BSA alternative requirements ensure youth with disabilities get the most out of Scouting

expertlogo1Special needs or disabilities shouldn’t stop a young person from joining Scouting and thriving in our life-changing program.

Fortunately, they don’t.

BSA alternative requirements benefit Scouts or Venturers with a wide range of documented disabilities, including those that are physical and/or cognitive. These modified requirements allow a registered member to remain in Cub Scouts beyond age 11, in Boy Scouts beyond age 17 and in Venturing or Sea Scouts beyond age 20.

Young men with certain documented disabilities may earn Boy Scout ranks, including Eagle Scout, even after they turn 18. They use requirements that challenge them in a specially tailored way. The requirements must be approved by the council advancement committee and should be as challenging for the Scout with special needs as the ones they replace.

I bring this up because of an email I received from Stewart, a new Scout leader in the Trapper Trails Council. Virtually every Scouting unit at one time or another will have the opportunity to serve youth with special needs, so Stewart’s question affects us all. He writes:

Dear Bryan,

I am not sure where else to turn so here you go. I am a new Scout leader and just received into my troop a young man with a developmental disability. I am in the process of working with his mom and dad to come up with some alternative requirements, not just through First Class, but all the way through Eagle. As I do not want to reinvent the wheel, I have done some looking for others who have been in this boat to see what was done and how so we can duplicate it as much as our unique situation allows.

But I’m coming up blank. Any suggestions you could offer would be greatly appreciated.

Trapper Trails Council

The expert’s response

I turned to Mike Lo Vecchio of the BSA’s content management team. He writes:

Scouts with disabilities may, if qualified, be registered beyond the age of eligibility (coded with a disability code in ScoutNET). In the Guide to Advancement, Section, topics and, lists the possible criteria and procedures to register a Scout beyond the age of eligibility. Topics through explain the policy and process for applying for alternative requirements for Tenderfoot through First Class. Topic is the policy and procedures for Scouts working on Star, Life, and Eagle to apply for alternative merit badges to the Eagle required ones.

This unit leader should contact his district and council advancement chairs and advisor to get more guidance and assistance.

Resources available

In addition to the Guide to Advancement linked above, Lo Vecchio also points to these resources:

  • A PowerPoint presentation with embedded presenter’s notes available here (link downloads .ppt file) — good for giving a presentation to other parents and leaders
  • Printable presenter’s notes available here (link is a PDF) — good for reviewing the material on your own

These are among the topics covered in the PowerPoint:

  • How to document a disability and qualify for alternative requirements
  • How to register beyond the age of eligibility
  • Cub Scout and Boy Scout rank advancement
  • Alternative merit badge requirements
  • Creating an Individual Scout Achievement Plan, which is a roadmap for parents and leaders
  • Several scenarios to help you understand the process

Please share your suggestions with Stewart

Have you been through this process with Scouts or Venturers in your pack, troop, team, post, ship or crew? Please share your experiences and lessons learned with Stewart by leaving a comment below.

Together we can make sure every Scout and Venturer gets a life-changing experience from his or her time in Scouting.

Photo: Troop 1634 Scout Archer Hadley, from Austin, Texas, smiles after a morning swim at the 2010 National Scout Jamboree. Photo by Mark Duncan


  1. I’m a Scout mom, merit badge counselor and committee member who happens to be deaf. I cannot get my official “Trained” badge because “This Is Scouting” is a video with no script, subtitles or captions.

    I tried emailing the office and all they told me was to call member services at an 800 number. While I have the resources to help me make the phone call, it’s very time consuming to use the relay to call an 800 number as it’s most likely going to be a recording.

    Youth Protection — a must-have requirement on a regular basis — should also be captioned. Luckily, I was able to absorb enough information to pass the quizzes. I’m also disappointed that BSA is requiring every other YPT is in person. This is a problem for two reasons: 1. We’re volunteers and the classes aren’t always held at a convenient time and location. 2. What if I get an instructor who mumbles? Then I will have been trained without understanding the information.

    • Sarah “This is Scouting” is no longer required to wear the “Trained” patch.

      Venturing youth protection is available online. Exploring youth protection is available online at the Learning for Life website with the same login information that you use for These trainings have most of the information in text form as you go through them.

