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They Meet the Challenge

Girl Scout Leader/ Summer Magazine

Summer 1986


They Meet the Challenge

GIRL SCOUTS WITH DISABILITIES
By Janet Lombardi

On most Saturdays from spring through late fall, Cadette Girl Scout Dawn Teresa Parkot is at the riding stables, running through her equitation and dressage exercises. A skilled horsewoman who won two ribbons last weekend, Dawn planned a troop trip to the stables as part of the Silver Leadership Award requirements. Fulfilling these requirements demands hard work, commitment, and solid leadership skills; for Dawn, it means all this plus a strong sense of determination.

Dawn is a Girl Scout with Cerebral Palsy and uses a wheelchair for mobility. She is a quadriplegic with speech impairment. Dawn is mainstreamed in the troop and finds Girl Scout program activities challenging as well as flexible in adapting to her abilities.

In her troop in Morris Area Girl Scout Council (Mendhem, New Jersey), Dawn camps, hikes, cooks, outdoors, helps with registration, teaches, and last year carried the troop flag before 250 community residents. She tries just about everything that her troop members do.

Disabilities are any psychological, cognitive, physical, or social factors that might make it difficult for a person to function. Currently, more than 20,000 registered Girl Scouts with disabilities enjoy a full range of program activities. Disabling conditions range in nature from mild to severe and include visual, speech, and hearing disorders, mental retardation, learning disabilities, emotional problems, coordination and ambulatory disabilities, and physical health problems such as Cystic Fibrosis, Epilepsy, or Asthma.

Who choose activities to suit their needs, skills, and interests like all other girls, Girl Scouting does not prescribe different program activities for them. On the contrary, they are welcomed as full members and participate in the same program as other girls. For some, Girl Scouting may provide the only opportunity to be part of a group and to socialize. For other, Girl Scouting may be the only place where they don’t feel the condescension of special treatment. They are encouraged to achieve personal goals and to strive to be their best. “Girl Scouting has given Dawn a place where she can find out what her strengths are,” says Karen Borkowski, Dawn’s Girl Scout leader. “She is accepted for what she can do, not what she can’t.”

Girl Scouting accommodates girls with disabilities in two ways, either by mainstreaming them into the troop or grouping them in a troop of girls with similar disabilities. Mainstreaming is encouraged whenever possible; but sometimes disabilities are so severe that a special troop would more satisfactorily meet the needs of the girls. Whether the troop is composed exclusively of girls with disabilities or contains only one girl with a disability. It is important to recognize that they are girls first and foremost. They are not their disability. They deserve to be treated like everyone else.

“Although our girls are often looked upon as ‘different’ by their peers and adults, in our small way, we have tried to show the girls and others in our community that they are truly special individuals.” So writes Maria Mazzarella, describing the Brownie and Junior Girl Scout in Handicapable Troop 109 of Suffolk County Girl Scout Council (Commack, New York). Handicapable (note capable) Troop 109 now includes three Juniors and one Brownie Girl Scout who have disabilities such as Down’s syndrome, learning and emotional disabilities, Cerebral Palsy, and mental retardation. “More than anything,” Maria says, “these girls want to be treated as individuals and accepted for who they are.”

Leaders who have worked with girls with disabilities understand how much more they are like the others than they are different. Michelle Moffmeier is a Junior Girl Scout at Tenn-Ark-Miss Girl Scout Council (Memphis, Tenn.). Despite her blindness, Michelle participates in all activities, says her leader Pat Bates, including hiking, camping, and troop trips such as one recent visit to the planetarium. “Michelle does everything the girls do,” says Pat, “sometimes to their amazement. She jumps rope better than most of the girls, and she’s the best at any game involving memory. When we went camping, the troop learned to tie knots. You show Michelle once, and she’s got it.” Michelle and her troop members have become so comfortable together that when Michelle appeared at a troop meeting wearing a Braille wristwatch, she turned to Pat and said resignedly, “I guess everyone’s going to want to see it.”

Girls and adults who work alongside Girl Scouts with disabilities know that relationships develop reciprocally. Indeed, one of the best opportunities that Girl Scouting offers is meeting different people from different walks of life. Leaders of girls with disabilities agree that these girls not only reap the benefits of Girl Scouting but often give others a new perspective or something as tangible as a new skill.

When Dawn Teresa Parkot’s troop hikes, they do it at her pace. Last year, when the troops set out on a hike at camp, they altered their distance to one mile and proceeded at Dawn’s pace. What they found, says leader Karen Borkowski, was that they had the time to pay careful attention to their surroundings. “It was a great chance to absorb the scenery.”

