Successful legal action by autistic boy against his local Scout group

An 11-year-old autistic boy, Ben Gleeson, has been successful in his case against 10th Harpenden Scout Group for disability discrimination when he was asked to leave the group in April 2016.

Ben, who has Asperger’s syndrome, had been an active member of the 10th Harpenden Scout Group, in Hertfordshire, since January 2015 and as a Beaver before that. During his time with them Ben participated in a broad range of activities including cycle rides, go-karting, visits to places of interests, as well as attending several camps.

Ben is described by his mum, Beverly Gleeson as “highly intelligent, funny, articulate and kind young boy, with an extensive vocabulary. He is extremely likeable, kind and generous”. His autism manifests itself primarily in anxiety. He struggles with anxiety in relation to change and over things that are unknown or uncertain.  If he does not know what to expect he can become anxious about taking part in something. Rather than expressing this verbally, he may refuse to speak or do a task which may make him appear obstinate or naughty. When scared or anxious, Ben retreats to a quiet corner or may run a little distance away to a safe spot, start shouting or crying.

However, with a few simple techniques, Ben’s condition can be managed effectively. These techniques were repeatedly discussed with the scout group leaders. They include speaking with Ben to ensure that he knows what to expect, or appreciating that he can take things very literally, rather than understanding subtleties of behaviour, idioms or turns of phrase. In addition, his dad, Mark Gleeson, provided additional Parental support at activities whenever possible.

After Ben became distressed on camp over a misunderstanding about his shoes, scout leaders said Ben could no longer travel on the scout bus or do athletics in the local park and for many other activities which he’d done previously without support, they insisted on 1-1 supervision. The Scout Association have now admitted this case was very badly handled.

Most shockingly however, was not only how the group leaders treated Ben, but also his parents, Mark and Beverly Gleeson. There were several breaches of the Data Protection Act with parents attending a meeting where confidential information that identified the family was disclosed. The leaders labelled Mark Gleeson as a ‘safety risk’ and described Beverly as a ‘bad mother’.

They sent clear messages in their email communications to family, at meetings and through their actions that they didn’t want to have to deal with Ben or understand his autism. In short, Ben was not welcome.  This included not sending advance notice of the risk assessments for planned activities and withholding of information to keep Ben and his parents ostracised. In short, they failed to work closely with Ben’s parents to ensure that he could participate in activities by making the necessary reasonable adjustments to handle his condition.

About Ben’s case, his dad, Mark Gleeson said, “This case was never about money. It was about forcing change within the Scouting Association to ensure that it is accessible to all children. Ben’s brother and sister are active members, and we wanted Ben to be too. He absolutely loved his time in the scouts and was incredibly upset when he could no longer attend.”

Beverly Gleeson said, “Ben has had to cope with seeing his school friends continue in the group and he is now terrified to go near the scout hut.”

The family’s lawyer, Chris Fry from Fry Law who specialists is discrimination cases said, “In addition to paying Ben and his parents compensation £42,000 for breaching the Equality Act, injury to feelings and misuse of data – The Scouting Association have pledged to make significant changes to how they treat autistic children. This is the real win. Sadly it is often the case that those who have been discriminated against on the grounds of disability are forced to make legal challenges to bring about change.” 

The compensation payment has been met by insurance. Ben’s compensation will be in a trust and his parents have made a sizable donation to a local autism charity

 

Below is a statement by Chief Executive of The Scouting Association. 

“The handling of Ben’s case was completely unacceptable. We are very sorry that Ben and his family were not supported as they should have been by their Cub Scout Pack, and we have made a personal apology to them. 

We are the largest youth organisation in the UK with 154,162 volunteer leaders supporting 464,595 young people across the country. Each week we support tens of thousands of disabled young people, including those with developmental disabilities such as autism, to join and fully participate in Scouting. 

While cases like this are very unusual, we know that action must be taken. 

We have established an inquiry to investigate what went wrong in this case. We are very keen for Ben’s parents to contribute and we have been in contact with them to see if they would be willing to take part. The National Autistic Society have agreed to be part of this inquiry. 

Our Trustees are also looking at plans for mandatory training for all adult volunteers on how to make reasonable adjustments for young people with developmental disabilities; and changing national policy to allow the national leadership of The Scout Association to intervene in cases like this. 

As a direct result of this case we have: 

*Arranged for Leaders from this Pack and District to undergo training, supported by a charity specialising in this field, to help them better support young people with developmental disabilities.

*Reviewed how our national policies and procedures can be changed to prevent this from happening again. 

We are also working hard to ensure all Scout Groups and Trustees are aware of, and comply with, the impending GDPR legislation. Even though local Scout Groups are led by volunteers we recognise and accept that all need to understand and comply with data protection legislation and we are supporting them with this work.”

 

About the Author

Chris Fry

Chris is the founder of Fry Law.

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