Working with Online Volunteers who have Disabilities

Online volunteering programs can allow for the greater participation of people who might find volunteering difficult or impossible because of a disability. This in turn allows organizations to benefit from the additional talent and resources of more volunteers, and allows agencies to further diversify their volunteer talent pool.

Just as building designs can help persons in wheelchairs to navigate doorways, there are ways to accommodate persons with disabilities to serve in virtual volunteering programs.

Harris poll results from June of 2000 report that 48 percent of people with disabilities who have access to the Internet believe that it has significantly improved their quality of life, compared 27 percent of the adults without disabilities. Therefore, people with disabilities already see the true value of online communications, and are in a prime position to provide volunteering via the Internet.

People with disabilities volunteer for the same reasons as anyone else: they want to contribute their time and energy to improving the quality of life. They want challenging, rewarding, educational service projects that address needs of a community and provide them with outlets for their enthusiasm and talents.

One benefit of virtual volunteering programs is that such programs allow for the participation of people who might find volunteering difficult or impossible because of a disability. It also allows organizations to benefit from additional talent and resources of more volunteers.

People with disabilities who volunteer, online or onsite, are first and foremost volunteers, not disabled volunteers. Bringing people with disabilities into a volunteer program should be conducted in the same spirit as it is for those without disabilities. Just as with all volunteers, consider people with disabilities first and foremost as individuals with specific talents and resources to offer your agency. A volunteer's disability should only be considered in the context of deciding what accommodations will work best for that volunteer. If your organization is mindful of its actions, attitudes and behaviors regarding working with people with disabilities, you can create an environment at your agency where all volunteers feel welcomed. Think about a person you know with a disability you know personally, such as a relative. You probably see this person as an individual, a friend, a father, a mother, a cousin -- a person first. Keep this "person first" attitude with your volunteers, regardless of their disability.

Suggestions for Working with Volunteers who have Disabilities

How do you proceed when someone contacts you about a virtual volunteering opportunity as a result of your outreach to disabled communities? In the same way you would with any other person who says they want to volunteer with you: determine the person's interest and ability. Base the matching of the volunteer to a project based upon the person's ability and desire, not the person's disability.

The clearer the task description, the less-likely a volunteer will get into an assignment he or she cannot do, for whatever reason. Provide an accurate task description to volunteer candidates explaining the duties and demands of each volunteer assignment, and resources/experience they will need to have.

 

Encourage volunteers do some self-evaluation and self-screening when looking for volunteer opportunities. Just as you should with any volunteer candidate, ask candidates if they think they can do the assignment, if there is any part of the assignment that might prove particularly difficult to them, and if there is something you can do to help make this easier.

Your volunteer application should NOT ask about disabilities. Not only could this be a violation of the American Disabilities Act, it gives the impression that you match volunteers to assignments based on what they can't do, rather than what you can. Your volunteer application should also not ask people's age! For more information about volunteer applications, visit some of the Web sites listed on our Index of Online Resources for Volunteer Managers.

Base your matching of volunteers to assignments on the applicants' abilities, not their disabilities. Ask a volunteer what her or his limits are, and consult resources on disabilities, before making assumptions about what they cannot do.

Recruiting Volunteers with Disabilities

Before you start recruiting volunteers for your organization, you need to make sure you are ready to place these volunteers immediately into an orientation, intitial evaluation and assignment-matching process. If you are not to ready to start immediately matching volunteers with assignments, you are not ready to recruit volunteers. The Virtual Volunteering Project has a self-evaluation to help you determine if you are ready to institute an online volunteering program.

You can reach people with disabilities via your general virtual volunteering recruitment methods. However, there are several ways you can outreach specifically to these audiences. Send your volunteer opportunities to:

  • schools that work specifically with disabled populations
  • independent living centers
  • vocational rehabilitation agencies
  • disability service groups
  • regional offices of rehabilitation services of the department of Health, Education and Welfare.
  • Internet discussion groups, as appropriate

Your recruitment message should be the same as it is for all volunteers, in that it should explicitly state that the organization is committed to placing individuals into the volunteer setting which best matches their interests with the needs of the organization.

Welcoming Volunteers with Disabilities

In addition to training staff in involving volunteers virtually, we encourage your entire staff to become familiar with readily-available guidelines for working with people with disabilities, and to consider having staff go through training in disability awareness and etiquette. Such guidelines and training can help your staff make welcome people with a variety of disabilities.

The most difficult obstacles to surmount for a person with a disability can be the attitudes of others, such as prejudice and stereotyping. An important part of your organization's efforts to welcome and actively recruit people with disabilities as volunteers is to get a sense of your own and your staff's sensitivity to and knowledge about people with disabilities. Youth Volunteer Corps provides two questionnaires to help you measure your own and your staff's views of people with disabilities: Scale of Attitudes towards Disabled Persons (SADP), and the Disability Quotient Questionnaire, as well as excercises to encourage staff discussions. These worksheets are available by calling Youth Volunteer Corps at 913-864-4095.

Conversation

  • Take a person-first approach to working with volunteers who have disabilities. A volunteer's disability should only be considered in the context of deciding what accommodations will work best for that volunteer.
  • If the disability isn't germane to the story or conversation, don't mention it.
  • Make reference to the person first, then the disability. Say "a person with a disability" rather than "a disabled person." The latter is acceptable in the interest of conserving print space or saving announcing time.
  • A person is not a condition, so avoid describing a person as such. Don't present someone as "an epileptic" or "a post polio". Instead, say "a person with epilepsy" or "a person who has had polio."
  • The term "handicapped" comes from the image of a person standing on the corner with a cap in hand, begging for money. A disability is a functional limitation that interferes with a person's ability to walk, hear, talk, learn, etc. Use "handicap" to describe a situation or barrier imposed by society, the environment or oneself.
  • Remember, a person who has a disability isn't necessarily chronically sick or unhealthy. He or she is often just disabled.
  • Don't assume that a volunteer with a sight-impairment can read Braille. Many people with such impairments acquired them later in life, and never learned Braille.
  • When speaking about people with disabilities, emphasize their achievements, abilities and individual qualities. Portray them as they are in real life: as parents, employees, business owners, etc.
  • Relax. Don't be embarrassed if you use common expressions such as "See ya later" or "Gotta run."

Accommodations

Volunteers with disabilities probably know more about assistive technologies -- software and hardware that allows them to surf the 'Net, write documents, etc. -- and how to obtain such technologies, than you do. Still, it's a good idea to be aware of some of the tools out there; it will help you see just how much a person can help your organization via the Internet regardless of physical disability.

  • If you are uncertain about the wants or needs of a volunteer with a disability, ask! Give volunteers opportunities to tell you what changes might need to be made.
  • Remember in your Web site design that people with disabilities use special tools to browse the Web, and these tools can be confused by some Web site designs and functions. Impact Online has information and links to tools to help you make your Web site accessible to as many users as possible.
  • When planning events which could involve persons with disabilities, consider their needs before choosing a location.

 

Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation (MEAF) awarded grants to the Virtual Volunteering Project in 1998 and 1999 to help us document and promote ways for agencies to involve and accommodate volunteers with disabilities. MEAF staff also act as active participants in the projects the Foundation supports, and the Foundation encourages all grantees to collaborate on various activities. We are most grateful for their support.