Harnessing disabled people’s ability to volunteer

When you ask most people whether disabled people should be given the same opportunities as non-disabled people, they’ll probably say yes. Sadly, disabled people are much less likely to volunteer, but we can take steps to improve the situation by pushing for government funding to improve accessibility for disabled volunteers, and promoting a code of good practice for working with disabled people.

Disability and employment

There is a substantial gap between the employment rates of working age people with disabilities and in the general population, respectively 51% and 73% between May and July 2014.

However, the rights of disabled people in employment are safeguarded by the Equality Act 2010, which defines nine protected characteristics. To improve workplace accessibility, the government-funded Access to Work scheme pays for adaptations such as assistive technology or support workers; in 2013/14, £108m was used to support 35,450 people to work. I have used it twice, and can vouch for it offering disabled people opportunities which may not have been accessible without the financial support.

Disability and volunteering

We are also underrepresented in volunteering roles; only 38% of people with a disability or long-term limiting illness participate in formal volunteering, compared to 46% with no disability. With so many more disabled people out of employment as well, one might expect the number of disabled volunteers to be significantly higher.

But, unlike in employment, the Equality Act does not apply to volunteers. Disabled volunteers have  no formal protection under the law. Similarly, there is no permanent equivalent to the Access to Work fund for volunteers.

In 2009/10, a pilot Access to Volunteering fund worth £2m supported approximately 7,000 people, an estimated 67% of whom were new to volunteering. The fund, however, has not been repeated in subsequent years. You can read more about the fund in Jim Edwards’ blog post.

Benefits of volunteering for disabled people

Volunteering can have significant benefits for the volunteer. Much debated among these is improved employability. While the type of volunteering that people do is likely to reflect inherent social inequalities, and the evidence directly linking volunteering and employability is limited, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that volunteers can gain new skills, increased confidence, and general improvements in health, well-being and happiness. These things in themselves can put people in a better position to find employment.

For disabled people, who are already less strongly represented in the workplace and thus struggle more to develop the necessary skills for employment, volunteering roles often provide essential opportunities in a more person-centric environment. In the report evaluating the Access to Volunteering pilot fund, 30% of grant-receiving organisations identified increased confidence among the disabled volunteers, and 16% said that volunteering had allowed the disabled volunteers to enter employment.

The benefits of engaging disabled volunteers

By properly appreciating and harnessing the diversity, volunteer-involving organisations can help to improve understanding of accessibility issues for disabled people and break down false perceptions or stereotypes held in society. This in turn creates a more welcoming environment for volunteers identifying as disabled.

Involving disabled volunteers, as well as providing additional skills and new insights to the volunteer-involving organisations, strengthens inter- and intra-community relationships within the communities that they operate.

Helping disabled people to volunteer

To create open and inclusive volunteering opportunities, it is essential to address both of the areas in which support is lacking for disabled volunteers.

Making reasonable adjustments must be made possible, as in the workplace

NCVO’s 2015 Manifesto calls for a reintroduction of the piloted Access to Volunteering fund on a wider scale. This will enable volunteering to be more inclusive without putting financial strain on volunteer-involving organisations themselves. If your organisation benefitted from the 2009/10 pilot and would be willing to provide a case study outlining your experience, I would love to hear from you; email me at abigail.kay@ncvo.org.uk.

Reinforcing inclusivity within the culture of volunteer-involving organisations

This should include areas not covered by equality legislation. It is with this aim in mind that the Disability Action Alliance, together with CSV and Disability Rights UK, launched its volunteering charter in December 2014.

The charter outlines a set of best practice principles for promoting a disability-friendly volunteering environment, and I strongly encourage your organisation to sign up. For more information, please contact fulfilling.potential@dwp.gsi.gov.uk.

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Abigail was NCVO’s trainee volunteering policy officer. She volunteers at the Separated Child Foundation where she's managing their team of volunteers.

12 Responses to Harnessing disabled people’s ability to volunteer

  1. Diane R. says:

    What about volunteering when on benefits, though? on a recent visit to the Job Centre to sign-on I perhaps inadvertently mentioned ‘volunteering’ and was immediately presented with a whole booklet to bring next time. Although ostensibly, they said, to prevent employers using volunteers for what should be paid work, the booklet was clear on the back page (with the office notes) that volunteering could be regarded as ‘unreasonable’ and/ or in any case, a decision referred to Decision Makers. I’ve given up volunteering since, as felt I couldn’t risk even the possibility, in this current climate, of either a delay/ cessation of benefits or worse, an excuse for a sanction (having been sanctioned by a Work Programme in past due to volunteering).

    There was much made on the form re. ‘appropriateness’ of the volunteer opportunity re. help in finding a job. Well, as an ex-health professional myself and also with a disability, I know that the conservation-type work I did, at occasional weekends, for a charity, had many psychosocial, therapeutic and physical benefits re. Health and Well-being and the social isolation which now befalls me, sat on my own all day at a computer doing Jobsearch. But, it isn’t really related to my job search in a professional field – so I felt I couln’t take that risk.

