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Scouting Inclusion Policies & Special Needs

Being a part of scouts for my kids has turned out to be a process more than destination. My daughter has been in Scouts since Daisy’s in Kindergarten, then Brownies and last May she bridged over into Jr. Girl Scouts as she entered her 4th grade year. My son was a cute Tiger cub and also progressed up over the years in Cub Scouts and crossed over to Boy Scouts last Spring.

Her Story

Last February I attended an overnight Camporee Trip and it was really an eye opener. There is this swapping event the last day where all the girls swap little trinkets attached to pins (called “Swap Its”) and they run out to the middle of the lawn and swap them with other girls. Quinnlin did not have any to swap. She’d not been able to make them during the regular times they met to do Camporee functions, but I wasn’t informed she didn’t have any to swap. Well, that’s not exactly true. She’d made one and it’d fallen apart. I would have been able to make them with her, as I did the year before, if I had known. So she sat out and watched over 100 girls rush to the center of the lawn and excitedly swap little handmade trinkets with each other. She was a good sport, honestly. But she did have a twinge of watery eyes that spoke to the disappointment. The sad part about it is that she works very hard to keep up and this was something that was an easy thing to do to help her “belong.”

I don’t blame the troop leaders, really. They had a larger than average troop and if I’m being honest, I’d seen the warning signs before; knowing they were really aggressive with the achievements and activities to accomplish during the allotted time of a regular meeting. I didn’t realize until that weekend she was feeling so much pressure to keep up or I’d have attended meetings with her to be her personal assistant; which I did the rest of the year (and she didn’t necessarily want). She’d also experienced some “mean girl” incidents but had worked through those by avoiding those girls and sticking with the few girls with which she felt comfortable and to some degree protected her, often, and as Quinnlin says, those girls “don’t make me feel bad when I can’t do something.

Another warning was an internal voice that the troop wasn’t a good fit was the culture of the troop to be one of “Do it yourself.” On many occasions, parents were instructed to let our girls “do it by themselves;” from stuffing a sleeping bag into a bag, to carrying all their belongings of bags and suitcases and pillows to completing a task at a meeting. Because of that culture, Quinnlin felt nervous about asking for or getting help, but not being able to complete something just made her feel bad about herself. The “Do it yourself” culture in itself isn’t a bad thing, but when you have a girl who processes things slowly, or has low muscle tone and lacks the strength to do some things other girls her age can do, it’s a problem. It feeds into the already teetering self esteem issues.

Not long after Camporee and the non-existent swap its I asked Quinnlin if she’d like to look at other troops because she didn’t seem all that happy with the pressure and pace. She said yes, so at the beginning of summer Quinnlin attended an overnight event with her old Daisy troop, which is made up with girls with special needs and girls who are typical. The girls remembered her and welcomed her with gusto. In the morning she said, “I have more friends in this troop than I do in my whole school.” Which is beautiful and sad at the same time.

His story

In fact, recently, my son decided to drop out of Boy Scouts, much to my husband’s dismay. Way back before crossover from Cub to Boy Scouts I had a feeling this might happen so I wanted to talk with the troop leaders to let them know Gage would likely need modifications; leeway. We had high hopes, but then I started looking into the special needs policies for Boy Scouts (then Brownies) and I started asking around to other parents who knew more about the troop’s culture and nearly everyone said there wasn’t a set policy but they felt like boys with differences were welcomed. During a brief conversation with one of the scout leaders at one of Gage’s last cub scout events it was clear there was also a “they have to do it for themselves” attitude. In fact – I’m paraphrasing here – he said, “At some point we have to let our kids go and they have to step up. They will either do that, or they won’t.”  To me there was an implication parents hold their kids back and if we just gave him a chance to shine, he’d probably pull himself up by the bootstraps and flourish.

Now, I have to insert something about how my husband was very involved. He was at every meeting with Gage (unless he was out of town and Grandpa went) and he took Gage to every outing so this isn’t a case where we were looking for the leaders to completely run Gage’s scouting career.

When we walked out of that building I knew it wouldn’t work out and Gage would leave the troop. I had hope he wouldn’t because I think he enjoyed a lot of things about scouting but I knew it. I knew it within a couple of minutes of speaking with that leader that the culture would not mesh with Gage’s needs and personality.

In hindsight, I wished I would have searched for a troop that was smaller, more laid back with leaders that had a different view on inclusion, like the environment Quinnlin has found. But I didn’t, and I fear we can’t ever go backwards. If I had, he might have enjoyed it more and not felt the pressure and anxiety.

Scouting Inclusive Policies

The manuals on Scouting and their inclusion policies aren’t easily found on the Internet. I spent some time searching and ended up reaching out on Twitter, where Boy Scouts quickly provided me a link to their 162 page Scouting for Youth with Disabilities Manual. As for Girl Scouts, I did find this statement on diversity. I had to call the office in our state and within a couple of days I received an email and voicemail with a link to their manual, where they instructed me to page 74, where I could find a paragraph on inclusion. Basically, both organizations have strong policies of acceptance. I am sure they intended for every child to feel included and welcome.

The Space between Inclusion and Manuals

I think the people and committees at the two corporate offices of the Girl and Boy Scouts fully intend for their policies of inclusion of people with disabilities to be implemented. They’re forgetting one thing though; troop leaders are volunteers. The troop culture is going to be a reflection of their leaders and not all leaders have the drive to implement and sustain an inclusion troop.

While we were lucky to find a troop for Quinnlin that accepts her for her and makes accommodations for her differences, we weren’t lucky for Gage. I think his situation is probably more the norm. There are a lot of kids out there with special needs who could benefit from being in scouting (and where typical kids who could benefit from knowing kids with differences) but I know with all the time constraints and stress special needs families are under, scouting isn’t something necessarily fought for, given that it’s not easy to find troops with inclusion policies in practice. It is likely on many parents’ don’t have to list.

Scouting obviously isn’t for every child. In fact, I’d venture to say for a good majority of kids with special needs it isn’t possible in a truly inclusive setting. This means that kids with special needs miss out on the chance to be included in a group that could carry them throughout their young lives but it also means troop leaders and scouts miss out on knowing and learning from some amazing kids.

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