouts with disabilities can complete requirements as written when given a little extra time. If necessary, pack leadership can make minor adjustments that meet the spirit of a requirement. For example, the Running with the Pack adventure includes several physical activities a Wolf Scout who uses a wheelchair couldn’t do. Pack leaders could determine alternative activities.

What accommodations can Boy Scout leaders make? 

In Boy Scouting, Scouts must complete requirements as written, although simple modifications can be made. For example, a Scout who uses a wheelchair could wheel to a place of interest instead of taking a hike (Second Class rank), and a Scout with developmental disabilities could be allowed to use special aids when reciting the Outdoor Code (Scout rank).

What if simple accommodations are not enough? 

For the Scout, Tenderfoot, Second Class and First Class ranks, a Scout may apply to pursue alternative requirements once he has completed as many of the existing requirements as possible. Alternative requirements are not permissible for Star, Life and Eagle. However, a Scout may apply to earn substitute merit badges for those he cannot complete; any alternatives must present the same challenge and learning level as those they replace. The council advancement committee is responsible for approving requirements and alternative merit badges.

What accommodations can Venturing and Sea Scout leaders make? 

As with Boy Scout advancement, Venturing and Sea Scout requirements must be completed as written. When that’s not possible due to a permanent disability, the Venturer or Sea Scout may apply to the council advancement committee for permission to complete alternative requirements.

What if a member simply needs extra time? 

Scouts who have developmental disabilities or have severe physical challenges may apply to continue registration beyond the age of eligibility for their program. The Guide to Advancement outlines the process. A separate process allows for extensions for Scouts who need extra time because of extenuating circumstances, such as a sudden major health problem.

Find more in section 10 of the Guide to Advancement, available free at


  1. I am proud of my ward with ADHD. He aged out as a Life Scout with 25 merit badges, needing about three more months. He was, and is, not a failure, because along the way he also earned two Catholic religious awards, participated in NYLT and NAYLE, helped staff Cub Scout Day Camps, and the Michigan International Camporee, and completed the National White River Canoe races.

  2. My grandson want’s to be a Boy Scout, but we are from Blackshear, Ga. he has austism is there anything for him?

    • Barbara – you can search for yourself at and put in your zip code. It looks like you have several options in Waycross and Jesup.

      You can also call the local Council (Coastal Georgia Council for you – 912-927-7272), and ask for the District Executive that covers your area. Give him/her a call, tell him your situation and ask for recommendations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.