by adiba nelson, inclusivity expert and author of meet clarabelle blue
Since its inception, Girl Scouts has been an organization for girls of all ages, races, religious beliefs, and abilities. Every girl who wanted to join could, and for the last 106 years, has! Girl Scouts' founder, Juliette Gordon Low, was herself deaf from an early age, and a fierce advocate for the inclusion of girls with disabilities or special needs. Where once children with special needs were sent away, or hidden in the home, today we see more and more families living active, public lifestyles, including their children with special needs. And that means we’re also seeing more and more girls with various special needs joining Girl Scouts, which is fantastic! But not all Girl Scout volunteers have experience working with children of different abilities, which sometimes results in Girl Scouts with special needs being unable to participate in all of their troops' activities or programs, due to unintentionally exclusive practices.
You can't know what you don't know, of course! But giving every girl a chance to be a Girl Scout is so important - not only for those girls with special needs who want to participate, but for every girl in the troop to grow alongside a group of Girl Scout sisters who can share all kinds of different perspectives and life experiences. As the mom of a Girl Scout with special needs, and the author of an award-winning children's book on inclusivity, here are some things I recommend that all volunteers consider when creating programs and activities, to ensure inclusivity across the board.
Would you be able to fully participate in this activity/program if you had mobility issues? What about if you had sensory issues, or a seizure disorder? If the answer is "no," you may need to either rethink the program or activity, or think of alternatives or adaptations that would still allow girls that need accommodations to participate and have a great time.
Talk To the parents
No one expects you to be an expert in inclusion, accessibility, or adaptations. But often times, the parents are. If you have a girl in your troop with special needs (visible or invisible) feel free to let the parents know that you want to make sure their child is getting the most out of her Girl Scout experience. Let them know that you would really appreciate any guidance or input from them in regards to what works best for their child. It’s not considered rude, and I’m willing to bet they’ll appreciate your commitment to an excellent experience for ALL the girls in your troop.
Facilitate and lead
You may need to be more hands-on when facilitating some activities, to help the other girls understand how they can all work together, taking everyone’s needs into account. Remember that YOU set the tone for how your girls will interact with each other, special needs or not.
Read Meet Clarabelle Blue!
No really. I know it seems funny to say “read my book” to understand the concept of inclusion and special needs, but I’ve had countless families tell me that it not only helped them understand inclusion, but also started a kid-friendly conversation around special needs, inclusion, and being a friend. So if you know you have a girl with some special needs joining your troop, maybe give it a quick read!
I hope you find this information helpful in building inclusive troops. And for those of you who want to give your girls the opportunity to discover inclusivity for themselves, be sure to register them for the Girl Scouts for ALL patch program coming up on April 14th! I can't wait to meet you and your Girl Scouts.