      It is recommended that trainings be taken in person but it is not required.

      I appreciate your comment about the trainings need to be captioned. I had not thought of that being essential to make sure that all of our leaders receive the information.

      • Actually, we heard otherwise … that YPT training must be in person every four years. You can’t do back-to-back online YPT. If you know where there’s documentation saying otherwise, please let me know. I took the class online. But word is that I’ll have to take it in person next time.

        • Sarah, who did you hear that from? I think you have someone in your unit, district or council adding in extra requirements or passing along erroneous information. I’ve been taking YPT online since 2006 with never hearing once that it must be done in person…in addition to being a member of my district’s training team since 2007. I have given YPT in person several times, but that was at places like resident camp or to assist some well seasoned leaders who aren’t as computer savvy. The link below is to National’s webpage on YPT and it makes no mention of YPT being taken in person every other time.

          I do agree with you on the need to CC the training videos, whether available online or offline.

          And as Venturing Steve mentioned above, BSA dropped the wholly useless “This Is Scouting” promotional video from being required to wear the “trained” patch a few years ago. Let’s face it, that is an excellent promotional video for the BSA that they have you watch after the Kool-Aid has already been guzzled. Kind of late at that point. As a replacement to the immensely helpful “New Leader Essentials” it is laughable. It is nice to have around and I have the DVD to show in the background at open houses and recruitment events, but as a training tool not all that successful.

          As a Committee Member you’re only required to have Youth Protection and the appropriate Committee Challenge training (Pack, Troop, Team or Crew) to be considered “trained.” As a Merit Badge Counselor, it is YPT and the Merit Badge Counselor Orientation.

        • I’m a deaf Scouter too. Just finally got the official word. It’s only the state of Texas that has to do the face-to-face training. (Lucky us!) It Texas State Law.

          “Due to recent changes in the Texas Administrative Code for Camps (Summer Resident Camp, Day Camp, NYLT, and Winter Camp), any adult attending camp within the State of Texas MUST take the newly required Youth Protection Training course (YPT Texas YC06-0014).”

          Sounds like it only applies to adults who attend any camp.

    • Sarah, definitely get to your roundtable, talk to the DE, and ask for help with this.
      You clearly don’t want a waiver. You want to understand the material that every hearing scouter takes for granted.

      They might have the transcripts of the material. There might be a trainer willing to work one-on-one with you. Or, someone in your troop (who you’ve found to be the best communicator) might be willing to become a trainer.

      • Thanks, Q. Exactly — I want to know the topic even if it’s the same information. It’s always good to get a refresher.

    • Sarah- The Great Salt Lake Council is offering for the 4th year in a row a Bi-lingual Woodbadge course for ASL Scouters. Four years ago it was the first of its kind in all of the BSA and I am not aware of any other offering since then outside of the GSLC. We would love to have you attend May 14-16 and 21-23 contact us so that we can help with any mid week accommodations since it is a split course. I was on course 2 years ago and I will be again this year and it is a fantastic experience.

      • Michael, not all deaf people are fluent in ASL. I was born and raised orally. That’s why captions / subtitles / scripts are better. People who speak ASL and people who don’t can all read English.

        Thank you for letting me know about it.

        • One of the initiatives we took on when building the ASL course was to try and caption and find as many captioned materials as possible for this reason. I know it doesn’t provide 100% coverage but it is a great step and many Deaf and ASL leaders have been able to take advantage from all over the nation.

    • Sarah, I am the District Training Chair for our area. We encourage everyone to get trained. We even offer to come to a unit to do a training. I have several friends who are deaf, while I do not currently know ASL, I do know how to speak to make it much easier for someone to be able to ‘see what I’m saying’. I would suggest talking to your Unit Commissioner (if you have one) or District Executive to get the name of someone who has done in-person trainings to see if they have any trainings scheduled. We also hold in-person trainings in our area at least once a year.

  2. I have had cerebral palsy all my life. I joined Scouts in 1964. In order for me to earn Eagle, requirements for Personal Fitness Merit Badge were modified. I substituted merit badges for Swimming and Life Saving. I earned Eagle in March of 1971, and went on to earn a Bronze Palm. Several other scouts with physical and learning disabilities in my troop took similar paths to Eagle. I became an Assistant Scoutmaster at age 18. I have been a member of our troop and district committees. I recently completed my Wood Badge ticket. I hope this is some encouragement to scouts, leaders and parents.

