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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.