Here in Australia, more than one in every six people have a significant disability of some description. Unfortunately, we all too often label people with disabilities unfairly. I am reminded of an advertising campaign written several years ago that included the title "Don't judge what I can do by what you think I can't."
How could this statement challenge us to investigate better ways to attract people with disabilities into our programs? Firstly, let's explore some of the barriers facing disabled persons wishing to volunteer.
Statistics. We sometimes forget that each 'statistic' is actually a living, breathing person. It is important to understand that each person is unique - for instance, just because two people are deemed to be 'legally blind' does not mean that they have the same level or degree of functional sight.
Views of people with a disability. Focusing only on the perceived difficulties a disabled volunteer may bring, rather than the reality and positives of each involvement, will only ever succeed in setting a new volunteer up for failure.
People with a disability are often seen to be more appropriate as service recipients. The ability of people with disabilities to provide services is often completely overlooked. It is important to ensure that everyone on your team sees the involvement of disabled volunteers positively.
Perceived difficulties (such as the cost of changing physical environments to suit disabled persons). Stating that a vision-impaired person is unable to be involved in administrative work forgets that there is a wide range of vision aids, software programs and hardware readily available.
Despite disability discrimination legislation, there are still many barriers to people with disabilities being involved in the wider community. So what can we do to better tap into this significant resource?
Role outlines are still important. Look at the role required and the potential volunteer and create an appropriate 'fit' between with the person and their abilities. You might even like to look at your current volunteer roles and imagine how they would suit a person with a disability.
Treat each person as an individual and determine realistically whether they can do the job.
Don't underestimate a person with a disability. They might exhibit a higher level of commitment and dedication than someone without a recognized disability. Face your own 'fears'. Be honest with yourself, and try to admit preconceived ideas or 'black spots' in your thinking which may restrict your placement of a person with a disability.
It may be appropriate to do some preparation with other staff and volunteers before introducing a person with a disability into their new role. Also consider the value of having another volunteer mentor the person with a disability when they first get started.
Make good use of organizations and colleagues who already work with people who have disabilities. They will have skills and depth of knowledge which you may not be able to access normally, and may also be able to offer you training, disability awareness sessions, support staff or even provide adaptive equipment or assistance in other areas.
Making your program more attractive to people with disabilities not only has the potential to provide a rewarding experience - it will also ensure your program is more closely representative of the community in which you work.
By Peter Heyworth.
Reprinted from Turn Your Organisation Into A Volunteer Magnet, 2nd edition (ed. Fryar, Jackson & Dyer) 2007
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