    • As I mentioned before, I don’t know ASL. Not everyone who is profoundly deaf is raised fluent in ASL. I’ll work it out — but just want to educate folks that there is as much diversity among deaf and hard of hearing folks as in everything else.

    • Can you describe your substitutes for swimming and life saving, as well as give suggestions for hiking requirements?

    • My son has muscular dystrophy and is unable to complete swimming requirements. I’ve met with our scoutmaster and assistant scoutmasters to discuss alternate requirements and they don’t know what to suggest. Can you provide any ideas for alternate requirements?

  3. I am glad to hear about alternative requirements. We take the approach that the scouts do their best. Scouts have earned Nova and Supernova awards.

  4. I would love to hear from any parent that has gone through the ISP (Individual Scout Plan) Route. Specifically, I would like to hear is it done one rank at a time…or many ranks? How long does it take to get through the Council Adv. Team. The requirement for the Dr’s letter says it needs to be specific.- does this mean just identifying the disabilities, or discussing the limitations? As a parent who has to go through an IEP and and ISP(state) every year…this seems so repetitive. Although there have been other scouts in the troop with disabilities, none yet have been as severe as my son’s who is about to enter the troop. He has significant cognitive, learning, speech and physical disabilities. With my son’s multiple disabilities I am also concerned about how he will be treated in the troop. Just starting this process now, (He has earned his AoL and will be crossing to BSA in a month) and I thank you, Bryan, for being so timely on this! Look forward to reading all the comments on this subject.

    • Every boy is different. I helped a scout with sever physical disability wave the swimming requirements, and we modified the line rescue demonstration to reflect what he would have to do should the need arise.

      I started by talking the issues through with our district advancement chair once the boy made Tenderfoot and had completed a number of his first class requirements.

      Basically the doctor’s note said the kid could not swim and explained why.
      The father had to agree in a letter to the alternative requirements, and then the boy. (That last part was my biggest concern. This young man was very sensitive to things being made too easy on his account.)

      So, I would give your son a few months in the troop to see how he picks up on skills. Let him have fun with the other boys first … no pressure on advancement. (E.g., our troop has boys who take 5 years to become first class scouts.) See how the older boys get along with him and how much he likes meetings and activities. Sometimes a troop has that older boy who will take it upon himself to mentor a special needs kid, sometimes not. But, one step at a time. Hopefully your son will grow into and enjoy troop-life to the point that advancement will come naturally with just a few tweaks.

  5. I have a son with autism that excelled in Cub Scouting but ran into obstacles when he joined a BSA troop. The troop leadership simply would not accommodate his disability, even after alternative requirements were written and approved. We ended up transferring to another troop and since then, he has excelled. To succeed, you sometimes have to have the right match of folks.

  6. I have two special needs sons who have been asked to leave scouts due to their special needs I would love speak to someone so that they would be included.

    • Hi April! Without more details it’s difficult to respond to your message. In general, there is no reason why a special needs child should be asked to leave scouting. The solution may be as straightforward as identifying a unit that is more willing to work with you to accommodate your sons. I would suggest that you start by having a conversation with your District Executive, who you can locate by contacting your local scout council.

  7. Re: having to change troops. Sometimes, you just do. I described it to a great Scoutmaster as “sometimes, a houseplant just thrives in a different location. There’s nothing wrong with the location, and there’s nothing wrong with the plant. It’s just the way it is.”

  8. I help run a special needs troop. We, so far, have only had to put in effect one ISP plan. The Scout in this instance, has CP with severe coordination issues and he uses a wheelchair. His ISP allows hand-over-hand assistance from his dad. Any requirement, especially knots, that requires dexterity, his father will help him refine his motor movements in order to get the requirement done. Other accommodations I’ve heard of being used is a scribe for a scout who can’t physically write, but can express what he needs written and a scout who has seizures was required to use a life vest to complete the BSA swim test (he can swim very well but there was concern over having a seizure due to the stress of taking a test).

