Choosing a Unit for a Scout with Special Needs

This article appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Abilities Digest.

When a group of young friends reach Scouting age, there is often a discussion of whether to join a pack or troop, and then which one to join. Parents get involved, and careful parents will try to identify the best unit for their own child to join. The choice can be tricky for youth with special needs or disabilities. Youth and parents often face three choices:

  1. Join a typical unit already existing in the community.
  2. Locate and join an existing unit that addresses particular special needs or disabilities.
  3. Start their own unit that specifically addresses particular special needs or disabilities.
  4. Join as a “Lone Scout.”

Most Scouters recommend the first choice. Established packs and troops often have seasoned leaders and added resources to benefit the Scouting experience. Typical Scouts will learn valuable lessons about special needs and disabilities as they accommodate those with different abilities.

Every unit (pack, troop, or crew) is different. Some are more flexible and more willing to make accommodations for special needs. Others are less flexible. For example, a Scout with autism might flourish in a particular troop as long as the Scouts and leaders can make adjustments to prevent anxiety triggers or other problems. A different scoutmaster might lack the experience or patience with such accommodations. Try to match the youth to the unit, and seek a different unit if they don’t fit together comfortably.

Some communities have disability-specific units. For example, the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind sponsored a Scout troop for over 60 years. More recently the school’s students have joined a pack and troop sponsored by a local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Many other specialized schools across the nation have sponsored local units. As part of its Scout outreach program, the Northern Star Council has supported units in group homes for developmentally disabled adults and in special needs classrooms. Another unit was organized in a social club for young people with developmental disabilities.

Not everyone can find a disability-specific unit. If one exists, it might require too much travel to participate. If the neighborhood contains a core group of friends interested in Scouting, they could start their own unit. For example, a group of friends with Down syndrome in a Minnesota community started their own troop. The Scouts were all over 18, so they all registered beyond the age of eligibility. The troop, and its members, stayed together for decades, camping out and working on advancement.

A final option is to register as a Lone Scout. Originally the program was developed for youth in rural areas where distances prevent young people from attending regular meetings. Many councils also allow Lone Scout registration if the youth has special needs or disabilities that prevent regular participation in a community unit.

Young people with disabilities, and older people with developmental disabilities, can benefit from the Scouting program. Units, districts, and councils have many options to bring them in and help them participate.

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