Years before inclusion was a “thing,” Betsy Uzzell was setting an example for those around her, especially Boy Scout Troop 916 in Evanston. On Friday, Oct. 28, Uzzell, 72, received the Torch of Gold Award, presented by Boy Scouts of America’s Northeast Illinois Council.
The award, presented as part of Youth Leadership Week 2022, recognizes someone who has provided “outstanding service in the area of Scouts with special needs … promoting accessibility and the idea that Scouting is for everybody,” according to the council’s news release.
Boy Scout Troop 916 has been in Evanston for 90 years. It draws Scouts from all over Evanston.
To understand why a retired actuary is still involved in scouting long after her children have left the program, you need to understand Uzzell and her motivations.
In 1950, Uzzell and her twin sister Nancy were born six weeks early. By her first birthday Uzzell had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Her sister is not disabled. Her parents were given a dire – and inaccurate – prediction from doctors, who said Uzzell would never learn to do much of anything, even walk.
Fortunately, her parents made sure she got the physical and occupational therapy she needed. She walked, with braces, shortly after her second birthday. And she’s been overcoming challenges ever since.
Uzzell does not have cognitive impairments. Her parents recognized that she was bright. She excelled at school. But by second grade Uzzell had developed a stutter. The exact cause of stuttering is unknown. Stress makes it worse. She was bullied and teased relentlessly, always out of earshot of teachers or other adults who might have intervened. She said, “I never mentioned it to my parents or anyone else.”
She did not know any other people who had a similar disability – no children her own age, no teenagers to look up to, no role models of adults successfully navigating life in spite of their physical challenges. Her parents were also isolated: They did not know other parents of disabled children.
Uzzell felt her stutter, more than her cerebral palsy, was a source of shame and embarrassment. “I heard my stutter,” she said. “But I rarely focused on how I looked.”
“I used to think of my stutter as a road with fences on both sides and landmines strewn throughout. When I stuttered, that was a landmine going off.”
Math was her refuge. She graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in mathematics. Next she pursued a master’s degree in actuarial mathematics at the University of Michigan.
During her first year at Michigan, she met her future husband, James, a first-year law student, at a bible fellowship group. She was 22 and he was 23. They became friends and didn’t start dating until their second year at Michigan. They waited to get married until James graduated law school the following year. That was 47 years ago.
James is visually impaired as a result of a childhood accident. It did not affect his studies or ability to practice law, but in his 50s his remaining vision got noticeably worse. Today he is nearly blind, though he still maintains a small law practice.
They are parents to Andrew and David. When David was a baby, he was diagnosed as profoundly deaf. As Uzzell began to passionately advocate for her child, she realized she needed to embrace and talk about her own physical limitations in order to get her son the resources he needed.
She didn’t overcome her stutter until she was 45 years old. She pursued group and individual speech therapy, and she met other people who stuttered – a first for her.
“I realized that what I thought were landmines were really only pebbles,” she said. “I might trip, but I would not be injured. I would get up and continue. It took the fear away from me.”
As David got older, Uzzell funneled her intelligence and determination into learning sign language, making sure David was being properly educated and researching ways he could partake in the same experiences his peers were enjoying. The Uzzells were determined that both boys should have “normal” childhoods. They played soccer, swam on the YWCA swim team and joined the Boy Scouts.
Today, both sons are thriving. They communicate with their parents regularly with iPads, talk-to-text and text-to-talk technology, and cellphones.
Andrew, now 36, went to Yale Unversity and has a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Memphis. He and his family live in northern Virginia. David, 33, graduated from Gallaudet University in Washington and has worked as a chef in several upscale restaurants. He recently moved to Minneapolis with his girlfriend. Currently he’s working in a bakery and tutoring in American Sign Language.
As Betsy Uzzell got more involved with Scouting, she noticed another parent was also invested in making Scouting more accessible to disabled kids. That parent, Cheryl Susman, became Uzzell’s mentor. She and a third parent, Julie Erst, kept learning together and sharing their knowledge with the Scouting Council, teaching kids, parents and Scout leaders what inclusion Scouting could be.
Uzzell has led awareness-building activities such as beep baseball and beep kickball, “trying on” a disability and working together to perform a task, and acting out scenarios that involve dealing with disabilities.
After every activity, Uzzell led the Scouts in a period of reflection to talk about what they learned and how they felt. The reflection period, she said, “gave the Scouts the wherewithal to not only get to know people with disabilities, but to talk to others in a meaningful way and to be honest. Even if those feelings made them uncomfortable. It also gave the Scouts with disabilities a chance to discuss their feelings too.”
Uzzell, who is also an active member of the Evanston Sunrise Lions Club and on the board of the Center for Independent Futures, believes in doing what makes you feel uncomfortable. As she said in her brief remarks after receiving her award, “Disability awareness education … is using what I thought were my greatest weaknesses to change hearts.”
Uzzell has led by example in Scouting. She shared the story of how at a summer camp outing, she conquered the climbing wall by climbing up slowly and carefully to a height of 75 feet.
“My wrists were sore for a month, but I did it,” she said. “Later I heard from one of the other mothers that when she asked her son what was the highlight of his six weeks at camp, he burst out with, ‘Mrs. Uzzell climbed the wall!’ That’s when I knew I had made a difference.”