Leslie's Guiding History Site


Guiding for the Disabled

Guiding for the Disabled

So Guiding started in 1910 - and within a year, the first unit catering specifically for disabled girls had already been opened at a residential hospital.  In those days it was not uncommon for disabled children to be entirely confined to their house, and sometimes to a room or even to a bed, for years and sometimes for life.  There was no legal requirement for any formal education to be provided to disabled children, whether physically or mentally disabled, so most were not given any formal education unless their families were in a position to arrange private tutoring.  Most local authority schools weren't accessible to anyone with mobility problems or hearing/visual impairments.  There was no funding to help families with disabled children, so where families were of limited means, looking after a disabled child who was likely to become a dependent adult could be especially difficult.  The luckier children spent months or years in hospitals or institutions where there was specialist care for their health needs - but even here, formal education was limited or non-existent, and there was usually no attempt made to prepare the children for life beyond hospital, in terms of academic education or domestic skills, even in the case of long-stay patients.   There were some specialist boarding schools for blind or for deaf children, but the focus in them tended to be more on learning to cope with their disability and training in the limited range of careers which it was thought people with that disability would excel in, rather than any particular focus on academic subjects.  Many schools for the deaf focussed entirely on teaching speech and lipreading, actively discouraging, and in some case banning, sign language.  For members with disabilities, Guiding could be even more of a lifeline than for those in 'ordinary units, in that it offered a rare chance to be 'the same' as other children of the same age, offering the opportunity to do the same activities and learn the exact same skills as other girls of their age were learning - and being challenged to be as capable, or in the case of handicrafts, more capable.  So many girls with disabilities were joining Guiding, that in 1921 a special section was set up within Guiding, and called "Extension Guides" because it 'extended' Guiding into institutions and to individuals that mainstream units could not reach.

There were various forms of Extension unit.  In hospitals dealing with physically disabled children, a special Guide Company, and in some cases also Brownie Pack, could be set up to cater for the patients, often with visiting Guiders.  Activities from the handbooks were adapted just sufficiently to enable the girls to carry out as much of the regular programme as was possible - placing an asbestos sheet on the bedclothes would enable a bedbound Guide to lay and light a small fire, signalling buzzers could be used to send Morse messages from bed to bed, scrapbooks and nature samples donated by country units could be used to help girls (a number of whom had never seen any birds, animals or plants beyond those visible from the bedroom or ward window), to learn some nature lore - it was found that most of the Second and First Class challenges could be achieved with minimal adaptation and several with no adaptation at all - and it's important to recognise the value of that rare experience of sameness for disabled children of that era, of proving themselves just as capable as other girls their age, regardless of differing circumstances.


Residential schools for particular types of disability existed - schools for the blind and deaf, and also institutions for some types of physical disabilities, and learning difficulties.  Again, where necessary, adaptations could be made, but in most cases these were simply ways of enabling the Extension Guides to do the same challenges as every other Guide had to do.  And if the Leaders could come from outwith the school, then they could bring something of the outside world into otherwise quite enclosed communities of patients and staff.


There were also 'special schools' for girls with behavioural difficulties - there a particular type of Guiding, "Auxiliary Guiding" could be set up, available as part of the programme of activities at the institution, and providing a scheme which offered privileges and attainments.


And for those who were housebound, there were Post Guide units - the Company meeting took the form of a letter which was written by the Guider.  The Patrol Leaders received their copies and added in their Patrol news, and then forwarded it on to their Seconds, and so it would pass in turn through all the Guides in the Patrol.  It would contain activities for each Guide to tackle and enclose her results in the little envelope gummed to the back, there would be quizzes, puzzles and challenge work, adapted so it could be done despite the girl's restrictions.  When the last Guide had completed her activities, she sent it back to her Guider who could track progress, and prepare the next letter for sending out.  Where possible, local units were encouraged to 'adopt' any Post Guides in their area and arrange to invite them along to visit occasional meetings, join in with outings etc.  The big problem the Post Guide units faced - was in actually finding their potential members.  After all, they were mainly dealing with girls who were housebound or even bedbound, and so weren't registered with any schools, so Post units often relied on local Guides and Guiders passing on details of girls they knew who were living in their area and who might be able to join - there was often no central record of them which could be accessed to aid recruitment.

