Impact Feature Issue on Paraeducators Supporting Students with Disabilities and At-Risk

Disability Agencies Supporting Volunteers


Pam Walker is Research Associate with the Center on Human Policy, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York.

There are multiple reasons why people with developmental disabilities seek volunteer work. It could be to meet new people, pursue an interest, have a sense of contributing to a cause or a community, gain skills or to fill time. Because there is still a shortage of paid and full-time work options for people with developmental disabilities, volunteer work is something they do in addition to, instead of, or while looking for paid work that contributes to a meaningful day. Some find their own opportunities to volunteer and participate individually. Others need assistance from staff of vocational and residential support agencies, and may volunteer with agency staff. Whatever the reasons and ways in which people with developmental disabilities volunteer, such involvement is a source of satisfaction for many. 

Agencies that are creating more individualized volunteer opportunities, on a person-by-person basis rather than using a group approach, can offer individuals greater opportunities to participate in volunteer activities that match their personal interests and goals, and enable them to get to know other volunteers and be more included in the community. Some agencies that offer vocational and day habilitation services have broadened the scope of their supports to include supporting people in volunteer work situations (Fratangelo, Olney, & Lehr, 2000; Hall & Walker, 1997; Walker, 1998). For example, Onondaga Community Living, in Syracuse, New York, uses day habilitation funds to support people in vocationally-oriented volunteer positions. This includes people who “either have part-time jobs and want more community involvement, or have not chosen supported employment for a variety of reasons. Some people… are not sure of what they like or are good at. Others care little about money, but want skills and experiences. Some individuals have tried numerous supported employment jobs but have not found their niche…” (Fratangelo, Olney, & Lehr, 2000, p. 78). People volunteer at places such as a preschool, a peace organization, the library, and a nature center. Some of the volunteer jobs have turned into paid employment.

People have also been assisted in volunteer positions through residential support agencies. This is often as part of a broader effort to help people pursue interests as well as to assist them in expanding relationships and sense of community membership (e.g., Amado, 1993; Johnson, 1985; Reidy, 1993). Based on such efforts, much has been written about strategies and lessons related to promoting meaningful community involvement. Some tips include:

  • Connections and opportunities should be made individually, versus for a grouping of people, based on personal interest and choice.
  • Agencies should be prepared to offer whatever levels and types of support a person needs – ranging from getting actively involved with the person over the long term, to stepping back and getting out of the way.
  • Place is important – focus should not just be on finding any place “in the community,” but on finding places where people feel comfortable and welcome, feel a sense of connection/belonging, have a valued role, and have social interaction opportunities.
  • Efforts should be made to promote personal relationships and “natural supports”; this can help prevent the loss of a volunteer opportunity or other community connection if an agency support person leaves.

Just as agencies have difficulty supporting people in paid work, so, too, they experience limited resources for supporting people to participate in meaningful, individualized volunteer opportunities. Thus, in addition to initiatives generated by the service system to promote volunteerism and other forms of community involvement, it makes sense to start connecting with and building on local, generic initiatives that promote community participation in general. One resource to assist agencies in this effort is, Involving All Neighbors: Building Inclusive Communities in Seattle (Carlson, 2000). It describes a collaboration between the Washington State Division of Developmental Disabilities and the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, as part of an initiative of the Department of Neighborhoods. The manual provides examples of many different types of volunteer community involvement as well as lessons learned through the collaboration, and it concludes with the reflection that these efforts were “not just about building neighborhood inclusion for persons with developmental disabilities. They are about building neighborhood inclusion for everyone” (Carlson, 2000). 

Volunteerism by people with developmental disabilities can be part of a rounded life, and support for it by disability service providers is important. When it includes diverse individuals, it benefits not just the volunteers, but also their neighborhoods and communities.


  • Amado, A. N. (1993). Steps for supporting community connections. In A. N. Amado (Ed.), Friendships and community connections between people with and without developmental disabilities (pp. 299–326). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

  • Carlson, C. (2000). Involving all neighbors: Building inclusive communities in Seattle. Seattle, WA: Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.

  • Frantangelo, P., Olney, M., & Lehr, S. (2000). Coloring outside of the lines: How one agency embraced change one person at a time. St. Augustine, FL: Training Resource Network.

  • Hall, M., & Walker, P. (1997). "This is still a work in progress”: Common Ground, Littleton, New Hampshire. Syracuse, NY: Brookes Publishing Co.

  • Johnson, T. Z. (1985). Belonging to the community. Madison, WI: Options in Community Living.

  • Reidy, D. (1993). Friendships and community associations. In A. N. Amado (Ed.), Friendships and community connections between people with and without developmental disabilities (pp. 351–371). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

  • Walker, P. (1998). Creating meaningful daytimes: Community building at Options for Individuals, Louisville, Kentucky. Syracuse, NY: Center on Human Policy.