June 1994 // Volume 32 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA4

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A Perfect Fit: Involving Youth with Disabilities in 4-H

All youth, regardless of their physical and mental capabilities, need the opportunity to be involved in activities that complement their own special talents and interests. While formal educational systems (public and private schools) have been fairly successful in their efforts to develop specialized programs for youth with disabilities, non-formal educational programs such as 4-H have not made a concerted effort to make their programs truly accessible to all youth. This article summarizes a project underway at Purdue University to ensure that all youth have the opportunity to participate in meaningful activities that make it possible for them to grow mentally, physically, and socially regardless of their physical and/or mental capabilities. The legal implications, benefits of involvement, and ways to adapt projects and activities are also discussed.

Roger Tormoehlen
Extension Specialist, 4-H Youth
Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service
West Lafayette, Indiana
Internet address: roger_tormoehlen@four-h.purdue.edu

W. E. Field
Department of Agricultural Engineering
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana

Tommy, who is blind, wants to show a steer in the county 4-H Beef Show. Would you let him? Carol, who uses a wheel chair, wants to join a local 4-H club. What kind of problems might be encountered? Tommy and Carol are only two of the approximately 4.3 million school-aged children in the United States who have disabilities and could benefit from full participation in 4-H activities.

Great strides have been made in the formal education system to educate children with disabilities, but it was not designed to meet all the needs of these youth. Efforts are also needed to ensure that children with disabilities also have broader educational opportunities including participation in non-formal educational programs such as 4-H.

All youth, regardless of their physical and mental conditions, need and deserve the opportunity to be involved in activities unique to their own special talents and interest. They also need to be integrated, to the greatest extent possible, with other children with and without disabilities in preparation for adulthood in a world with great diversity. For this reason, adults working with organizations such as 4-H, should be well informed about disabilities and their implications for involvement of youth.

An initial reaction by many "able-bodied" individuals when encountering young people with disabilities is that they cannot participate in "regular" activities. This point was illustrated to one of the authors several years ago while working with the Wisconsin 4-H program. A ten-mile bicycle ride for 4-H members attending State 4-H Club Congress had been organized. One of the twenty participants who had signed-up to go on the ride was a young man named David, who had multiple sclerosis. David's disease had progressed to the point that he had extreme difficulty walking and usually used a wheelchair. The teen leader in charge of the group indicated that, in her opinion, there was no way that David would be able to ride a bicycle, let alone complete a ten-mile ride. Fortunately, David's county 4-H agent had contacted the State 4-H office indicating that David, despite his physical impairment, would have no problem with the bike ride. The route selected for the bike ride contained an extremely steep hill. Of the 20 bike riders David was one of only seven to make it up the hill without getting off and walking.

It was later learned that David was very withdrawn and generally did not participate in county or state events. He had signed up to attend State 4-H Club Congress because he could participate in the bicycle outing. The joy and confidence David gained from participating was tremendous. Relying on appearance alone, it would have been easy to assume that David, because of his physical impairment, would not have been able to participate in a so called "regular" activity (in this case a bike hike). Had that assumption been made and David prohibited from participating, he would not have gotten the joy of riding with the other youth, and they would not have learned about David's special talent and that a disability does not mean being unable to be involved. Often an adult will discourage or deny a child with a disability from participating as a safe way to "protect" the child from potential failure. When this happens, everyone loses.

Legal Implications

With the signing into law of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 1990 the old question of "Should we accommodate children with disabilities?" has been replaced with "When and how are we going to accommodate children with disabilities in 4-H programs?" This act clearly states that discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and activities of state and local government is prohibited.

ADA has very special implications for 4-H programs since they are sponsored and financially supported by state and local government agencies. Therefore, all facilities, services and communications associated with 4-H must be made accessible, according to specific guidelines. Does this mean that every activity must be made accessible to every individual with a disability? The answer is no, but there needs to be demonstrated a reasonable effort to accommodate an individual wanting to participate.

Benefits of Mainstreaming

How do we make 4-H truly accessible to all youth and what are the benefits associated with integration of children with disabilities into traditional 4-H activities? Just as David's bike ride demonstrated so clearly, everyone will need to make an effort to remove both the physical and attitudinal barriers to full participation. It won't be easy and in some cases might prove to be expensive, however, the benefits reaped will be substantial. These include:

  1. 4-H members with disabilities will develop a greater sense of self-confidence and self-reliance as they successfully interact with other youth and participate in traditional 4-H activities.

  2. 4-H members without disabilities benefit by having the opportunity to interact regularly with youth who they perceive to be different. They learn that children with disabilities are really not so different. They discover that everyone has strengths and weaknesses and can do some things better than others. They also learn to be less prejudiced and see the other person with his or her unique abilities, not just a particular disability. All 4-H members will mature by focusing on strengths, developing more positive attitudes, and reducing prejudices, while attaining a greater sense of achievement and positive self-image. All members will enjoy the benefits of new friendships and shared experiences.

