A Guide for Disabled People to Volunteer

Posted on October 20, 2020

Are you struggling to find the right volunteering opportunity? 

This guide aims to empower disabled people to find the right volunteering opportunity, to gain self-confidence and to get to know their rights better. Here are some tips to apply if you face barriers to inclusion in the non-profit sector.

Establishing self-esteem and confidence when volunteering 

Do you want to volunteer for your community or a good cause but fear you are not able to do it? Disabled people often suffer from a lack of confidence, which has a significant impact on their self-esteem. If this is your case, it is time to develop a more positive image of yourself. It might seem easy to say that on paper, but this is a real process that will improve your life. Although the barriers to inclusion are created by society, some of the other barriers that are on your path are in your mind and you are the only one to be able to tear them down.  

Volunteering can seem intimidating because you might doubt your capacity to help others and your chances of being offered a role. You know, most people do not feel 100% confident when they do something new. Be kind to yourself and try not to lose your determination even if you feel you have to work harder to get new opportunities. If you need to build your confidence start with a more manageable volunteering opportunity and work your way up to more elaborate tasks.

Remember it is normal to struggle when trying out new things and it is not the end of the world if you are not selected for all the projects you applied to. In Scotland, there are hundreds and hundreds of volunteering opportunities, in all kind of areas and with different locations, environments, settings and time periods. You will obviously find an opportunity that will suit you and your needs.  

Getting out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself can boost your confidence and it is a good chance to learn. Do not be afraid to take opportunities even if they are scary at first. When you start a new role, give yourself enough time to adjust to the new environment, to the team and even to the tasks you have to perform. The first volunteering day is not a representation of the rest of the experience. Confidence will come while you get familiar with the tasks and while the team also gets to know you better. 

Do you feel you need to work harder in order to remove stereotypes and assumptions on disabled people? If so, you might put a lot of pressure on yourself and you could feel very anxious. You have the right to ask questions, to request help or advice. You can even make mistakes or decide not to undertake a task. Bear in mind that you do not have to prove yourself or your abilities to others – it’s okay if you do need advice or support as everyone needs it sometimes. Do not struggle in silence if you do need support as this could affect your mental health.

If you face problems when volunteering, as can happen to anyone, you can talk to your supervisor or your mentor. The issues you face are not all linked to your disability. But if you think they are specific to it and you feel not everyone can understand or help you, you can get in touch with a disability advocate, a disabled people’s organisation or an experienced disabled volunteer. 

When you are used to your tasks, you can even challenge yourself by asking your supervisor to give you more responsibilities. You would not want people to have lower expectations from you, or to be impressed with anything you do because they think you are fragile, inspirational or a role model.   

Be ambitious.

When and how to disclose your disability 

Because disabled people can be affected by negative stigma and false perceptions you might wonder how to bring up your disability in the application process for the first time.

This question is even more crucial when the volunteering role is not worded in an inclusive way. You might wonder if the organisation is aware of disabled people’s existence and if they will perceive you as an alien or be encouraging and supportive. 

This situation is something that you may encounter in other moments in your life so you can use volunteering to gain experience in building self-confidence. Although no one can force you to mention your disability. If the application does not mention that disabled people are welcome you can go through the normal process without mentioning it, especially if you fear discrimination. If your disability is visible the organisation will notice it on the first day and although you do not need to justify yourself for it, it is strongly advised to have a conversation about it. 

If your disability is invisible, it is your choice to decide if your organisation needs to know it. If the tasks you will be performing might be impacted, it is better to have a conversation about it. This will take a weight off your shoulders as hiding it might be quite tiring. 

When talking about your disability, you can explain what it involves by explaining which adaptions you need. This will show that if the organisation provides you with what you need you can still meet their expectations. It does not matter how you do things and if you use different methods as long as you do it. So try to remain positive, and do not forget that sometimes time might be needed to adjust to each other. 

What are your rights as a disabled volunteer in the UK?  

In the UK there is no legal framework of volunteering. But as long as organisations are aware of your disability, they do not have the right to discriminate against you, and they have to provide you with reasonable adjustments. 

The anti-discrimination legislation of the 2010 Equality Act only applies when there is a written agreement between you and the organisation you will be volunteering with. It is important to read the agreement carefully before signing it. The contracts are usually the same for all the volunteers, therefore, they are not always adapted to your needs. You can ask for a change in the number of volunteering hours, the reimbursement of transportation costs even if they are not provided to others, the right to volunteer remotely and other reasonable adjustments you need. 

