Confidently including Scouts with special needs at summer camp

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Sandy Payne, a member of the BSA’s National Special Needs and Disabilities Committee, begins her presentation on how to include those with special needs in Cub Scout day camp by asking a simple question:

Can a person who has a disability or special need go Cub Scout camping?

Her answer: Absolutely.

Payne, who’s also the chair of the Connecticut Rivers Council Special Needs Committee, spends a significant amount of her free time helping families, units, districts and councils make sure they have what they need to ensure that everybody has a memorable Cub Scout camping experience.

“We hear this across the board: Can a person join Cub Scouting, or can a person go to summer camp, who has a disability or a special need?” Payne says. “And the answer is a resounding ‘absolutely yes.’ ”

Payne recently stopped by #CubChatLive to share her expertise on helping Cub Scouts of all abilities have a life-changing, awesome time at summer camp. Watch our conversation in full below and read on for the highlights.


What is the best advice to parents and leaders so they can help a Scout have a life-changing, awesome time at camp?

Be Prepared, Payne says.

“Camp is meant to be awesome, and it’s meant to be fun,” Payne says. “You go home with those memories. It is awesome and life changing.”

Summer camp is where everything in Scouting comes together: leadership skills, character development, physical fitness, and a whole lot of fun. And when you go in as a parent or a leader, you should have a Plan A, then a Plan B and Plan C, and who knows, maybe a Plan D just in case, because Scouts with different abilities may take different paths to reach the same goal.

“The Cub Scout motto is Do Your Best,” Payne says. “If you can answer ‘yes’ to did I do my best, then you’ve achieved that requirement.”

The key to confidently including those with special needs at Cub Scout camp is constant and open communication between the Scout and their family, the unit leaders and the camp staff.

As a parent, what can I do to support my Scout as they head into camp?

Almost every BSA summer camp is going to have a ton of information compiled on their website. Read it, and come up with a list of questions or concerns that you might have.

Next, attend any pre-camp meetings, and take advantage of that opportunity to ask your questions. If the camp you’re attending has already had their meetings, you can contact the camp director directly with your questions.

Third, make sure you have up-to-date BSA medical forms, including any information on allergies and medication.

And, finally, set reasonable expectations.

“It’s important for parents to know that Cub Scout camps are run by volunteers, some of whom may have never worked with a child with disabilities or special needs,” Payne says. “We need to understand that and keep open communication with them.”

As a unit leader bringing my Cub Scouts to summer camp, what will be expected from me as I work with Scouts with disabilities or special needs?

First, you too need to make sure you participate in the camp’s presentations and pre-camp meetings. Read the leader guide. Be Prepared so you’ll be familiar with the camp’s program, schedule and physical layout.

Next, organize an informational meeting with your unit. Make sure the parents have an opportunity to voice any concerns or questions.

“There are all these things that might go on at camp that you wouldn’t know about (if you’ve never gone to camp before),” Payne says. “Things like cleaning the tables at the dining hall.”

Go over that routine with Scouts and their families so everyone knows what to expect. Review the camp schedule with everyone.

BSA file photo

As a camp staffer, what is reasonable for me to do to provide a fun, memorable and positive experience for Scouts with special needs or disabilities?

All of our BSA camps wouldn’t run without our valued volunteers. But where can those volunteers go if they themselves have questions or concerns about working with Scouts with special needs or disabilities?

Start with the camp’s senior staff: the camp director, the nurse and the program director. Those helpful folks will be familiar with the National Camp Accreditation Program that all BSA camps must follow. (The NCAP’s National Camp Standards PDF is a giant document; go to page PD-110-1 for the chapter called “Program Accessibility for Persons With Special Needs” if you’d like to learn more.)

In short, the goal of camp staffers should be to support reasonable accommodations.

“If you’re in a wheelchair and can’t access a certain area, they can do what they need to do to get you there,” Payne says. “That’s a reasonable accommodation.”

Where can I go for more resources?

Whether you’re a parent, a unit leader or a volunteer at camp, the Serving Scouts with Disabilities homepageshould be your best friend. The BSA’s National Special Needs and Disabilities Committee has its own website, packed with tons of helpful information, much of which is included in its Abilities Digest newsletter.

“I like to refer to it like learning a dance with the Scouts and parents and leaders, and in this particular case, the camp staff, too,” she says. “Everybody has to be in communication with each other.”

About Aaron Derr 392 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.