People with disabilities volunteer all over the world in a variety of different fields. They care for children at orphanages in Nepal, they provide disaster relief, they teach English, and much more. Yet there exists a set of unique challenges confronted by members of this minority group, and the program staff that work with them.
Many of the issues faced by volunteers with disabilities stem from systemic barriers which can be fixed with planning and teamwork. Some of these include:
- The assumption that assisting volunteers with disabilities is prohibitively expensive and burdensome.
- The misconception that cultural or structural differences make certain developing countries off-limits to people with disabilities.
- The feeling on the part of volunteer program staff that they lack the resources to incorporate volunteers with disabilities.
- Inaccessible application processes screen out people with disabilities, in particular those who are Deaf, blind, or with intellectual disabilities.
- A dearth of outreach to the disability community, and by not seeing themselves in recruitment efforts, people with disabilities assume that these are not programs for them.
Yet, volunteers with disabilities possess a unique set of skills and experiences, which enable them to enhance the impact of development organizations around the world, while modeling American values of resourcefulness and inclusion. They have a lot to offer your program such as:
- An understanding of interdependence – placing community members as active players in their development rather than passive recipients of charity.
- An expanded idea of what is possible.
- Unique skills acquired as a result of their disability experience.
“As a result of working with Melissa, I learned to be more persistent and ask questions that I might not have thought to ask before: I also realized that there are many resources available to us, in all situations and systems, that we don’t use. Understanding those systems and learning how to tap into resources is a very powerful tool in and of itself.” Elijah Wood, colleague of an American Foreign Language Assistant with disabilities.
Despite common misconceptions, most people with disabilities need little to no assistance, and it does not take that much work to include the rest to do. Incorporate these simple steps into your program.
If cultural or disability assumptions arise when seeking access solutions and arranging disability-related services at an overseas location, the tips found on our “Cultural Differences & Disability” can help achieve a positive response. Also, encourage the volunteer with the disability to think through scenarios and how they may react and handle these cultural interactions abroad. The tipsheet “Strategies for Addressing Cultural Disability Differences” is a place for them to begin. See Related Resources for these links.
Identify the terrain in your volunteer sites. Your host country partners can connect with national disability organizations to find this information. Ask about:
- Physical access features including ramps, curb cuts, building entrances
- Charging facilities which could be used for wheelchairs, computers with assistive software or refrigerators for medications
- Housing facilities including wide entrances, toilets, tables and beds
- Popular transportation options including buses, bicycles, motorcycles
Make the information widely available to anybody learning about your programs. This will enable prospective applicants to educate themselves on what to expect, while sending the message that it is safe for them to disclose any reasonable accommodation needs that they might have.
Make sure that people with disabilities are not being screened out by inaccessible online forms or volunteer portals. The entity that maintains your website should be a useful resource for better understanding accessibility of websites and online applications.
Budget accordingly. Setting aside 1% or 2% of your operating budget will help cover reasonable accommodations. Most cost little to nothing, and some more costly accommodations, such as wheelchair ramps, may only need to be done once or can be portable if needed in more than one location.
Include positive depictions of people with disabilities in your promotion materials along with other diverse groups. Provide a diversity statement clearly noting that diverse volunteers such as people of color, LGBTQ groups, people with disabilities, older people, and others are encouraged to apply. Outreach to the disability community through organizations like Mobility International USA and learn about other disability organizations under “Related Links” below.
Communicate values of inclusion and interdependence to prospective volunteers, supporters and host country partners. Include positive depictions of people with disabilities in your promotion materials, and share stories of success on your webpage. Emphasize the unique contributions that disabled volunteers will make rather than the alleged work involved in including them.
Keep in touch with alumni with disabilities. Former participants of your programs are your best advocates. They can provide guidance to enhance your inclusion efforts, unique insights about the host country that staff might not know about, and of course stories to feature in your program materials. You can also take a count of the number of people with disabilities that have participated in your program along with other diverse groups as a way of demonstrating to prospective volunteers and funders that you access the full range of skills and abilities of U.S. society.
Facilitate conversations between the individual with the disability, host country staff and the home office. The participant knows his or her disability best and can tell you:
- What equipment, services or strategies they currently use in daily life
- Which of these will be portable overseas (he or she may need to research this)
- How he or she anticipates navigating the transportation, housing, programmatic aspects, languages, and other differences in the environment abroad
Enter into these conversations with curiosity of how this could work, and a belief that it is possible. After all, people with disabilities live in every community and country worldwide, and thousands are participating in international exchanges each year.
You are an expert on the program. Share about key aspects of interest, and things that might be relevant based on what you are learning from the volunteer. Avoid jumping to evaluative conclusions which could be based in misguided assumptions.
Do not be surprised if participants don’t need accommodations. Often times people with disabilities bring their own assistive devices and require little assistance from others. Some examples of equipment that people with disabilities can bring include
- wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, or canes;
- computers with assistive software
- smart phones with assistive applications
Think broadly about the resources of the organization, its partners and the participant. Buildings with no steps can be made accessible with portable ramps, homemade wood ramps, motorcycle ramps to ramps specifically designed for wheelchair use. Furniture such as beds, tables and chairs can be adapted simply by raising or lowering them. Raise furniture by putting blocks under the legs, and lower it by shortening the legs with a handsaw. Accessible bathrooms can be fabricated with commodes, purchasable or rentable from medical equipment suppliers, they can also double as a shower chair or a seat.
Think of inventive adaptations for people with physical disabilities willing to compromise dignity for adventure’s sake.
Let Us Help
Make sure to contact our National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE) staff to:
- Think through additional considerations
- Receive disability contacts in the host community or country
- Connect with other people who have had these experiences
Remember, you bring volunteers onto your program because they offer unique skills to a volunteer site such as teaching English, understanding agriculture or an ability to counsel survivors after a natural disaster. Reasonable accommodations enable these individuals to do what they came for, and their participation enhances the experience for everyone.
“As a person with a disability myself who has volunteered abroad, I often thought that asking for assistance or accommodation from my host community was an undue burden, a burden that would not be there if an able-bodied person was volunteering. I soon realized that when I asked for assistance, people within the community felt more relaxed as I was no longer viewed as this foreigner who traveled there to ‘help’ them”, Megan Smith, woman with physical disabilities who volunteered at an orphanage in Nepal.