Breaking down barriers at a school for the deaf and blind

When members of the Palmetto Council in Spartanburg, S.C., committed to an aggressive multicultural marketing program several years ago, they weren’t messing around.

They promoted Scouting to predominantly African-American communities where it wasn’t already a staple. They pushed the program to Hispanic families that seemed to be just waiting for someone to ask them to join.

They even started two troops for adults with special needs.

But maybe their most impressive outreach effort was the launch of a Scout unit to serve students attending the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind.

“We want to take Scouting to every community,” Field Director Taylor Thomas says. “We want to remove barriers to give every youth the opportunity to join.”

In this situation, the barriers were plentiful.

The school is the only one of its kind in the state. At noon on Sundays, kids from across South Carolina leave their homes on a bus and ride to the campus. Since many of them live hours away, it wouldn’t be practical to go back home every night. About half of the school’s students sleep on the property in dorms Sunday night through Thursday night; the other half stay for the day.

On Friday after lunch, the residential students disperse back across the state for weekends with their families. Then it’s back to campus on Sundays.

That was a huge challenge since the kids aren’t available for Scouting activities on weekends. Understandably, they very much value their time with their families.

“Knowing we only had limited time, we said, ‘How can we make this as traditional a Scout experience as possible?’ ” says Thomas.

The answer, it turns out, was complicated.

A Longstanding Tradition

The South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind has a long history. The School for the Deaf opened in 1849, founded by a reverend who recognized the need for deaf education in the state.

The accompanying School for the Blind opened six years later. Then, more than 100 years after that, a third school was added. Cedar Springs Academy serves students who have a vision or hearing disability with at least one additional physical or intellectual disability.

As it turns out, there’s a long history of Scouting on the campus as well.

A short article in the Jan. 30, 1929, issue of The Spartanburg Herald described the chartering of a Boy Scout troop at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind.

Six decades later, Troop 212 was still going.

In July 1992, Boys’ Life ran a story with the headline “The Quiet Camporee” about an event for Scouts who are deaf and hard of hearing hosted by Troop 31 from the Arkansas School for the Deaf in Little Rock. The final paragraph of the story notes that the next “National Deaf Scout camporee” was scheduled for 1993 and would be hosted by Troop 212 of the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind.

At some point, though, things changed.

The last reference we could find to the recurring event for Scouts who are deaf and hard of hearing was in both Scouting and Boys’ Life in the year 2000. Sadly, it appears the National Deaf Scout camporee is no more.

Likewise, the Palmetto Council and South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind officials aren’t sure what happened to Troop 212. It’s believed that it was last led by a school staffer who eventually retired, and it seems the unit died off without him, leaving the students without a Scout unit of their own.

Until now.

A New Beginning

The new units are officially chartered as Pack 9539 and Troop 9539 to a local Veterans of Foreign Wars post. Drawing students from the School for the Deaf, School for the Blind and Cedar Springs Academy with parental permission, they range from second-graders to 11th-graders.

There have been plenty of adults willing to help out. What the unit really needed, though, was someone who knew sign language.

If you had asked someone to create the perfect Scout volunteer for this situation, you couldn’t have come up with someone more qualified than Tashma Glymph.

Glymph, the mother of a 12-year-old Boy Scout and a member of the Palmetto Council board, has been around Scouting as an active parent since her son joined as a Tiger. She also used to be a teacher at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind. Additionally, she worked for several years as a speech therapist.

“Communication overall has always been a focus of mine,” Glymph says. “The deaf community — learning about their culture and the way they communicate — is fascinating.”

To this day, she takes adult classes at the school for those who want to learn — and then master — the art of sign language.

Thomas had a passion for expanding Scouting to the school’s students, but he is not a sign-language expert. Glymph had a passion for volunteering in the deaf community, but she wasn’t an experienced Scout leader.

It was a match made in heaven.

“I told her, ‘I can help bring the Scouting knowledge if you can help communicate it,’ ” Thomas says.

Now Thomas and Glymph run the meetings together. He talks, and the blind and visually impaired students can hear and understand him fine. At the same time, Glymph translates his instructions into sign language for the Scouts who are deaf and hard of hearing. She also takes questions in sign language and interprets them to Thomas.

One more barrier torn down.

But it wasn’t the last. No Scout — disabled or not — wants to sit still for an entire meeting. They had to figure out a way to get these boys outdoors.

Building Trust

With weekends out of the question, Thomas and Glymph had to come up with a way to make their regular meetings exciting enough to hold the boys’ attention. Like every other unit, the kids had other extracurricular commitments. Sports are popular at the school, as are other recreational activities.

That means the students were available for Scout meetings only about once every two weeks. And it had to be in the afternoon or early evening after classes are over. And the meetings couldn’t run too late, because the boys have homework and classes they have to be ready for early the next morning.

Their solution: Make the most of the time they have. As we say in Cub Scouts, “Do Your Best.”

They brought in volunteers from the Department of Natural Resources to teach the boys how to use a rod and reel, even though they didn’t have access to a body of water. They hosted a raingutter regatta and Pinewood Derby race. They conducted a Scouting for Food drive and learned archery. They built a campfire and ate s’mores. They practiced Scout skills while at the same time practicing the Scout Oath and Law.

Then something really interesting happened. School administrators began to notice something different about the boys who were involved in Scouts: They stood out among their peers as leaders and models of positive behavior.

As trust grew between the Scout volunteers and the school, the school began to give the unit more leeway.

A volunteer from the school agreed to type the Scout Oath and Law in Braille.

The Scouts were allowed to camp outdoors on a Thursday night, provided the boys were up and ready to go by 7 a.m. for classes on Friday.

A volunteer stepped forward to provide buses to a nearby pond so they could put into action the casting techniques they had learned at the earlier meeting.

No more casting on dry ground. This was real fishing, and it was this event that really got things going. It turned into an outing that was more successful than perhaps even Thomas and Glymph could have imagined.

“It was so pure,” Glymph says. “Just … joy. Many of them had never touched a fishing rod or anything like that.”

Consider it another barrier torn down.

“I always liked the outdoors, but now I enjoy being part of a group,” says Tyrek Capers, a member of Troop 9539.

Heck, it was more like that barrier was obliterated.

“It’s real easy to say, ‘That’s too much work’ or ‘I don’t have the skill set to help these young people,’ ” Thomas says. “If you have a passion, you take it wherever it is.

“Some of the hardest-to-reach areas are the ones that need Scouting the most. Our goal is to prepare them for life, and everybody can help out.

“All you have to do is care.” 

Scouting with Special Needs and Disabilities

Youth with physical disabilities — and youth and adults with developmental or cognitive challenges — have always been welcome in the Boy Scouts of America. When knowledgeable parents, guardians or volunteers are able to provide assistance and oversight, most anyone can be a member.

The BSA’s practice 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.

For example, a Scout with a permanent physical or mental disability may select an alternative merit badge in lieu of a required merit badge if his or her disabling condition prohibits the Scout from completing the necessary requirements.


  1. I volunteer as a guide athlete bicycling with visually impaired bicyclists on tandem bicycles. For my Wood Badge ticket, I wrote a plan to teach the Bicycling Merit Badge to visually impaired Scouts. I would be happy to share this. You can contact me through Troop 396 in Annapolis Maryland (on Troop Web Host). I am the Committee Chair

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