Real people with real issues: Working with disabled volunteers

I am currently pre-occupied by the generally enjoyable post-HODs activity of ‘reading the feedback’: positive, negative, insightful, useful, frustrating, well deserved. As part of this process I have been looking at the transcript of an interview with a Heritage Open Days volunteer from Gosport who is passionate and knowledgeable about local history, keen to use her skills and time on a worthwhile project and who also happens to be disabled.

© Esther Gill - A handling session at Explosion! The Museum of Naval Firepower. Developed with support from the Gosport Access and Inclusion Group.

Her thoughts on what she has brought to the HODs programme – a mix of energy, enthusiasm and the perspective of a ‘real person with real issues’ – along with her acknowledgement of what she has gained from the programme – confidence, an opportunity to re-use dormant skills, pleasure – has given me heart that the work of Creative Landscapes, the sometimes jargon-heavy, 'multi-agency' project that I manage, can make a difference on the ground, both for Heritage Open Days and for the individuals involved with it. She comments that: "Having been disabled from work, I’d been interested in the campaigning aspect of disability, but what I hadn’t done was really the hands on stuff,  well, what do people need? For me that was really quite an eye opener."

It was an eye opener for me too, so, on that note, I thought that I would pull together some of my experiences over the last two years of recruiting and working with disabled volunteers. In no particular order, here are my reflections:

  • I have come to realise the rather obvious fact that disabled people are not a homogenous group whose lives are defined and proscribed solely by their disability. However, disabled people with varied impairments can often face difficulties in common when undertaking activities, such as volunteering, that many of us take for granted. One of the main challenges that they continue to face is the erroneous belief that it will be too difficult to incorporate disabled people into the work of our organisations. 
  • Disabled volunteers may need us to change the way we work to enable them to participate. For instance, I have had to change meeting venues to find somewhere that is accessible, hold meetings at a later time to allow for longer 'getting ready' time in the morning, start regularly using 14pt print in my documents. None of this is hard, but it has required me to change my habits.
  • Over the last year I have inadvertently started email controversies over disability terminology. Without meaning to offend, I have done. However, I have also found that you can't please everybody all of the time, so don't tie yourself up in knots over this, just be respectful. For guidance on this look at the Office for Disability Issues guidance on inclusive language.
  • Disabled volunteers can really put your access arrangements to the test: ‘it needs real people with real issues’ to do this. I have made the most of this, checking out things like the colour contrast on publications.
  • Think on this fact:  at present, around 19% of the adult population of working age are disabled, but only 50% of them are in employment (figures courtesy of the Disability Living Foundation). Disabled people are also less likely to be involved in formal volunteering than non-disabled people. This is an opportunity worth exploring for the benefit of both parties. 
  • When recruiting disabled volunteers I have found that the most effective approach is to go and meet groups of disabled people – your local your local voluntary sector network may be able to help with this – where you can talk about what you are looking for and also what they would be interested in. This is also an opportunity to instill confidence that you are serious about recruiting disabled people. 
  • It’s worth looking for local organisations that provide supported volunteering for disabled people (see the work of the Aldingbourne Trust in Sussex). This is not only a good way to find volunteers, but it is again another opportunity to link into the wider community.
  • I suspect that a really effective way to involve more disabled people generally in HODs will be to start looking at disability history. This is still a largely unexplored area at present, but with some interesting new projects starting up such as the Sussex Deaf History project.
  • Disabled volunteers in Gosport have helped the programme to attract new audiences through devising events such as the Accessible Jolly Bus Tours. A Gosport volunteer commented: "The Jolly Accessible Bus tours have been wonderful. The reason is I think they have really made a great difference to, maybe only a small amount of people, but people who’d have never of come to HODs events without it."
  • And finally, disabled volunteers are great ambassadors for HODs, promoting it to groups and networks that you may never have thought of and who can represent a significant new audience. I have found that a pitch to a group about how accessible Heritage Open Days is, comes so much better from somebody who actually understands some of the same life challenges.

For more online resources, try Volunteering England's Good Practice Bank.