Access to Volunteering could do much more than increase the number of volunteers

Jim Edwards is the Chair of the UK Council on Deafness. This post was commissioned as part of Volunteers’ Week 2014.

There’s one big difference between the current Access to Work scheme and the 2009 Access to Volunteering fund.

Both aim to make sure disabled people have equal access, either to work or volunteering, by providing practical support. That might mean equipment, transport, a support worker or awareness training. But, they take different approaches to who needs that support:

  • Access to Work is aimed at the employee – they have to contact Access to Work and tell them what support they need.
  • Access to Volunteering was aimed at the volunteer involving organisation – they had to make the application, explaining how they would use the money and the benefits it would lead to.

In many cases, the employee does all the administration associated with their Access to Work claim. They have to do more work than a colleague in the same role who isn’t disabled. Their access to employment, while improved, is not equal.

The volunteer recruited with the help of Access to Volunteering funds did – in principle –enjoy equal access. Like someone who wasn’t disabled, they just had to turn up and volunteer.

The difference is one of attitude. Is it the disabled person who needs to make an adjustment, or the organisation?

If we say it is the disabled person, we declare it is their responsibility to make sure they can access society. It is their disability, it is the disability that creates a barrier.

If we say it is the organisation, we declare it is the organisation’s responsibility to make sure a disabled person can access its employment or volunteering. It is the organisation that creates barriers, it is the organisation that dis-ables the individual.

Organisations that adopt the latter view benefit from diversity. Diverse organisations are better an innovating, problem solving and being creative.

Society also benefits. If people from different backgrounds and with different abilities work alongside each other, they understand each other better. That leads to better and happier communities.

It is therefore for its attitude, as well as its ability to increase the number of disabled people volunteering, that the UK Council on Deafness hopes the Access to Volunteering fund is reintroduced. It sends the message that organisations must alter themselves so disabled people can fit into them, not the other way round.

And short term funding can lead to long term change. Awareness training for staff and volunteers develops the organisation’s knowledge and understanding. The way things are done – such as advertising roles or holding events – are altered forever. Equipment is available for many people to use.

A few things will need to be improved. But most importantly, the fund needs to be targeted at organisations that are not prepared for involving disabled volunteers.

Most of the organisations awarded funds five years ago were disability and welfare charities, which are more able than most to involve a diverse group of people. All areas of society could benefit from greater involvement of disabled people.

Because, again, the greatest potential benefit is not any practical improvement, but a shift in attitude. Once that has taken hold, everything else follows much more easily.

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