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Is it too difficult for disabled people to find volunteering roles?

Aug 21, 2013
Is it too difficult for disabled people to find volunteering roles?

Many disabled people are experiencing a surprising level of difficulty in finding volunteering roles.

Research by Disability Rights UK and Community Service Volunteers has found evidence that many disabled people are experiencing a surprising level of difficulty in finding volunteering roles.


Earlier this year the organisations ran four seminars across England, interviewing disabled people to find out what barriers were stopping them from volunteering. Sue Bott, director of policy and development at Disability Rights UK, says that some who attended the sessions had been waiting for up to four years for a role.


'One of the main barriers is the attitude of organisations in the voluntary sector,' she says. 'There are a lot of assumptions about disabled people. Rather than thinking about what they can offer, organisations tend to imagine some of the perceived problems having disabled volunteers will cause them.'


But why is it important that charities ensure their volunteering is open to all, whether that be disabled people, people who are particularly young or old, or prisoners? And for charities that do want to make their volunteering more accessible, what types of considerations will they need to make?


Justin Davis Smith, executive director of volunteering and development at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, says that hiring a range of volunteers can have benefits for the charity and the volunteers themselves. 'There's a social justice issue here if only certain people can get the benefits of volunteering,' he says. 'And, if charities have a diverse volunteer group, the quality and reach into the communities that they serve will be enhanced.'


Lynn Green, head of volunteering at the Royal National Institute of Blind People says this is one of the many benefits the charity gets from taking on a wide range of volunteers. As part of this, of its 4,000 volunteers, Green says that 16% of them are blind or partially sighted.


'It can be quite difficult to get into some hard-to-reach communities with our services,' she says. 'But, if you have someone from that community volunteering for you, who is an ambassador for you, that can really help.'


Green says for other charities also thinking about taking on volunteers with disabilities one potential issue could be the cost of additional expertise or equipment that might be needed to support them. 'But, if that is part of your strategic goal, then surely the budget should be able to be found,' she says.


Indeed, Bott says that charities should be building things like access costs for all types of volunteers into their budgets for projects as standard. She adds that another potential financial consideration for charities is the payment of expenses. 'We found that more and more voluntary organisations won't pay volunteer expenses,' she says. 'That will discriminate against anyone who cannot cover their own costs, and many disabled people won't be able to do that.'


Davis Smith points out that taking on volunteers from vulnerable groups may not be as expensive as some imagine.


'The last government ran an access to volunteering fund that enabled charities to bid for money to make reasonable adjustments to enable everyone to be able to volunteer,' he says. 'The evidence from that fund showed that those adjustments don't have to cost the earth.'


He also agrees that it is important that charities pay volunteers' expenses, as not doing so can prevent people from lower socio-economic groups from volunteering.


Jemma Mindham, regional manager east of England for CSV, says charities should not be afraid to ask questions if they do not understand a potential volunteer's disability. 'If someone comes in in a wheelchair, don't assume you will need to change everything,' she says. 'And don't be afraid to go to other organisations that can help and advise you.' She adds that there are grants available to charities that are looking to make their volunteering more accessible.


The Big Lottery Fund says it is supportive of this. Shaun Walsh, deputy director of communications and marketing, says it encourages charities to recognise all costs when applying for funding.


Another area for careful consideration when trying to attract a range of volunteers is recruitment. Caroline Cook, project manager for the Volunteering for Stronger Communities project at the NCVO, which is working to get more people who would not normally volunteer into volunteering roles, says charities should not only recruit online.


'Different methods of recruitment attract different types of people – digital doesn't work for everyone,' she says. 'Try using your local volunteer centre.'


And she says that volunteer centres can also be a useful source of training for volunteer managers – something she says is crucial when taking on volunteers from vulnerable groups. 'Part of this is just about the manager becoming more confident in having upfront conversations with potential volunteers, so that they are not afraid of bringing up the fact that there might be some support needs for that person,' she says.


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