Tracy Oglesby is a Senior Girl Scout with learning disability in The Commonwealth Girl Scout Council of Virginia. As a wider opportunity participant who visited with a host family in Japan for eight weeks, Tracy has shared her experiences with other Girl Scouts by teaching origami, participating in Japanese dance and cultural ceremonies, and discussing her visit during Wider Opportunity Day at the council.

 

Tracy’s disability, which her mother said is similar to Dyslexia, has never gotten in the way of achievement. “Girl Scouting has been the single most positive thing that has helped Tracy,” says her mother, Pat, a field executive of the council. “One thing that Girl Scouting does is help girls develop a sense of accomplishment. They learn to start something, do it, finish it, and reflect. This was particularly helpful for Tracy.”

 


Tracy’s achievements have included receiving the Girl Scout Silver Award, the Silver Leadership Award, earning an American Red Cross Advanced Lifesaving certificate, receiving a first and second-place council ribbon for her art work, and attending the Youth for Understanding Wider Opportunity in Japan. Tracy’s strengths are her enthusiasm and ability to work with younger children. “She has in mind what she wants to do,” says Carol Kelley, Tracy’s leader, “and she’s very eager to help out.” Adept at outdoor skills, Tracy has helped Carol with training classes.

At the Workshop in Sports during Leaders’ Month at Edith Macy Conference Center in April 1985, participants were impressed with the athletic prowess of troop leader Sherri Swiney of Fox River Area Girl Scout Council. Despite the loss of her left leg to bone cancer, Sherri engages in sports as she always has.

In addition to her work with Girl Scouts, Sherri an active community leader who was responsible for organizing and directing a summer youth project. The project offered such constructive activities as sports and field trips to more than 100 children.

For Sherri, who regards her disability as “just a little inconvenience,” Girl Scouting represents a challenge well worth the time invested.

Agencies dealing with specific disabilities can provide background material as well as knowledgeable people. Girl Scout adults with disabilities or persons who have worked with the disabled also are good resources.

When working with a girl with a disability, consider her life experiences. Is she mainstreamed in school and involved in other activities? What are her interests? Again, her parents can be especially helpful. Ask them what they want for their daughter in Girl Scouting; perhaps they expect her Girl Scout experience to help her gain independence.

If possible, prepare the other girls in your troop to welcome the new girl by discussing her disability and how important it is to make her feel accepted. Foster an atmosphere of open communication and encourage girls to express their feelings. Consider inviting an adult with a disability to visit the troop – someone who will be happy to answer their questions. Be prepared for the girls’ concerns, which may extend to concerns about how they will conduct troop activities. Reading and discussing children’s books about people with disabilities can be helpful, as can checking out a few public buildings in your area for barrier-free facilities.

Once the girl is part of your troop, recognize her limitations just as you would with any girl, but try not to underestimate her abilities. “When Dawn first arrived,” said Karen Borkowski, “there was tendency on the girls’ part to overly mother her. But Dawn didn’t allow it.”

Set realistic goals and try to work within a structure that accommodates the girl’s abilities. Michelle Huffmeier’s case, Pat Bates, her leader, considers that everything, including school work, takes Michelle more time than others to complete. Therefore, she’s flexible with time constraints.

When working with a girl with a disability, you may have to adapt the Girl Scout program to fit her needs. Like the other girls, she will determine her goals and, along with you, select activities to complete. When it comes to earning recognitions such as badges and interest project patches, you can alter the activity or adapt the requirement. The key is flexibility in approach and expectations.

Whenever adaptations to earning recognitions are made, they should be in line with the purpose of the activity. Within changing the method for a girl, see a film or have a speaker come to the troop meeting instead of doing an activity they physically can’t do. But always try very hard to do the full badge requirements.

With such a rang of activities in Girl Scouting, girls with disabilities have no difficulty selecting projects that speak to their interests and needs. Creative art, for instance, is an activity most children enjoy. When working with girls with disabilities, think along the lines of using a multisensory approach: Encourage girls to exercise the senses of sound, sight, touch, and small when exploring an art medium. Adapt art equipment for girls with limited motor coordination. Extra-large crayons, paint brushes with padded handles, or double-holed scissors are just a few examples. Again, the point or making adaptations is to personalize requirements, not make them easier. Standards should be kept high, with the leader and the girl determining them together.

Girls with disabilities need to feel challenged and accepted and to enjoy new experiences – just like everyone else. As Maria Mazzarella says, “Don’t be afraid of them, and don’t let them stand on the outside. Bring these girls into the group and listen to their ideas.”