The BSA has a planning form for families and leaders to use to jointly map out the future for a Scout with a disability. It is called the Individual Scout Advancement Plan (ISAP), and you can find it by searching for BSA Form 512-936. It is modeled on the individual education programs (IEPs) and 504 plans used in public schools for students with special needs. Unlike an IEP or 504 plan, the ISAP does not create legal rights or legal status. The ISAP can be updated as a Scout matures and moves through the Scouting program.
An earlier Abilities Digest article discussed joining conferences for new unit members. Creating an ISAP will take more detailed discussion than is appropriate for a joining conference. In general, before preparing an ISAP the family will need some time to learn more about the Scouting program and the unit will need some time to understand the Scout.
If a Cub Scout has a known special need or disability, it is wise for the parent/guardian and den leader to meet at the beginning of the program or school year and review all of the rank requirements for that year: Lion, Tiger, Wolf, Bear, Webelos, or Arrow of Light. This is the time to identify requirements that pose exceptional challenges for the Cub. Remember, a Cub fulfills a requirement by doing his or her best. If the Cub cannot even begin to try a requirement, the parent and den leader can work together to come up with alternatives. The pack committee must approve alternative requirements.
Scouts BSA, Venturing, etc.
At the Scouts BSA level and older, the first planning step is to figure out how to support what the Scout wants to do. While few Scouts advance without family and leader encouragement, we don’t want advancement to be driven by the parents, guardians, or leaders. Realistically, the Scout with a special need should set the goals and the rest of the adult team should help spot opportunities to make progress on those goals. It is perfectly fine if a Scout just wants to have fun, make friends, and go on outings instead of making effort to advance in rank. Scouts often fulfill rank requirements just by being present as the opportunities occur. Some Scouters call this stealth advancement since others may keep track of these achievements even if the individual Scout fails to do so.
The second planning step is figuring out which Scouts need an ISAP. Some Scouts arrive at a unit with an obvious disability, where some advancement requirements are very difficult or impossible, and you can start on an ISAP soon. However, many Scouts have an invisible disability that does not draw any immediate attention. An invisible disability or special need is a difference that doesn’t change the way the person looks or moves, but does make learning, organizing, or demonstrating knowledge for requirements extra hard.
A Scout leader should not try to diagnose any Scout, but a wise leader takes a long look at the performance of each new Scout after the first year. It is important to figure out if a Scout is not performing well despite trying hard or because he or she is not really trying. If a Scout has the will to succeed but is not being effective, it is time to start developing an ISAP.
Even though the ranks of Scout, Tenderfoot, Second Class, and First Class are presented in sequence, most Scouts work on requirements for all of these levels at the same time. Scout leaders often refer to this group of ranks as the “Trail to First Class”. The first round of planning is to go over these requirements and determine which ones need alternatives and which ones need accommodations. If the adult team can tell up front which are which, you can go ahead and apply for alternative requirements while the Scout works on what he or she can do. Most of the time, you will not know all of the obstacles until the Scout makes an attempt on a requirement. If there is doubt about whether a Scout can complete a task, he or she should be given a chance to complete the requirement as it is written. Be careful that you do not force the Scout to fail. Once the adult team knows what alternatives are needed, they develop them and submit them for approval. The actual process will be discussed a little later.
Scouts that need alternative requirements and merit badges often need to be efficient with their time and effort. This is very important with merit badges because you cannot request alternative requirements for merit badge requirements. They are an all or nothing proposition. The Scout and his or her supporting adults need to look at all of the requirements for a merit badge before starting work on it. If the Scout cannot complete all of them with reasonable flexibility and accommodations, the Scout will not be able to earn the badge even though the Scout may enjoy the activities of the badge and benefit from the socialization and participation.
There is a risk of creating hard feelings when merit badge work is done in a group setting. If a Scout is encouraged to participate alongside other Scouts in a group setting, it can create an expectation that the Scout can complete the badge, even if there are requirements that are impossible for that particular Scout. When the rest of the group is presented with badges, but he or she is not, it can seem unfair to the Scout and the family. It is vital that the leaders and family are on the same page about whether or not the Scout is encouraged to participate and important that the family manage the expectations of the Scout.
Currently (2021), an Eagle Scout must earn 13 merit badges out of an “Eagle-required” list of 17 merit badges, and an additional 8 badges of the Scout’s choosing, for a total of 21. Ten of the 13 badges are specific badges and the other three allow a choice between two or three related badges. These badge alternatives are built into the regular advancement requirements and don’t require special permission. As the Scout finishes the First Class rank, it is time to make a plan for these “Eagle-required” badges. A good target is to try to have all of the achievable Eagle-required badges completed by the time the Scout turns 16 years old. This leaves time to get alternative badges approved and to finish them before age 18.
When planning for the Eagle-required badges, we want to avoid false starts and wasted effort for the Scout while giving the Scout a chance to strive, succeed, and surprise the adults. Like before, the planning review needs to look at all of the requirements for all of the Eagle-required badges and determine which badges cannot be completed due to the Scout’s disabilities. Some borderline requirements may have to be attempted in order to be sure. Alternative merit badges need to be selected to provide similar challenge and learning experiences to the originals. There is a special form (BSA 512-730) for requesting alternative merit badges for the Eagle rank. This form includes lists of possible alternative badges to consider for some of the badges. The exact badge to pick will depend on the individual and the details of his or her disabilities.