The National Survey of Children with Special Health Care Needs identified nearly 1 in 5 children ages 12-17 as having special healthcare needs and the American Community Survey estimates that more than 1.3 million young people ages 16-20 have a disability. All too often, youth with disabilities experience high levels of social and physical exclusion. They often grow up in families without other people with disabilities and are less likely the youth is to engage in age-appropriate activities with peers. It is important that youth with disabilities have the same opportunity to participate in 4-H in order to obtain the life skills and support that will enable them become successful adults. Youth with disabilities 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. Through 4-H, youth with disabilities are able to develop a greater sense of self-confidence and self-reliance as they successfully interact with other youth and participate in 4-H activities. 4-H can be an empowering pathway for youth with disabilities and their families to receive what they want and need: the opportunity to be involved, make friendships, and gain life skills.
Similarly, youth without disabilities also benefit from interacting with diverse youth. Research tells us that some of the most important academic, social, and emotional skills, like critical thinking, resilience, gratitude, curiosity, cross-cultural collaboration, effective communication, reduced prejudice, and empathy are best fostered in diverse environments. As youth interact with those who they perceive to be different, they learn that they have more in common then they may have thought and children with disabilities are not so different. These interactions enable all youth to ascertain that everyone has strengths and weaknesses and are able to solve the same problems and overcome obstacles in a different way. They also learn to focus on a person as an individual and not lump all persons with a similar disability or difference together by seeing their own unique abilities. By focusing on strengths, developing positive attitudes, and reducing prejudices, while attaining a greater sense of achievement and positive self-image, all 4-H youth will benefit and enjoy new friendships and shared experiences.
Adults involved with 4-H, as staff, volunteers, and parents also gain new perspectives and insight by working with and mentoring youth of all needs and backgrounds. 4-H staff and volunteers are tasked with educating, guiding, and empowering youth to be successful adults and agents of change in their communities. It is critical that 4-H staff and leaders realize that while 4-H offers a wide-variety of opportunities for youth with disabilities, families of children with disabilities may not seek out a 4-H program. It is important for all 4-H adults to be proactive in engaging families of children with disabilities, share the benefits that 4-H has for all children, and explain why it can be particularly helpful for youth with disabilities and their families. 4-H is a safe place for all youth and encourages youth to exhibit themselves to the best of their abilities. This may differ from person to person, and educators and leaders allow youth to shine by leading by example and ensuring that every member is recognized for their participation, has their successes celebrated, is supported when things do not go as planned. Adults must keep in mind that adaptation is acceptable. Throw out the idea that “this is just how we have always done it.” Take on the new idea that “we can work together to find a way to include everyone.”