Soon, in spite of the difficulties, the reach of Extension Guiding had spread far - in 1931 there were 181 Guide Companies in the Extension Branch, and 41 Brownie Packs.  Valuable work was also done by Dorothea Strover, who with her husband, set up the 'Woodlarks' camp, which offered the opportunity for Extension Guides to camp for a week or fortnight on a designated specially-built campsite.  Camping at Woodlarks was run on the buddy system, with each Extension Guide being paired with a helper, who was encouraged to let their partner do as much as possible.  Many of the campers returned year after year, becoming camping experts, and many of the helpers, too, continued to serve for many years.

Prior to 1968, Extension Guides wore the special Promise badge shown, which was similar to that for Air Rangers, but had lilac coloured enamel rather than the sky blue of the Air Ranger badge - they can be very similar and easily confused.  There was also a special First Class badge which they could gain, and special Cords - originally in mauve, later in blue.  Those who were able, were allowed to work for the green or red First Class badge instead if they wished.  Those who did red First Class could be eligible for gaining Queen's Guide, which mauve or blue cords did not allow


A special range of interest badges was available for Extension Guides. In 1939 these badges were:

Ambulance, Collector, Gardener, Handicraft, Hostess, Language (for the deaf), Observer, Sick Nurse, Sportswoman and Thrift

These initially had mauve stitching, later blue, rather than green - to differentiate from the regular Guide badges. This did not preclude extension Guides from earning the mainstream badges too - for some badges (such as craft) testers were usually far stricter with the Extension Guides, because they had higher expectations of Extension Guides' ability at handicraft than of those in ordinary units - expectations which were usually met, with pride!

Through the 1920s and 1930s, the tricky question of employment for many Extension Guides was a major issue, at a time when supported employment was rare, and the general unemployment rate was extremely high for everyone in society, disabled or not.  In society at large, the disabled had long been viewed as a lifelong burden on their families, with responsibility for their care and the expense of supporting them falling on the parents, and then in due course on their siblings.  So Guiding set up a 'handicrafts bureau' - which provided training in practical crafting skills suited to the individual, helped the Extension Guides to source materials, and then collected and sold the produce on their behalf, enabling the Guides to earn some money for themselves and contribute a share to their family's household budgets.  Local Guiders were encouraged to visit the Extension Guides in order to teach them skills, deliver supplies, and collect the finished goods to send to the bureau, and local companies to 'adopt' and befriend.  Because many of these girls had long hours of time available with nothing else to occupy them but practicing and developing skills, they were able to produce work to a very high standard, in spite of physical difficulties, and in many cases battling discomfort or actual pain.  The bureau continued to operate for many decades, until mainstream provision meant the numbers participating eventually dwindled to single figures.
As well as doing regular unit activites, Extension Brownies and Guides were often able to go to Brownie Holiday or Guide Camp, with adaptations kept to the minimum necessary.  Altar fireplaces naturally lifted the fire up to a suitable level for someone in a chair or wheelchair, frame tents could be useful in making enough space and height for physically disabled girls to move around within a tent and sleep on a camp bed rather than at ground level, and the experience was especially valuable for girls who rarely got to leave home.  Many blind Guides were expert campers, through having to become familiar with every aspect of tent pitching and tent care by touch.
Over the years, echoing progress in society, disabled members have been integrated into mainstream local units, but a small number of specialist units remain, often linked to hospitals and schools for the disabled, such as with the Guide unit linked to the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh, and the units at hospitals such as Great Ormond Street which cater both for long-term in-patients and those Guiding (or Scouting) members who are in the hospital for a few days or weeks.  These units aim to offer as wide a range of activities as would be found in any other unit, with members tackling the same challenges and awards, and having the same opportunities.  Increasing numbers of Leaders with disabilities are involved in Guiding too, in mainstream units particularly, and much work on inclusion and providing opportunities has been done.  Each Guiding County should have an Adviser for Members with Disabilities, to offer help and support to unit Leaders on how to support disabled members within the unit, in order to make the units as inclusive as possible.  Disabled Leaders have gone on to be Leaders, Commissioners and Advisers . . .