January 1984 // Volume 22 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA3

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4-H and the Handicapped: Volunteers' Perceptions

This Maryland study reveals 4-H volunteers express a willingness to accept handicapped youth in their clubs, but have concerns about specific handicaps and about their own abilities.

Bernardine M. Coleman
Extension, 4-H and Youth
Cecil County, Maryland

Nan Booth
Community Resource Development Specialist
University of Maryland-College Park

Accepted for publication: September, 1983.

The 4-H program is based on the needs and interests of youth and adults to help them identify and achieve goals and assume leadership roles in the community. Handicapped youth have the same basic needs as the non-handicapped, yet they're often not included in the 4-H programs.

While it's true that 4-H has served handicapped youth to some degree in the past, it wasn't until recently that 4-H and the National 4-H Council made specific plans to expand programs to include handicapped youth. This was in accordance with the resolution passed in June, 1978, by the 4-H subcommittee of the Extension Committee on Organizational Policy (ECOP). Since the volunteer will be expected to implement 4-H programs for the handicapped at the local level, the success of such programming will depend on the volunteer's ability to relate to, understand, and appreciate handicapped people. In light of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (which prohibits discrimination against handicapped persons by agencies that receive federal funds) and the 4-H commitment to serve all youth, a need exists to know how the 4-H volunteer feels toward involving handicapped in the 4-H program.

Maryland Study

A review of the literature pertaining to attitudes toward the handicapped revealed no research specific to 4-H. We felt a study of the attitudes of 4-H volunteer leaders toward involving handicapped youth in their programs would be of specific use to Maryland and of general interest to 4-H professionals. In April, 1981, an exploratory study was conducted in Cecil, Harford, and Kent counties in Maryland to determine: (1) if 4-H volunteers were receptive to programming for the handicapped, (2) if attitude barriers existed, and (3) if training was needed before implementing programs for 2 the handicapped.

The mail questionnaire used for this study was an adaption of two instruments used in previous attitudinal research by Jordan and Larrivee and Cook. Questions were worded to directly relate to the 4-H program and pretested with 49 organizational leaders from New Castle County, Delaware.

The sample for this study was the 132 organizational leaders in the 3 Maryland counties. A total of 74 leaders (56%) responded to the survey.

Can 4-H Make a Difference?

Of the volunteers responding, 89% felt including handicapped youth in 4-H would be a good experience for everyone involved. Nearly as many (88%) indicated that involvement of the handicapped would promote their acceptance and understanding and would help teach non-handicapped members how to interact with the handicapped. Three-fifths of the leaders felt handicapped youth could adequately participate in the 4-H program. About the same number (62%) thought others in the club would feel comfortable with the handicapped. These responses, shown in Table 1, indicate volunteers perceived 4-H as a viable program for handicapped children.

Table 1. Volunteers' perception of the 4-H program for handicapped youth. (N = 74)

Table 1
  Disagree Undecided Agree
Attitude No % No % No %

Including handicapped a good experience for all

3 4.1% 5 6.7% 66 89.2%

Involvement of handicapped will promote acceptance

2 2.7 7 9.5 65 87.8

Handicapped cannot adequately participate

44 59.4 15 20.3 15 20.3
Others will fell uncomfortable with handicapped 46 62.2 21 28.3 7 9.5

Experience With Handicapped

Positive attitudes of volunteers toward involving handicapped youth in 4-H could be linked to the fact that nearly 65% of the sample had some experience with handicapped individuals. The experiences varied from actually being handicapped themselves (4%) to second-hand knowledge of the problem like reading or talking to others (34%). Over two-fifths (43%) knew someone who was handicapped and 15% had received some training in working with the handicapped.

Comfort Level

Volunteers were asked to indicate the type of handicapped youth with whom they'd be most comfortable working. Despite their favorable attitudes toward the handicapped in general, less than 40% said they'd be comfortable working with each specific handicap (see Table 2). Of the handicaps listed, hearing impaired (39%) and physical handicaps (37%) were the most accepted by volunteers. The least acceptable handicaps were mental retardation (28%) and emotionally handicapped (23%). Comments written by the respondents on the questionnaire indicated most volunteers felt the less severely handicapped youth would require less skill and training from the leaders and would be easier to work with than severely handicapped children.

Table 2. Handicaps 4-H volunteers felt most comfortable with. (N = 74)

Table 2
  Yes No
Type of handicap No % No %

Hearing impaired

29 39.2% 45 60.8%

Physically handicapped

21 36.5 47 63.5

Learning disabled

26 35.1 48 64.9
Trainable mentally retarded 25 33.8 49 66.2
Visually impaired 24 32.4 50 67.6
Educable mentally retarded 21 28.4 53 71.6
Emotionally handcapped 17 23.0 57 77.0

Training Needed

Only one out of seven volunteers felt they had adequate training to work wth handicapped youth (see Table 3). Eighty-six percent indicated the need for additional training and 77% said they'd be willing to accept handicapped youth as members of a 4-H Club. This piece of data reveals the sense of commitment volunteers have toward involving handicapped youth in 4-H.

Volunteer's perceptions of commitment and training needed

Table 3
  Disagree Undecided Agree
Attitude No % No % No %

Willing to accept handicapped as members of club

6 8.1% 11 14.9% 57 77%

Special training needed before programming

1 1.3 9 12.2 64 86.5

Have adequate training

39 52.7 19 25.7 16 21.6

A generally positive attitude toward handicapped individuals existed among the 4-H volunteer leaders involved in this Maryland study. However, most volunteers didn't feel comfortable working with specific handicaps and wanted specialized training. Based on the results of the study, the following are recommendations for handicap 4-H programs:

  1. Leaders need to understand various types of handicaps and appropriate ways to handle situations.
  2. Attention needs to be directed to the more serious handicapped conditions, such as emotionally and mentally retarded, to encourage greater acceptance of these children among 4-H leaders and members.
  3. Review, and revise where necessary, 4-H projects and activities to make them accessible to the handicapped youth. Focus in programs needs to be turned away from competitive activities toward a more helping and sharing philosophy.


  1. Highlights of Think Tank and Idea Exchange on 4-H and Handicapped Youth (Washington, D.C.: National 4-H Council, 1978).
  2. B. M. Coleman, "The Attitudes of Volunteer Leaders in Cecil, Harford, and Kent Counties in Maryland Toward Involvement of Handicapped in 4-H Programs" (Master's thesis, Universty of Maryland, College Park, 1982).
  3. J. E. Jordon, Attitudes Toward Education and Physically Disabled Persons in Eleven Nations (East Lansing: Michigan State University, 1968).
  4. B. Larrivee and L. Cook, "Mainstreaming: A Study of the Variables Affecting Teachers Attitudes," Journal of Special Education, X111 (Fall, 1979), 315-24.