Working with Volunteers with Disabilities
by Jamie Schecter
VAN’s November Professional Gathering highlighted strategies to engage and support volunteers living with disabilities. For the most part, working with volunteers with disabilities is very similar to working with the rest of your volunteers in that some need additional support and some do not. The main purpose of this topic was to show that working with volunteers with disabilities is not as daunting as it seems and can be rewarding for the volunteer, the agency, and the community as a whole.
Agencies are expected to make accommodations that don’t pose an undue burden for volunteers with disabilities. This doesn’t mean retrofitting your building to include ramps and elevators for a volunteer, but it might be as simple as providing a chair for a volunteer who can’t stand for long periods of time. One example given was an agency purchased a head set for a volunteer who could not hold a phone for an extended period of time. There’s also the option of coming up with creative project solutions, like having your volunteer host a food drive or work remotely.
Volunteers with disabilities face barriers to volunteer opportunities. These barriers are varied; mobility, communication methods, lack of knowledge from isolation, and on and on. As you can imagine these barriers are also present in the search for employment and at least partly explains why people with disabilities face higher rates of unemployment. Therefore, making the connection between volunteering and employment is critical when engaging and retaining volunteers with disabilities. Be willing to act as a reference or introduce them to people at events if they are present. Let them know you’re valuing their work and want to help them with their goals as best you can.
Overall, this Gathering generated a lot of helpful ideas and discussion about engaging volunteers with disabilities. One comment made towards the end conveyed that this process is a process of continuous education: for volunteers, for your staff, and for yourself.
Can Do! Volunteering - tips for working with volunteers with disabilities
Division of Vocational Rehabilitation – information on staff trainings
[ed note - Jamie and her colleagues did a great job hosting and facilitating this gathering. If you would like to host and/or faciliate a Profession Gathering in 2014, please let Jennifer know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You won't regret it!]