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Creating inclusive volunteer opportunities for individuals with disabilities

By Jennifer Cable

Felicia Lee, a Ramsey County 4-H volunteer
The interest and desire to volunteer is evident in Minnesota. In Minnesota 4-H, over 6,000 volunteers contributed their time, talents and strengths to the 4-H community during the 2020-2021 program year. Motivations for volunteering with 4-H  include supporting a child in 4-H, helping others and making a difference.

Felicia Lee (pictured), a Ramsey County 4-H volunteer, says she seeks out opportunities where she is able to work with youth. For Lee, volunteering has helped her gain different life skills such as communication, creative thinking, self-awareness, and being able to connect with good people.

While motivation for volunteering remains high, individuals with disabilities are underrepresented in volunteer agencies. One U.S. study found that individuals with disabilities account for only 5.7% of the current volunteer pool. Considering the fact that 26% of the U.S. population has some type of disability, a disparity exists between the number of people with disabilities volunteering and those that could potentially be volunteering. 

This lends the question, why is there such a disparity in volunteerism among individuals with disabilities? Research identifies lack of knowledge, lack of funds for accessibility and recruitment efforts as some of the key barriers to volunteerism within the disability community. Equally as important is considering the societal assumption that individuals with disabilities can only receive services rather than provide them. Research on volunteer coordinators suggests that staff can be skeptical-if not patronizing-of volunteers with disabilities. As a youth worker and staff myself, I think it’s important to challenge these assumptions and stereotypes and really examine our own biases and perceptions. Are we truly valuing what each individual uniquely brings to the volunteer experience?

“I identify myself as having a disability (profoundly deaf) for a long time now. I have come to find that my disability doesn’t define who I am. It is the whole fabric of my being and I’m proud of it,” says Lee. Lee, who has been volunteering with 4-H for a few years now, has enjoyed her experience. “4-H has greatly provided accommodations for me to navigate this interactive process. They have made 4-H a disability-inclusive workplace.”

While Lee’s experience has been a positive one, I recognize there’s still much room for growth within the organization. How can we ensure we are representing our communities from the young people we support to the adult volunteers we engage? How are we bringing an equity and inclusion lens to our volunteer pathways within 4-H?

"Inclusive volunteering" - that which explicitly provides opportunities for people with disabilities within volunteer agencies- has been shown to benefit volunteers with and without disabilities by increasing social interaction, positive attitude change and professional development.

Strategies 

The Arc Minnesota developed inclusive volunteering web pages, which include concrete strategies for including people with disabilities in volunteer programs. While this list was developed for including individuals with intellectual disabilities in volunteer programs, I believe these tips can translate more broadly and better equip youth workers and organizations to grow in their equity and inclusion efforts.

  1. Presume that volunteers with disabilities can competently do volunteer work - Be as clear as possible to communicate your organization’s needs and the volunteer work required.
  2. Use respectful and inclusive language in training your volunteers - United Spinal provides a tip sheet with more information on respectful language and how to respectfully interact with people with disabilities; when we know better, we do better. 
  3. Plan for success with the volunteer and their supporters - Be thoughtful in your volunteer plans and consider the tasks and training involved in the volunteer opportunity. What accommodations might need to be considered and/or made? Are there mentorship opportunities available to your volunteer? What barriers exist and how can I actively seek to reduce or eliminate them?
  4. Ask the volunteer and their supporters what works best for them to overcome challenges - We all experience challenges and have unique and diverse ways of learning. Seek collaborative solutions and ideas. The Job Accommodation Network is a wonderful resource to consider. 
  5. Consider the career pathways for your volunteer - Share job opportunities with your volunteer!

How are we creating volunteer pathways for individuals with disabilities? How can you apply some of the strategies above to your work?

-- Jennifer Cable, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.


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Comments

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful perspective. Volunteering should always be an equal opportunity endeavor!

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  2. Great strategies and resources! Transportation is also a barrier for many people with disabilities. Encouraging people with disabilities to volunteer and lead when they're young, such as in their 4-H clubs, is a great way to show everyone their abilities and change perspectives.

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  3. Great strategies and resources! Transportation is also a barrier for many people with disabilities. Encouraging people to volunteer or lead when they're young is a great way to show others their abilities and change people's perspectives.

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  4. Jennifer, thank you so much for this important contribution. Thank you for highlighting the personal and organizational work that leaders of volunteers can do to build a more inclusive volunteer system. I really appreciate that you speak to the role that leaders of volunteers play in validating or invalidating the contributions of prospective volunteers with disabilities. As a leader of volunteers myself, I'm really interested in reviewing the research you shared and improving my own knowledge/practice. Special thanks to Lee for sharing their story and to you for leading this important conversation.

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  5. Thanks for bringing up this important topic! There is definitely a lack of volunteers with disabilities within our youth development program. I think that one of the key reasons is as you pointed out is the societal assumption that individuals with disabilities can only receive, rather than provide services. Sometimes, it can be a struggle to always see the unique contributions that someone can make when their disability may be so much more visible. It really comes down to assuming competence in everyone regardless of their abilities. Other key reasons for the lack of volunteering are also likely very much due to a lack of available accommodations and not having a way to physically get to the location of the volunteer opportunity (especially for those who may not be able to drive themselves). I appreciate you pointing out this volunteer disparity and hope that as a system our organization can do better to actively and impactfully engage more volunteers with disabilities.

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