    Most of our Scouts just need one-on-one work with an adult or troop guide to get the requirements done as written. For instance, we break down things that need to be memorized into parts, recite the 1st part at each meeting for a month, then add the 2nd part the next month, etc. With knots, it helps to use the not in the context that it is for, for instance, actually using a taut line for tying down a tent. With swimming, we have had to work with coordination issues to discover unconventional motions that result in the ability to swim. On physical fitness requirements, we have found that on push-ups, if they turn their hands slightly inward they can more easily complete the movement and avoid elbow lock-up. The majority of challenges can be overcome with a little more time, a lot of encouragement, and results in building self-esteem. It does take a dedicated person to work with the Scout, especially if he is in a traditional troop.

    Just to let you know that it can be done, our troop currently has an Eagle Scout (our troop guide), and three Star Scouts. None of them required an ISP, just time and dedicated adult leadership.

    • One knot tying technique I employed was using my teeth to bring a rope end through a loop. Pretty? No. Did it work? Yes!

  9. Stewart,

    I am the parent of a special needs scout (autism, developmentally delayed, speech delayed, adhd). My son is 11 years old and before joining his troop I spoke to the scoutmaster who understood Kevin’s disibilities and a sured me he would be welcomed into the troop. The troop assigned a senior scout to assist Kevin and be his buddy on all the outings (the senior scout has a brother whom also has autism). This bond has worked out wonderfully, even the other scouts in the troop rallies around Kevin.

    As for rank advancement, due to Kevin’s motor skills his rank advancement for the swimming portion of 2nd and 1st class had to be ammendended where he could wear PFD to accomplish those requirements. Before ammending those requirements, a medical doctor and his special education administrator endorsed those changes for Kevin.

    As for the merit badges, I normally sign Kevin up for the badges offered through counties park and rec, counties historic associations, anywhere I can find them. I attend every merit badge class to help Kevin through it. Even at summer camp (Goshen), I attended every class Kevin goes to. I know there are merit badges he will not understand and still at a lost on which badges to swap with.

    Another resource I have used is Special Olympics. Through Special Olympics, I have met other parents and scout leaders with special needs sons. Most of these parents are also merit badge counselors and I have asked them to help Kevin obtain the merit badges as well.

    If you have anymore questions or ideas I have not thought of, please email me

  10. My son is autistic and formally designated as a scout with special needs. I fully expected to need to go the alternative rank route, but we wound up not needing to. I should add that if I were not able to work with him each day on scouring “stuff”, I am sure that he would not be a Life scout now. I think now that he would have made it anyway, but it would have taken years longer. My advice is to take it one rank at a time. Your scout may surprise you by doing more than you thought he could ever do. I know that my son is much farther along the Trail to Eagle than I thought he would be at this age.

    One thing you can do is to find the easiest alternative for him whenever there is a choice. For example, for second class, the scout must “Identify or show evidence of at least 10 kinds of wild animals (birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, mollusks) found in your community.” Have him show evidence — like photos — of animals or birds. (This would work nicely with Bird Study or Mammal Study….) Have him do as much verbal identification as he can, but the evidence works as well. (Photos are a better option for LNT than actually taking items like feathers or what not.)

    Another thing is to work on things in advance. Since I *know* that my son cannot process spoken paragraphs, I work on all the “talkie” requirements for any merit badges he will take at summer camp or at home well in advance. I prepare materials (since he can’t read very well) so he can discuss along with the other scouts. If he has to teach something, I help him prepare his teaching materials, etc.

    Yet another thing is to use his strengths. My son is currently working on his Eagle project. He can’t verbally give a safety briefing, especially off the cuff, but he can prepare drawings for each point of the safety briefing and use those. I also learned that he learns by drawing, and he made a First Aid book that we still use when I want him to brush up on first aid skills.

    Scouring has been awesome for my son. He plans to be involved in scouting forever.


  11. Just south of Stewart in the Great Salt Lake Council we have Special Needs Scouting Committee. We have Commissioners that support the units that are Special Needs as well as being a resource for individual leaders that may have one or two Special Needs Scouts in their Unit. These commissioners and committee members are experienced in the difficulties that this segment of Scouting faces.

    We have Special Needs Scouting Round Table meetings every other month in which we train leaders about issues unique to these Scouts, such as advancement. We also are maintaining an online presence and communication methods such as periodic informational emails and a Facebook page. It is also our goal make sure to teach classes and have booths at all council trainings and events to educate all Scouts and leaders.

