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.

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