“Scout Jay has serious vision impairment, but he’s really excited about the Astronomy Merit Badge. Can he earn it?”
Substitute any merit badge for “Astronomy” and you have a common but tricky question. The answer lies in the exact written requirements. Scout Jay must meet the requirements exactly as written, no more and no less. If a disability prevents him from completing the requirements, then Jay must earn a different merit badge.
Modern merit badge requirements are often flexible to benefit Scouts with disabilities. For example, most merit badges don’t explicitly require reading, writing, or speaking. Instead of saying “Write a list of the five most visible planets,” or “Recite a list of the five most visible planets,” the Astronomy requirement simply says “List the five most visible planets.” The form and structure of the list is not part of the requirement.
Here is an example from Bryan on Scouting:
Tony Mei, a Scouter from Novato, Calif., and chairman of the BSA’s National Disabilities Awareness Committee, once had a Scout who is blind tell him he had earned the Astronomy merit badge. Mei 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 said. “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.
Eagle required merit badges
If disabilities prevent a Scout from meeting the requirements for an Eagle required merit badge, then the Scout can’t earn that badge. The Scout can still earn Eagle by requesting alternate merit badges. Here are some suggested alternatives:
Backpacking, Canoeing, Pioneering, Rowing, Search and Rescue, Wilderness Survival
Digital Technology, Electronics, Graphic Arts, Photography, Public Speaking, Radio, Salesmanship
For Emergency Preparedness or Lifesaving:
Fire Safety, Motorboating, Public Health, Radio, Rowing, Safety, Traffic Safety, Wilderness Survival.
There is a special application form to request alternatives. The form contains a longer list of alternative merit badges, but even that list is not complete. The choice of alternative badges should be made by the unit leaders while keeping in mind the purpose of the Eagle Scout Award. Almost any merit badge may be substituted if the choice provides a reasonable accommodation and reflects common sense.
To apply for alternative merit badges, the Scout’s disability must be severe and permanent. The application must include a statement from a qualified health-care professional describing why the Scout is unable to complete required merit badges. The application is signed by the Scout’s parents and unit leaders. It is then reviewed and approved at both the district and council level. The council’s advancement committee makes the final decision.
Detailed requirements appear in the Guide to Advancement, Section 10.2.2.3. They are also summarized on the Application for Alternative Eagle Scout Rank Merit Badges.
Since posting this, Scouters have shared additional examples of merit badge requirements interpreted for Scouts with disabilities.
Scouter Eleanor Philips: I have helped visually impaired earn astronomy merit badge at summer camp. We put thumb tacks in the correct formations on cardboard for the constellations in the summer sky. The Scouts felt the thumb tacks and the we had them turn saying that star is at __o’clock and they traced the constellation in the air. By the end once we let them know what direction they we standing they could locate the constellations. Lots of fun and excitement by all.