Clearing up misconceptions and showing there’s room for everyone in Scouting, especially Scouts with special needs

You might have seen the story about a Boy Scout from Utah who has Down syndrome and is working on his Eagle Scout rank. I wanted to clear up some misconceptions about this impressive young man.

First, reports that Logan Blythe’s merit badges were revoked and that he was demoted to Cub Scout aren’t true.

Logan is still registered as a Boy Scout, and the merit badges he earned are still listed in the BSA’s advancement records. The option to earn the rank of Eagle Scout has been — and still is — available to Logan.

“We are inspired by Logan and his family’s commitment to Scouting, and we are so glad he will remain a part of our Scouting community,” the BSA said in a statement on Scouting Newsroom. “We appreciate the care taken by the family’s attorney to bring the best outcome for Logan and look forward to working with the family toward our shared goal of ensuring Logan can receive his Eagle Scout rank in a way that is empowering for him. Moving forward, we are committed to avoiding this type of misunderstanding and will take appropriate steps to ensure it is known that Scouts with disabilities are welcome, celebrated and empowered through Scouting.”

This raises an important topic and provides a wonderful opportunity to talk about the many ways the BSA supports Scouts with special needs.

Scouts with special needs thrive

The BSA’s National Disabilities Awareness Committee estimates that one out of every six Scouts has a disability or special need. Some are physical, but most involve cognitive, behavioral or learning disabilities. Chances are there are several such Scouts in your pack, troop, ship, post or crew.

In many arenas in life, young people with special needs or disabilities are separated into their own classes at school or special sports teams. That’s not the way it works in most BSA packs, troops and crews.

In the BSA, most units place Scouts with special needs in dens and patrols with everyone else. It’s called “mainstreaming,” and it is important both for the Scout with special needs and for his or her unit.

Just this week I read about Zach Beckman of Troop 185 of Jasper, Ind. The 25-year-old man was born with Down syndrome, and he became an Eagle Scout this week.

Zach’s dad, Dean Beckman, worked with Zach and his troop to develop a timeline for Zach. They mapped out how he’d earn merit badges, go camping and complete the rigorous steps toward becoming an Eagle Scout. The plan worked, and Zach achieved a rank earned by just 6 percent of all Scouts.

“No one has ever said, ‘Hey Zach, I don’t think you can do it,’” Dean Beckman told the Dubois County Herald. “They say, ‘Zach, we’ll work with you.'”

Zach’s story is remarkable, but it’s not that rare.

There are the blind triplets from Virginia who earned Eagle together. There’s the man from New Jersey who has a neurological disorder and became an Eagle Scout at age 52 after completing a project to honor veterans. There’s the troop from Massachusetts where Scouts compete alongside others with special needs on Special Olympics Unified Sports teams.

“It’s a way to spend time with people that I normally wouldn’t get to spend time with,” says Rosend, a Star Scout. “All the stereotypes that I believed in are gone.”

What the Guide to Advancement says

Logan’s story raised some questions about this line from Page 79 of the Guide to Advancement:

“Alternatives are not available for the Star, Life, and Eagle rank requirements. Scouts may request approval for alternative merit badges, but the other requirements for those three ranks must be fulfilled as written.”

When you look at the actual requirements, this language becomes clearer.

For Star, Life and Eagle, you’ll see that Scouts will spend the majority of their time working toward the 21 merit badges required for Eagle. Scouts with special needs may replace Eagle-required merit badges with other merit badges that provide a similar learning experience. That includes completing the Application for Alternative Eagle Scout Rank Merit Badges.

The Eagle-required Communication merit badge, for example, calls for a Scout to write and give a five-minute speech. A Scout with special needs could replace that merit badge with a badge like Photography, where the Scout would communicate using a photo story instead.

For the Eagle-required Personal Fitness merit badge, a Scout might not be able to complete the strength and aerobic activities requirements. Instead, that Scout might substitute a badge like Horsemanship, where the Scout would guide a horse through a series of maneuvers.

What about the remaining Star, Life and Eagle requirements? They include showing Scout Spirit, serving in a position of leadership (which can be anything from assistant senior patrol leader to webmaster), participating in a Scoutmaster conference and board of review, completing service projects, and living the Scout Oath and Scout Law.

These requirements are suitably challenging, but any Scout, with the support of his or her parents and Scout leaders, can work toward and complete them.

For example, let’s look at the board of review. It’s perfectly acceptable — encouraged, actually — for the parent or guardian of the Scout with special needs to be there to help the Scout answer questions.

‘Be creative’: A quick anecdote

Tony Mei, a Scouter from Novato, Calif., and chairman of the BSA’s National Disabilities Awareness Committee, once had a Scout who is blind tell him he had earned the Astronomy merit badge.

Mei was curious, and he asked how the young man completed requirement 4A: Identify at least 10 constellations in the sky.

“His merit badge counselor punched holes in paper plates and held them over his head outside at night, in the right place for the night sky,” Mei said. “The Scout used his hands to feel and identify the constellations.”

Not only is that a perfectly acceptable way to adapt the merit badge requirement, but it’s also kind of genius.

“We need to be creative in ways to help the Scouts be successful,” Mei said.

Resources for working with Scouts with special needs

There’s plenty of help in your effort to support Scouts with special needs.

  • Just last year, Scouting magazine’s cover story was about Scouts with special needs. You can read that piece here.
  • There’s a thriving online community of parents of Scouts who have autism. I’ve collected some of their tips and resources in this blog post.
  • Notice how I never used the phrase “special-needs Scouts” in this post? That’s because it’s important to use person-first language when talking about Scouts with special needs. Read these helpful tips to learn how.
  • Here are even more strategies that work when supporting Scouts with special needs.
  • Section 10 of the Guide to Advancement covers some of the mechanics of advancement for Scouts with special needs.

Share your top tips

Finally, let’s hear from you. In what ways have you helped a Scout with special needs thrive in your pack, troop, ship or crew?

Please share your comments below.

About Bryan Wendell 3281 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.