People with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the United States, and individuals with disabilities are often unfairly pushed to the margins of society. People with disabilities face significant discrimination, often due to inaccessible spaces, hurtful and harmful language, and other barriers. Supporting individuals with disabilities may be unfamiliar, so we’ve provided some resources and information to help you impact Girl Scouts positively. All you need is the drive to create a safe and inclusive space for all Girl Scouts and the willingness to learn when topics are unfamiliar. Having a mixed ability troop is beneficial for all Girl Scouts, since it teaches them to look beyond difference and form inclusive communities.
What is inclusion?
Inclusion is the sense that everyone belongs. In any environment, inclusivity means people from different backgrounds, identities, and abilities are not only present, but also have a voice. An inclusive setting honors everyone’s unique histories, cultures, and identities and is free from bias and discrimination. Everyone feels as though their opinions are valued and they have fair access to opportunities.
What is a disability?
As defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, a disability is when a person has at least one of the following:
- a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities
- a record of having such an impairment
- is perceived by others to have an impairment
Some disabilities are visible, and some are not, but none prevent an individual from being a Girl Scout.
Using inclusive language helps Girl Scouts feels heard, understood, and validated. It’s essential for the terms and labels we use to describe people with disabilities to be free from stereotypes and false ideas. Some commonly used words and phrases to describe people with disabilities can be swapped for more inclusive language, empowering and highlighting the strength of Girl Scouts.
Not appropriate: “_____ suffers from, is afflicted with, is stricken with, is a victim of…”
These terms suggest pity, helplessness, and dependency, denying other aspects of the person separate from their disability.
More appropriate: “_____ has ADHD, scoliosis, etc.”
Not appropriate: “retard, slow, simple-minded”
These terms are outdated and offensive, and often used as a put-down. These words should never be used to describe someone.
More appropriate: “people who are developmentally
Not appropriate: “person with special needs, ‘special’ person”
This term is patronizing, and although often meant positively, reflects a distancing attitude.
More appropriate: “person with a disability”
Not appropriate: “inspirational, courageous, brave”
These words deny the individuality of people with disabilities.
More appropriate: acknowledge the person’s abilities and personhood
Not appropriate: “the disabled, the deaf, the blind”
This wording only describes the group based on their disabilities, instead of representing them first and
foremost as people.
More appropriate: “people with disabilities, deaf people, blind people”
Not appropriate: “_____ is an autistic, paraplegic, etc.”
This phrasing describes someone as the condition and emphasizes the medical aspects of the condition instead of the person themselves.
More appropriate: “_ has autism, paralysis, etc.”
Many people with disabilities prefer people first language when being referred to. People first language puts the person before the disability, describing what a person has, not who a person is. People first language helps make Girl Scouts of all abilities feels comfortable and valued. As always, preference depends on the individual. Don’t correct a Girl Scout if they prefer language different from what you’ve been informed is inclusive, and instead take their lead and go along with however they like to be described or referred to.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I ask about a Girl Scout’s medical history or diagnosis?
Having your Girl Scouts fill out a health history form and Meet My Girl Scout form is important, as it ensures the safety of your Girl Scouts. Aside from having Girl Scouts fill out these forms, avoid asking them about medical history or diagnoses unless it’s for safety or accommodation purposes. Ask Girl Scouts about their needs and necessary accommodations. Approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population has a disability, and many disabilities are invisible.
How do I make the troop environment accessible for all Girl Scouts?
Meeting current accessibility standards to the best of your ability means more Girl Scouts can discover, connect, and take action in your troop. Make sure there are clear and tactile paths between activity areas for those with visual impairments or Girl Scouts using mobility devices. If there are Girl Scouts using wheelchairs, ensure that there is a way for all Girl Scouts to be physically level with their peers, as this promotes equality and allows for more comfortable communication. Consider if there are ramps and automatic doors at entrances, making sure they are clear of barriers like snow and debris. If you aren’t on the first floor of a building, check to see if there are elevators for those who are unable to walk up stairs.
How do I know when to offer assistance to a Girl Scout?
It’s okay to offer assistance to a Girl Scout, but always make sure the offer is accepted before you help. Stay attuned to any preferences that a Girl Scout has and speak directly to them when asking their needs.
What if I say or do the wrong thing?
The most important step to take when you’ve made this type of mistake is genuinely apologizing and using the experience to avoid similar missteps in the future. When apologizing, make sure not to make the situation about you, and instead empathize with what the other person might be feeling. Mistakes can prove to be great opportunities for growth, and remember not to be too hard on yourself, since everyone makes mistakes.
What if I don’t know how to include a Girl Scout with a specific disability?
You can have each Girl Scout fill out a Meet My Girl Scout form, which will detail any accommodations needed and help you understand the specific needs of each Girl Scout. Enlist the help of parents, emphasizing that we’re all in this together to make Girl Scouts a welcoming and supportive space. You can always contact GSNWGL (888.747.6945, email@example.com) with any questions or concerns as well, since we are here to help!
Are there any limitations on who can join Girl Scouts?