  3. 4-H leaders benefit by having the opportunity to learn new skills and techniques for working with children who have special needs. Staff will also broaden their own personal experiences and become more accepting and comfortable with people who are perceived to be different.

Successful Projects

A frequently asked question when dealing with youth with a disability is "Can they participate in the projects and activities presently conducted through the 4-H program?" Leaders who have worked with youth who have a disability have identified many existing projects that can be successfully used with children with disabilities. These include projects related to animals, ceramics, crafts, entomology, flowers, food preparation, food preservation, forestry, gardening, genealogy, health, latch hook, models, nutrition, photography, rabbits, sewing, strawberries, weather, weeds, wildlife, windowsill gardening, and woodworking.

With creativity, flexibility and the willingness to experiment any project can be modified for youth with disabilities. Some sample project adaptations are:

  1. Gardening - If a child uses a wheelchair or cannot easily reach the soil, try bringing the garden up. Raised beds can put the garden within easy reach of a person in a wheelchair. Vertical and container gardening help make harvesting and care easier for those with limited mobility.

  2. Animals - Raising and showing animals can be a good project for children with developmental disabilities. A tame breed of animal can be obtained and an adaptive method of feeding implemented. For example, instead of feeding one pound of feed per day the child can learn that one scoop of a certain food cup size is sufficient. By raising an animal, he or she can learn responsibility by caring for the animal and observing its growth.

  3. Food - An easy recipe with pre-measured ingredients (such as a bag of chocolate chips) would allow a child with developmental disabilities to bake a food product. Another good adaptation is no-bake cookies so that an oven or microwave would not have to be involved in preparation of the food.

  4. Woodworking - Pre-cut and drilled pieces can be sanded, glued, and assembled by youth with a disability. Some children will be able to utilize simple hand tools such as a hammer, screwdriver, or hand saw. Having a finished sample of what a completed project should look like serves as a model for the young person.

  5. Collecting (forestry, insects, weeds) - Various collection projects can be adapted to allow participation by most youth with a disability. Collecting specimens can be visually identified with the use of labeled examples or charts.

  6. Clothing - A child can assemble a basic sewing kit or prepare clothing adapted to his/her needs. An example would be putting a zipper in a pant seam to make pants easier to pull over a brace, or substituting Velcro for buttons to allow easier manipulation of a garment when dressing or undressing.

Program Developed

A cooperative effort between the Department of 4-H Youth and the Breaking New Ground Resource Center at Purdue University (phone: 817-494-5088) has resulted in the development of resource materials, including a leader's guide and two brochures, aimed at addressing the issue of ensuring that all youth have the opportunity to fully participate in 4-H programs (contact: Roger Tormoehlen, Perfect Fit Program, Department of 4-H Youth, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907; phone: 317-494-8429). The project's purposes are to:

  1. Help parents of children with disabilities become more aware of the programs available through 4-H and their right to have their children participate in them.

  2. Assist 4-H professionals and volunteers in becoming more aware of the issues facing youth with disabilities as they seek to participate in non-formal educational programs such as 4-H.

  3. Provide 4-H professionals and volunteers with suggestions as to how youth with disabilities may more fully participate in 4-H programs.

Program Activities

In addition to the development of the resource materials cited above, a three-fold process has been initiated to assist 4-H professionals and volunteers in their efforts to make the 4-H program accessible to youth with disabilities. These steps included:

  1. Materials Dissemination: Every county Cooperative Extension office in the United States received a complimentary copy of both brochures and the leader's guide. In addition, a complimentary copy of the materials was provided in response to inquiries received from more than 200 agencies and individuals who work with people with disabilities.

  2. Leader Training: A 1+ hour training program was developed for 4-H professionals, volunteers, and teen leaders. The program contains: information on ADA and its implications for 4-H; activities that stress the problems encountered by people with disabilities as they attempt to perform routine activities such as tying shoes, buttoning clothes, or making a sandwich; a wheel chair obstacle course stressing the barriers faced by people who use wheel chairs; and, suggestions on how youth with a disability can be involved in the 4-H program. Since the inception of the program in 1991 two national, one regional and 20 county training programs have been conducted.

  3. Exhibits: Displays and exhibits have been constructed for use at local, state and national events. The focus of the displays and exhibits has been to increase disability awareness especially as it applies to the 4-H program. The displays have been used at local county fairs, National Safety Congress, National Association of Extension 4-H Agents Annual Meeting, and North Central 4-H Leaders Conference.


Non-formal educational opportunities have not been, or have been perceived as not being readily available to youth with disabilities. The problem may be partly due to the lack of knowledge by 4-H professionals and volunteers about disabilities and their implications for youth involvement. 4-H professionals and volunteers must work to make sure that youth, regardless of their physical or mental conditions, have the opportunity to be fully involved in the 4-H program. All youth--whether rich or poor, gifted or disabled--deserve the chance to reach their fullest potential.