    Have you any advice on this issue? I think it is the DWP leaflet on your site re. Volunteering and Benefits which dates back to 2010. But much has changed, in culture, re. sanctions, etc., since then……

    • Abigail Kay says:

      Dear Diane,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I’m sorry to hear you’ve had this experience. NCVO is unable to comment on individual cases, so I’m afraid that I can’t offer any specific advice on the challenges you’ve faced.

      We have been assured by DWP that the leaflet you mention (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/264508/dwp1023.pdf) is still valid, but we do recognise that there can be occasions when the guidance is not uniformly implemented across all Jobcentre Plus centres. If you have concerns about volunteering whilst on benefits, we would suggest that you speak with your advisor to ensure that the terms of your Jobseeker’s Agreement are clear.

      Good luck!

      Best wishes,

  2. Love this article and hope it’s ok to share via my Volunteer Centre blog as I think it’s really important to get people thinking differently, particularly volunteer-involving groups. Eileen

    • Abigail Kay says:

      Dear Eileen,

      Thank you for your feedback, and for sharing the post! I’m happy to see the discussions it raises among volunteer-involving organisations in a range of sectors.

      All the best,

  3. Graham says:

    Excellent article. I manage a project where half of the volunteers have additional needs, so much of my and my staff’s time is spent in supporting and coaching volunteers. The project has service delivery outcomes but one of the key outcomes for the project is the building of confidence and development of skills that can be used in other volunteering or employment and volunteers going on to this. I have trained 23 volunteers, 17 are active and of the 6 who have left, 5 of them have gone into college, education or other volunteering.

    • Abigail Kay says:

      Dear Graham,

      Thank you for your comment – I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      It’s very interesting to hear about your own experiences of supporting and developing volunteers. It sounds like a successful project, and it’s always encouraging to hear positive examples of volunteering supporting people into further education or training!

      Best wishes,

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  6. Rob Jackson says:

    There is much here that is good and I support NCVO’s call to bring back the access to volunteering programme.

    However, we have to be really careful when we say that disabled people are much less likely to volunteer. What we are actually saying is that we don’t see disabled people volunteering as much in formal volunteering and so we assume they don’t volunteer at all. They do! They do much that fall outside the definition of formal volunteering.

    To suggest or imply that only formal volunteering is valid volunteering for disabled people is to suggest that anything they already do doesn’t count and must be stopped so they can do what we want them to. That’s discrimination and exclusion of the worst kind in my view.

    See my blog from last year on this topic (http://robjackson.thirdsector.co.uk/2014/09/29/by-calling-for-diversity-we-disregard-existing-volunteers/) and Justin Davis Smith’s remarks on this from last year too (http://blogs.ncvo.org.uk/2014/11/21/volunteering-for-all/).

    • Abigail Kay says:

      Dear Rob,

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment. It’s good to have my thoughts challenged.

      It’s certainly true that disabled people are involved in informal volunteering as well as formal volunteering, but there are no specific statistics available for informal volunteering and disability in the Community Life Survey (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/community-life-survey-2013-to-2014-data ), the primary source of data for volunteering statistics. As a result, it’s much harder to draw conclusions about their level of engagement in these types of volunteering. It’s definitely not my belief that informal volunteering is less valuable than formal volunteering, nor that disabled volunteers engaged in informal activities are doing anything of any less value than those volunteering formally, and as an organisation, we encourage people to be engaged in as wide a variety of volunteering opportunities as possible. In this blog, though, I focus primarily on formal volunteering because that’s where there is the most data available.

      If anyone has any data or evidence on informal action carried out by disabled people, however, we would love to hear from them, as this topic needs further exploration.

      All the best,

  7. Kerry Williams, DAA Secretariat says:

    Many thanks to Abigail for promoting the volunteering charter. You can join the Disability Action Alliance and sign up to the volunteering charter by clicking on the following links http://disabilityactionalliance.org.uk/join-our-alliance/ and http://disabilityactionalliance.org.uk/volunteer-charter/.

    The Disability Action Alliance (DAA) now has nearly 400 member organisations from the voluntary, public and private sectors, that want to work in partnership to take action to make a real difference to the lives of disabled people.

    The volunteering charter has resulted from the hard work of some of the DAA members, led by Disability Rights UK and CSV. The charter aims to increase the number, value and accessibility of opportunities for disabled people to volunteer their time, skills and experience.

    The charter sets out core principles that host organisations and volunteers themselves can sign up to. The impact of the charter will depend on the number of organisations that adopt it and the subsequent steps that they taka as a result of signing up so we urge your organisation to sign up now.

    Graham, the work you are doing sounds really interesting. Could you contact us [FULFILLING.POTENTIAL@DWP.GSI.GOV.UK] with some more information so that we can include it in our resource bank on the DAA website.

    Kerry Williams, DAA secretariat

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