Girl Scouts is open to any youth who identifies with the girl experience, regardless of ability or identity. The Girl Scouts Leadership Experience is for everyone, and with the help of considerate and attentive volunteers, Girl Scouts can achieve their goals.
How can I include Girl Scouts with disabilities on overnight trips?
Part of the Girl Scout Leadership Experience is allowing Girl Scouts to make choices about their overnight trip. Encouraging Girl Scouts to consider the pros and cons of various activities helps them build their decision-making skills. When helping them make these choices, advocate for Girl Scouts with varying abilities and needs, such as when considering menus, transportation, and lodging. Communication and teamwork are important when creating an accessible space, and this includes talking to parents, youth, and event staff. Parents and youth can provide information about specific needs, and event staff can inform you about the space you’ll be staying at. Asking for help is part of the process, and encourages Girl Scouts and parents to work together to make the world a better place.
How can I be an advocate for Girl Scouts of all abilities?
Disability advocates help amplify the voices of people with disabilities, making sure their rights are upheld, their needs are met, and their treatment is equitable. As a Girl Scouts volunteer, you can be an advocate for Girl Scouts of all abilities by treating every Girl Scout with respect and dignity, welcoming members of all abilities. Actively listen to your Girl Scouts to understand their needs and preferences, and prioritize their safety and comfort within the troop.
How can I make sure the Girl Scouts in my troop are kind to each other?
Creating a list of group norms helps Girl Scouts understand how to treat each other equally and with respect. This also encourages a community environment where everyone has a voice, since you can work as a team to brainstorm group expectations. Teach Girl Scouts how to deal with conflict respectfully, serving as a role model to them.
Including Every Girl Scout in All Activities
A major goal for accessibility is to make sure accommodations are appropriate and safe for Girl Scouts. There are many creative ways to make games and activities more inclusive, but here are a few guidelines for creating activities that Girl Scouts with disabilities can benefit from:
- Plan ahead. Think about if the activity is accessible, and what can be done to make it work for all Girl Scouts. If the activity involves an outside organization, you can contact the staff ahead of time and let them know your troop needs. Some considerations when planning an event for Girl Scouts with disabilities include:
- Are there paved paths/ramps for Girl Scouts who are blind or use mobility devices?
- Will the space be space noisy or crowded? Are there quiet or private spaces nearby? Making sure there are accessible quiet or less crowded spaces ensures that Girl Scouts with auditory sensitivity—such as individuals with autism—are comfortable.
- Will there be breaks provided in order to check in with your Girl Scouts and make sure their needs are met?
- Understand your Girl Scouts’ abilities. Know what your Girl Scouts are comfortable with and capable of, while still pushing them to safely explore challenges. Provide positive feedback often, focusing on what your Girl Scouts can do instead of what they can’t.
- Create opportunities. Build Girl Scouts of confidence and character by making sure all Girl Scouts can participate in the activity, while thinking creatively to make the experience as beneficial as possible for every Girl Scout. You may have to create alternative methods to achieve the objective in order to include all Girl Scouts.
Inclusion is for Everybody
Everyone benefits from an inclusive environment. Here are some great ways to make Girl Scouts more accessible and fun for everyone:
- Help your child identify their feelings. Engaging can be difficult when kids are feeling negative emotions. By identifying a Girl Scout’s feelings, you can work towards addressing them and making it easier to stay on task.
- Play games. Making activities interactive helps kids pay attention and stay engaged, and also makes activities more fun! Try incorporating some inclusive games when working with Girl Scouts.
- Provide safety and security. Making sure that your Girl Scouts feel comfortable and safe with you helps them thrive. Validate the emotions that Girl Scouts are feeling, making them feel understood and heard.
- Be a role model. Kids are likely to be involved when they respect and look up to the adult in charge. By being an inclusive and energetic role model, you can ensure that Girl Scouts feel excited about each meeting.
- Build in planned breaks. Everyone needs a rest sometimes, and making sure that Girl Scouts are able to recharge in between activities can help them succeed.
- Stay organized. Creating structure is beneficial for time management, and also makes activities flow more smoothly. Many people benefit from clear directions and transitions, specifically individuals with ADHD, autism, and anxiety, and preparing your Girl Scouts for whatever task is at hand can be helpful.
Adaptions for Specific Disabilities
Everyone’s needs vary, and it’s impossible to know the specificities without checking in with the individual. However, there are some general guidelines for working with youth with specific disabilities.
- Make sure that the space is not too overstimulating, focusing on reducing loud noise and large crowds.
- Support routines and transitions. This may look like creating a visible schedule or agenda for the meeting, using a visual timer, and/or giving time warnings so that Girl Scouts know a transition is coming.
- Use positive reinforcement.
- Give clear directions and instructions, focusing on breaking tasks into smaller pieces. Teach the learning points while Girl Scouts work on a project, so that their hands are busy while listening.
- Adhere to routines and clear transitions.
- Physical disabilities
- Make sure there are wheelchair ramps, elevators, and accessible seating.
- Consider if games and activities can be completed by everyone in your troop, adapting the activities is necessary.
UNICEF Promoting the Rights of Children with Disabilities