In other cases, the organisation does not ask you to sign any contract and the volunteering agreement is made informally. As long as they are aware of your disability, organisations are still under the obligation to make reasonable adjustments.  Reasonable adjustments will depend on the income, the size, the capacity and the nature of the organisation. So, you can discuss it with your volunteer engagement manager in a one to one conversation.   

Be aware that the reason why some organisations are not always able to provide you with all the equipment you need or to make physical changes in the venue is the lack of funding. For small organisations, funding is a big issue and you are not entitled to the same rights as in a work contract. There are funding streams available that might be able to support you when volunteering.  

It’s worth remembering that if you receive extra money from your volunteering placement (any money that is outwith out-of-pocket expenses), you might lose your disability living allowance or your personal independent payment.

However, the reimbursements of the expenses like travel to and from the volunteering place, any meals taken away from home during the volunteering activity, special equipment used to perform the tasks and childcare if you have children does not count as an income.    

Have a conversation with your job centre adviser or your benefits case worker to explain the situation. 

Finally, be aware you are not under legal obligation to mention your disability when applying for a volunteering role if you do not want to. No one can blame you for that unless there are specific safety risks or if the organisation needs the information to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace. 

Volunteering should be a choice 

The aim of volunteering is to have a positive impact in your community. If you are offered a role that gives you less responsibilities than what you want, do not force yourself to go for it.  

Volunteering should be a choice, something that can help you to blossom. Never do it if your primary goal is to find a job and you feel pressured to gain work experience.  

If the adaptions an organisation can provide are not enough to accommodate your needs look for a different opportunity that suits your interests and needs. 

Never compromise on something that can cause harm to your dignity. Your dignity is a right, and no one can damage it under any reason.

How to make sure your needs are put in practice 

Be ready to advocate for the adaptions that you need. If there are physical barriers in place that they are not able to remove you could ask for alternatives. Do they have a different building or a charity partner with accessible buildings that you could use as a workplace? Could you volunteer remotely? Are there other volunteering roles that are more inclusive that you would enjoy?  

These are options but volunteering remotely cannot be a valuable alternative if you do not want to or if you are willing to perform field work. It is better for your mental health to look for another opportunity.  

Once you start volunteering, the most effective way to make sure your access needs are put in practice is to make your organisation aware of them. If you’re comfortable with that, upon the first days you have the option to meet everybody at once to explain to them your needs and how they can accommodate them. That will break the ice and remove any stigma in a long-term perspective. 

It might be hard for you to explain your needs again and again to people because you might repeat them a lot in your daily life. Keep in mind that people cannot guess what you need, even if they are willing to be more inclusive. When you explain to them your needs at once, you can open the floor for questions, so you do not need to answer the same ones lots of times in the next days.  

If you do not feel comfortable talking in front of the whole team or if the organisation is too big, you can ask your supervisor to communicate your needs with your colleagues. It might be a good occasion to pass on a key message, such as not petting your service dog, leaving your working environment as constant as possible by not moving your belongings unexpectedly for example or speaking clearly if you are lipreading. 

From time to time, you might need to give people a little push when it comes to adapting their behaviours to be more inclusive or to remember doing what you need. If you realise your needs are not fully met, you can try to talk about that with your supervisor or someone in a more powerful position in the organisation. If they have an inclusive mindset or are open to criticism it can save you a lot of time and energy because they have more influence on their colleagues or employees. 

You can contact disabled people’s organisations for specific advice. 

How to handle expenses when volunteering 

Before starting to volunteer, remember to discuss what expenses will be reimbursed or covered. This will avoid unpleasant surprises.  

Ask the organisation to give you information on what exactly it will pay for and how much money will be allocated for this. Like anyone else, you can ask them to purchase or book things for you. If you need to attend external events or pay for anything extra, you can ask for the money upfront. This will avoid you having to chase up reimbursements.  

Also, the money to pay for volunteer expenses and to accommodate access needs should be included in funding applications and the organisation’s budget. Do not feel guilty for requesting expenses that are connected to your access needs, including transportation or equipment.  

If you feel the organisation has not taken access needs into account in its budget, remember the lack of certain equipment should not prevent you from volunteering. Remind the organisation they may be able to get additional support from their funders.  

If this does not work but you feel the organisation is really willing to do its best to accommodate your needs, be ready to discuss alternative options and to explain in detail what works for you and what does not. This will avoid something being bought that is not accessible or that would take you a long time to get used to.

If you feel your rights have not been respected, you can get in touch with disability rights organisations. 

For more information about your rights: 

Disability Law Service

Equality & Human RIghts Commission

Reasonable Access