    This is a very important movement because the goals of Special Needs Scouting is to not only facilitate young men that want to be a part of the great Scouting movement but also to teach all Scouters about inclusiveness and diversity.

    Look to your councils for similar resources. If you are not finding the help then look through all BSA. There are great people involved in the cause of Special Needs Scouting that are passionate about Scouting and passionate about those with Special Needs that will have the answers you need.

    Feel free to come our way if needed. 🙂

  12. Stewart,

    I am the Scout Master for a newly formed troop for young men on the Autism Spectrum. My advice, beyond the special issues your Scout has, is to srongly look for the opprotunites to help him.

    I have two young men who’s normal troop has let their advancement slip, thus just having them participate in the of these two is 16, and not advanced to Second Class in 5 years because the Scout Master did not know how to help him pass his swing skills. He passed on the first try with our troop, and now has the desire to work towards his Eagle.

    I resently taught Autism Awarness to our Univ. of Scoutig, and would live to help, seeing I am in the next council south. Any thing I can do, drop me a line.

    Dave Lyon
    Troop 1910 Great Salt Lake Council
    (Bob) White Owl

  13. Sarah W, get with the training chair for your district (your DE should be able to help there), and have them do the course as a one on one course for you. Also get the facilitators guide for YPT in person course. It is a written guideline for an instructor to use. Although it is not a transcript of the video, it does include information that would be helpful like explanation of the scenarios and why the answer is what it is. Also includes the questions and ANSWERs for quiz, so you can learn the right answer, not just guess it. It is available on national training page to download

  14. So good to see this article posted on my council email. I am an Assistant Scoutmaster for NNJC and have a long history of working with people with various disabilities. It’s good to know that BSA is open for all.

    In addition, I’m also an ASL-English Interpreter for the Deaf. I don’t mind volunteering to interpret for those that do need it. Of course my location would be one of the few obstacles, but should anyone be in need in the Northern New Jersey area, I’m willing.

    • That’s kind of you, Janine! Thank you. FYI — not all profoundly deaf people are fluent in ASL. I’ve met plenty who aren’t. Just educating people as it’s a common misconception.

  15. I have a son who is almost an Eagle scout. He has finished almost everything, including his project ,except for 1 merit badge. Every merit badge counselor has worked with him to accommodate the fact that he has dsygraphia, a learning disability with writing. This merit badge counselor continues to make him rewrite requirements. (3 times) He has actually said my child is not mature enough for Eagle &/or lazy. At this point I consider this harassment of a child with a disability. Who would I discuss this with? I have tried the scout master.

    • I too have a son with many disibilities. If the scoutmaster is not working with the scout and the merit badge counsler, you can seek out another merit badge counsler within your council and explain to him or her prior to your son meeting the counsler about your son’s disibilty. This way the counsler has an understanding of the disiblity.

    • I would take it up the chain, and since this is a MBC, technically, the chain goes directly to the Advancement Chair person for your district or council. (The Council Advancement team is the group that would also review and paperwork for disabled scouts). This is harassment\. Even without paperwork that identifies your son as a scout with disabilities involving writing skills, this is unacceptable behavior from the MBC. .

    • Just saw this & hope it has been resolved. If not apply for an accommodation to have a scribe who your son can dictate what to write to.

  16. I have a son with Down Syndrome and he is stuck on swimming requirement. I think it will be difficult for him to swim the necessary distance. Anyone else weigh in on this?

  17. have a son who has PKU and has developmental disabilities, he is currently seeking to advance to Life Scout, but cannot pass the Scoutmaster Conference because they will not allow him to use notes- he is 17 and really wants to earn Eagle Scout. Although the troop is aware of his needs, and has the correct paperwork he has been offered no additional support or help. He is usually excluded from the “inner circle” of the troop and although he is not ignored, he is also not included.

  18. I have a tenderfoot scout right now who has an extreme fear of the water and can’t swim. What have others done to substitute for the swimming quals. I have set him up with instructional swim classes at camps and he skips them unfortunately I didn’t know this was happening cause I was on the range teaching. So know I don’t know what else to do, I don’t want him to quit but I’m also trying to find a way to validate him not doing the swim quals.

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