The Right of People with Disabilities to Volunteer

One of the projects I took on when I started my internship, this year, was to assist a program for people with disabilities who would like to find meaningful volunteer opportunities in our community. I had no idea that this would be one of the biggest challenges I would face.

The program is actually a respite program for adults with disabilities. The amazing participants in the program have a desire to be involved in their community through volunteerism. While many may only think of people with disabilities as being the recipients of volunteer service, it is important to remember that people with disabilities are just that – people. They have needs, rights and aspirations, just like the rest of us. And like many people without disabilities, many people who have disabilities desire to volunteer.

Unfortunately, after contacting numerous nonprofit agencies in the area, I have not been very successful at finding volunteer opportunities for people with disabilities. I’d like to note that last year, I served as an AmeriCorps member in a volunteer center. The whole premise of my position was to help volunteers and nonprofits make meaningful connections. I am very experienced and skilled in making these connections. So, what is the problem?

Very simply put, the problem is discrimination. I never heard the claim that agencies have “too many volunteers” as often as I do, now. Since when? Last year, I dealt with agencies constantly facing volunteer shortage crises. There were never enough volunteers. I am doubtful that within one year, nonprofits suddenly became inundated with volunteers en masse.

More likely, volunteer coordinators may be afraid that people who have disabilities will require constant management or that the volunteers will somehow be incapable of performing whatever assignments they take on. Instead of focusing on the abilities of their potential volunteers (including the ability to be trained to perform an activity), they choose to think negatively about people they haven’t even met. This is an active violation of the rights of people who have disabilities. While many nonprofits make it a point to claim that “diversity” is important to them, it apparently is not a value held by many that I have made contact with.

How is the denial of volunteer opportunities for people with disabilities a violation of their rights? The federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits any agency that receives federal assistance from discrimination on the basis of disability. This is not limited to education or employment. Therefore, it is required of these agencies to make reasonable accommodations to volunteers with disabilities, just as they would for volunteers without any disabilities.

I am disappointed. It has been a very sobering experience to attempt to give away free labor by willing and capable volunteers, simply because some volunteer coordinators aren’t willing to move beyond their own biases. I challenge those who coordinate volunteers for their agencies to be self-aware and examine their own preconceived notions regarding the rights of people with disabilities to volunteer and contribute to their community. Personally, I have made it my mission to raise awareness of this issue in hopes of improving my community – a community that should embrace its diversity and refuse to discriminate based on what someone can’t do.

Written by: Jacqui Plumb, MSW Candidate

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