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Monday, April 19, 2010

Boy Scouts: The Good, Bad and Ugly

My son has been active in the Boy Scouts of America since first grade. His involvement as well as mine is my ex-wife's fault. She insisted I take our son to a Cub Scout Pack night. I was stunned at that first meeting--it was like stepping backward in time to the 1950s when American society was a much different country. My son, in contrast, was thrilled--"Dad, the Cub Scouts are the coolest, I want to join". Fast forward a decade and not only has my son been consistently active in the Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and now Venturing but I too have held a number of volunteer positions in the BSA. I have come away from my experiences with mixed feelings at best. At one extreme is the fact that some of my fondest memories associated with raising my son took place at Cub Scout and Boy Scout outings. Equally positive are the activities he participated in. I also got to meet fine people that, like me, donated their time and energy to the Boy Scouts. But I cannot forget the needless bigotry and ignorance I routinely encountered. My experiences outside of our local pack, troop, and crew, were often overwhelmingly negative. The national entity or professional scouters that run the BSA were uniformly terrible. Disability to them represented trouble; trouble they wanted to avoid at all costs. The best way to do this was to exclude any child or adult that had a disability. To a degree, this filtered down to the council level. Getting basic accommodations was and remains problematic. And when I mean basic accommodations, I am referring to an accessible port-a-potty, a level camping area, assistance carrying camping gear to the group camp site or an accessible cabin. In short, my "needs" were minimal at best but perceived to be an onerous burden.

My experiences, pro and con, came back to me when I was looking at the most recent issue of Scouting Magazine. I usually no more than glimpse at this magazine but one item caught my eye" "Advancement FAQs: Roads Less Traveled, How Scouts with disabilities can earn the Eagle Scout Rank". After reading the brief FAQ it reinforced my belief that what the scouts say and what they do in terms of accommodating children and adults with a disability are two radically different things. The scouts emphasize all with a disability will be accommodated and that the highest rank a scout can earn, Eagle Scout, is possible. The scouts are both correct and wrong in this assessment. Yes, some scouts with a disability have earned the rank of Eagle Scout, a significant accomplishment. But what the scouts do not want to acknowledge is that the path to earning an Eagle Scout Rank is filled with needless obstacles. The same can be said for a parent such as myself--my ability to be an involved parent and volunteer was made needlessly difficult. Access was always a problem and whenever I appeared it was perceived to be singularly unusual--I was constantly told "we never had a parent or scout that used a wheelchair" or "we never thought about access before". These observation were often followed by a "sorry but there is nothing we can do".

So, what exactly does the official entity known as the BSA maintain about scouts with a disability that want to earn the rank of Eagle Scout? A scout with a permanent disability, mental or physical, may request permission to pursue alternate requirements for rank advancement and merit badges. Because all scouts and "cases" are different the BSA has no fixed set of alternate requirements. Who gets to decide if a scout qualifies for alternate requirements? The council advancement committee. This committee determines what standard requirements a scout can meet and suggests detailed alternatives for advancement. The committee must also receive a statement from a licensed health care provider abut the scout and in case of a mental disability an evaluation from a certified educational administrator. Problems abound here. Council advancement committees are made up of volunteers, most if not all of whom know nothing about disability. Getting such committees to agree on anything is never easy but to create alternate requirements based on my experience would be impossible. Add in the letter from a licensed health care provider and statement by a certified health educational administrator and I cannot envision how a scout could navigate the so called Eagle path. Theoretically it is possible but the barriers are significant.

I would like to believe the BSA wants to be inclusive to children and adults with a disability. But everything I have experienced negates the idea as wishful thinking. The sad truth is the BSA is exclusionary to others that are different: for instance gays and atheists. In terms of disability, at a fundamental level disability is seen as a problem. Accommodations can be made but that is subject to choice. The BSA retains the right to pick and choose what accommodations they wish to meet. Hence we are stepping back in time to an era in which people with a disability were perceived to be a charity case. This is exactly how I was made to feel. People with no knowledge or experience with disability decided what was a "reasonable" accommodation. What was reasonable to them rarely seemed reasonable to me. If this sounds like sour grapes I cannot disagree. I had severely limited expectations and only wanted to be included. This sense of being welcomed as a parent with disability was rarely met. At a grass roots level (within the pack, troop or crew), over time my presence was accepted. However, anything that involved council was a problem and if the professional scouters were involved access was a disaster. These are the same people that determine the fate of a scout that wants to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. Good luck to all the scouts out there that wish to earn this distinction. But heed my warning: expect bigotry and ignorance to abound on this path. I may have had it bad as a parent but I have no doubt scout with a disability have far worse experiences.


The Untoward Lady said...

Yeah, getting toward the end I was wondering if you were going to get to the Scout's discriminatory behaviour regarding openly gay people and openly athiest people. Let's not even talk about transgender people.

I was in the cub scouts and, at the time, I wasn't yet out (I'm transgender and gay) and I remember how homophobic the climate could be at times. Of course, at that age I suppose all spaces were openly homophobic. It always struck me that the BSA was so homophobic yet at every single troop meeting, without fail, we'd all get together to sing YMCA by... wait for it... The Village People which is about the gayest band in the history of ever.

Anyway, the BSA's treatment of gay people in particular has been a sore spot in the gay community for quite some time.

TheWiredOne said...

Really enjoyed this post. Interestingly enough, going on about the "good old days" is in and of itself, in a way, is kind of a "stealth" way of throwing around one's privilege. The reason for this is that those "good old days" might have been good or would have suited the privileged person well, but there are several minority groups for whom the "good old days" were horrible, as you mention about the groups such as LGBT, PWD, and atheists who were excluded/faced erasure.

