Girl Scouts River Valleys has an Inclusion Policy that ensures that all girls, under any circumstance, feel welcomed and included. What does that mean for a troop leader charged with welcoming girls who have disabilities into a troop? What if the troop leader has no experience with disabilities?
Approximately 20% of the U.S. population has disabilities, and a good number of those are defined as invisible. Invisible disabilities include, but aren’t limited to:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Brain injuries
- Severe food allergies
Since invisible disabilities can be difficult to recognize, this makes it even more important that we try our best when it comes to approaching and welcoming girls with disabilities. After all, our fearless founder Juliette Gordon Low suffered from severe hearing loss, but that didn’t stop her from creating a welcoming space for all girls to grow and learn through Girl Scouting! Here are some tips to get you started:
1. No Experience Required
You don’t have to be an expert on disabilities to provide accommodation. As the saying goes, “It doesn’t cost anything to be kind.” Starting off with an open mind and a willingness to learn will carry you far in fostering an inclusive troop.
2. Ask the Family, Ask the Girl
The most important thing you can do as a troop leader when welcoming girls with disabilities is to talk to the family and the girl. Find out what you need to know about her needs, but don’t forget to find out about HER too! You can use this handy Meet My Girl form to get you started. (Great to use for all girls to get to know your whole troop!)
3. Focus on Abilities, Not Disabilities
A girl who uses a wheelchair may not be able to build a campfire on the ground, but she may be able to prepare the graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolates for s’mores at the table nearby. Or maybe a raised portable fire pit could be used to have everyone on the same level. When you start looking at the situation with everyone’s abilities in mind, there are no limits to what the girls can achieve! Remember to focus on the intent of the activity you are doing, instead of getting stuck in the details.
4. Ask for Help
When I led my daughter’s Daisy troop, there were two girls in the troop with special needs. We had 14 girls total—and we all know that Daisies are like kittens with their high energy—so it was tricky to focus on the troop while keeping the special needs of two girls in mind. Parents made suggestions for a community member (known to the troop and a registered volunteer) to come in and provide extra help during our troop meetings, specifically focusing on these two girls to make sure that they got as much out of Girl Scouting as the rest of the troop.
When an activity required fine motor skills, we adapted the options so everyone would have a choice for completing the activity that met their skill level. All the girls in the troop benefited from these experiences and, most importantly, everyone was included!
5. Small Changes, Big Impact
Accommodating for special needs doesn’t have to mean spending twice the time planning separate activities for your troop. Here are a few ideas that helped in my troop when girls were finished early with activities or had different attention spans:
- Lay out extra storybooks that match the topic of the meeting (check them out from the library!)
- Include an activity bag of things like flash cards or small games like Story Cubes that tie in to the meeting
- Lead quick movement games or fun camp songs for unifying the troop or to get the wiggles out
There are many resources available to you at Girl Scouts River Valleys. Be sure to review Safety-Wise for a complete listing of all safety policies and expectations. Some specific forms that can relate to disabilities and inclusion include:
Catherine Mandle – Catherine is a Volunteer Resource Specialist at Girl Scouts River Valleys. She was a Girl Scout as a child and is now the treasurer for her daughter’s Junior troop (which she started and led for their first three years). She has dual bachelor’s degrees from the University of Minnesota in anthropology and American Indian studies. Catherine is a Minnesota State Fair award-winning knitter and always has multiple knitting projects going. She has two children with special needs, including autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, and food allergies. She also camps and hikes with her family as often as possible.