FridaWrites said...

Thank you for an excellent post. I too have very mixed feelings about Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. It's brought my son out of his shell and fostered friendships, but if he runs into a lot of homophobia as he gets older...well, this may be an issue for him in particular, though I can't be certain. We also have an atheist in our family. Fortunately many of my son's friends are liberal, but discrimination breaks my heart. And I've experienced it too.

The Boy Scouts did itself a huge disservice by dissociating itself from schools and public funding specifically so it could discriminate. And while there seem to be good safeguards now, I am angry about the history of abuse in the organization--if they'd turned more attention to actual harm being done to boys rather than using energies fighting to discriminate, many boys would be better off.

They do need something beyond local councils to determine requirements for Scouts with disabilities--first of all, there is the right to medical privacy. Also, there could be more consistency so that there are list of suggestions for scouts with visually impairments or physically disability or autism. Almost as likely as the possibility of being underaccommodating is being overaccommodating in ways that the Scout does not want or request, preventing the Scout from reaching his full potential because no one wants to bother with the additional assistance (though all Eagle Scouts require substantial assistance and investments of time from many people).

Finally, there also needs to be more leader training about accommodating children and parents with disabilities (from den parents on to council level).

There are plenty of campgrounds everywhere with varying levels of accessibility--certainly accessible grounds can be found, though that's not always what people prefer, even when the accessible ones are comparable...

william Peace said...

Untoward Lady, Homophobia is rampant in the Boy Scouts and more generally in the middle school years. Why this is tolerated by the BSA and schools is a mystery to me. I consider homophobia nothing short of gross bigotry that can have a profound impact on people. And yes, there is much irony in the scouts as you point out.

Sadderbutwisegirl, There is in my estimation no such thing as the good old days. Your point about this concept being used to assert one's privileged position is astute.

Frida, Aggressively banning gays and atheists has been a huge mistake on the part of the BSA. In part this stems from the radical conservatives that dominate the national organization. The result is the BSA appears to be hopelessly out of tune with the times or almost cult like. This is sad as at the grass roots level the organization has much to offer. In terms of disability, there is little the professional scouters do to help local councils understand the practical and social issues. General guidelines that focus on disability as civil rights is needed as so much bigotry exists.

RC said...

Gee, I wish you had been in my Boy Scout Troop. The Boy Scouts have a specific program for youth and adults with physical and learning disabilities. As a youth patrol leader 44 years ago, I had a scout with cerebral palsey.

The things we could have accomplished. Probably through trial and error, and working with other volunteer leaders we could have helped the BSA understand and develope the tools to utilize your talents and be more inclusive.

You noted the program is mostly run by volunteers. People that see a need, like you who understand the needs best, get involved and help BSA figure out how to meet those needs. If you are in Milwaukee would love to discuss things more and how you might be able to help.

I will stick up for the professional scouters in that there is no way they have the time to indiviually handle your situation. On the other hand there are volunteers whose job is to do just that.

You bring up to many issues to address them all. If you have the inclination contact your area District Commisioner and help us help parents make a positive difference in all young mens live.

Scoutmaster, Commisioner, Volunteer.

william Peace said...

Randy, Thanks for the comment--it is good to get your views given your scout experience. While I focused on my experience, I suspect scouts and leaders with a disability are rare because they are made to feel unwelcome. I tried to help at the council level but my views on disability and access did not mesh with their theirs. The BSA seems to think access is a matter of choice and charity, not one of civili rights. This is a fundamental problem. I have also found the BSA considers any change, .e. accommodation, in requirements as a watering down of the program.

raymondsmom said...

I have a disabled cub scout. He is wheelchair bound and does not speak. We have camped at council events and done everything possible we could. We have been met with help all along the way. So much that 2 large boys scouts carried my son wheelchair and all up a stretch of a hike that I could not navigate alone. I cannot imagine how I would do things with him if I were the one in the chair but in our experience the council as well as our own pack has done everything possible to make it a good experience for him and we are happy. I hope others out there will make a go of it too. You really get out of it what you put into it. As for the bias toward gays, I have not yet seen it but I for one will not sit back and allow any homophobic discussion in my or my sons prescense. And as for the atheism. Scouts requires you to believe in a higher power, if you do not then scouts is not for you. There are other clubs and groups out there. I would not join a terrorist group just because they may do fun stuff if I dont share their beliefs. I would expect people to treat scouting the same way. If you do not share the belief system look for an alternative activity.

william Peace said...

Yamondsmom, I am delighted you have had a positive experience with the scouts. As you know, all troops and councils can differ, sometimes significantly. I am active, dedicated and have done my best to foster change but it has been a struggle, one that has not been successful.

Unknown said...

i am disabled and my son also has disabilities. my experience has been like raymondsmom. there are things my son cannot do and alternatives are found. at this point he wants his eagle and i dont see any barriers to that quite the contrary. this program gives him so much confidence!

on the other hand i am also disabled. i volunteer and help in ways i can. i dont ask for accomidations because i feel i am there to help not make things harder for the other volunteers. there are lots of ways i canhelp that require no accomidation.

Unknown said...

i meant to add that in the dens and troops we have been in and i am aware of homophobic talk is not allowed. it is just not discussed one way or the other. on a personal level i have not talked to a scout parent that feels strongly about excluding gays in fact they mostly do not like the rule. if u read about this u will find it has more to do with funding in that some conservative groups that support scouts are against gay rights etc its big big chunks of money involved that may provide for kids that couldnot normally participate. so its a catch 22 they r in

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DJDirtyElbows said...

So true, so true. Scouting has been heavily biased since the beginning, and now it is just out of control.