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

Improving Volunteer Options for Persons with Developmental Disabilities


Helen K. Lowery is the Executive Director of The Arc in Farmington, New Mexico.

Volunteerism has many faces. A person can volunteer once on a particular project or they can volunteer for many projects over a lifetime. They may choose to work on one event annually or they may choose to volunteer on a weekly basis. They may serve through the types of local volunteer opportunities available in virtually every community, or they may provide extended service through Corporation for National Service programs such as AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps VISTA, Senior Volunteers, and Service Learning. All of these options are a perfect venue for people with developmental disabilities to have meaningful volunteer experiences, increase social activities with all people, and ultimately have a greater sense of belonging and contributing to the community in which they live. 

Benefits of volunteerism to individuals with developmental disabilities are many. Among them are the opportunity to give. The role of “recipient of services” traditionally has been the role assigned to people with developmental disabilities. It is important that individuals with disabilities have the opportunity to be on the giving end of the equation, to feel the good that comes from helping others, and to learn to give support to others when they have a need. Another of the many benefits of volunteerism for persons with disabilities is the chance to take part in activities where they can develop more peer relationships and increase future opportunities. Many individuals with disabilities interact primarily with their families, the people who provide service, and others in the programs in which they participate. These relationships can clearly be significant and should be encouraged. However, outside of family members, people may not have freely given and chosen relationships. Volunteerism could be a way to increase the opportunities for persons with developmental disabilities to form new friendships. Volunteerism offers an opportunity for continuity of friendships and relationships; a person can volunteer with the same group of people over time and learn about friendship as a different source of security, comfort and self-worth (The Arc, 1998). 

While it is clear that individuals with disabilities have much to gain from volunteering, there are many barriers to participation. Among them are atttitudinal barriers, programmatic barriers, and economic barriers. 

Attitudinal Barriers

The most common barriers are the attitudinal barriers that arise from the many myths about persons with disabilities that are based on ignorance. Among them are:

  • Persons with mental retardation cannot learn volunteer jobs.
  • Persons with developmental disabilities require too much training and supervision.
  • Persons with developmental disabilities are unreliable and likely to cause injury to themselves or others.

One way to dispel the first myth is to realize that we have many service providers who are skilled in the basic principles of effective learning strategies for people with mental retardation. People with mental retardation learn most effectively when the instructional process is highly structured and direct. When supervisors offers this type of instruction, almost any skill can be learned. 

There are concerns that individuals with developmental disabilities may require more training and supervision than the organization can support. In some cases, it does take people with disabilities longer to master the tasks associated with a position. Supervisors or others may need to spend some extra time with these volunteers during the first few days or weeks. However, once they have learned the position, volunteers with disabilities have demonstrated effective performance. In my experience, this is not an issue because in most volunteer situations there are always at least two people working together. One innovative project, Project Success (funded by the Corporation for National Service), paired adolescents with cerebral palsy with adolescents without disabilities on all of its service learning activities. This strategy raised awareness of the capabilities of the adolescents with cerebral palsy, raised awareness to how much more alike adolescents are whether they have a disability or not, and fulfilled the need for partner assistance. In some cases, an attendant or a job coach may be a reasonable accommodation to be available to help the person. A job coach is a specialist who accompanies the individual with disabilities to the volunteer site to assist in the initial training period. The job coach may assist the volunteer in learning tasks or make recommendations to the supervisor of the project about suitable changes to the position to help accommodate the volunteer.

In regard to the third barrier, many people have the impression that individuals with developmental disabilities are unreliable and pose a risk to themselves or others. The President’s Committee on Mental Retardation (1983) reports safety records on the job of employees with developmental disabilities to be equivalent to employees without disabilities. In addition, persons with developmental disabilities have as good or better attendance than many employees without disabilities. Individuals with disabilities do not present records of less reliability and safety than others.

Programmatic Barriers

Organizations may hesitate to recruit and place volunteers with developmental disabilities because they are not sure they know how to accommodate their disability. Our world has become so litigious, that rather than make it more embracing of people with disabilities, people who direct volunteer projects and business are often more fearful of doing the “wrong” thing rather than taking what appears to be a risk to do the “right” thing. In each and every community, there is a world of resources in the disability community. There are people who will help organizations decide what are the best and most reasonable accommodations, help with site and programmatic accessibility, and help educate organization staff about disabilities and how to best work with individuals with a variety of disabilities. Also, the person with the disability can be a valuable resource for the organization; a person many times knows best what they need because they have been living with this disability all of their life.

Economic Barriers

Another barrier can be the economic arrangements that conflict with disability income. In AmeriCorps, for instance, many participants receive a monthly living allowance. Because of some confusion in the way the National Community Trust Act was written, people with disabilities who serve in AmeriCorps must count their living allowance as earned income. For some people, this causes problems in that it can lead to the loss of some benefits. I cannot stress “in some cases” enough. What I recommend to individuals with disabilities who are thinking about applying for an AmeriCorps position and who receive SSI is to consult their Social Security Office first or Access AmeriCorps and see if there will be such an impact on their government assistance. Just because their money is impacted it does not prohibit them from serving. They may want to take a part-time position or an education-award position. AmeriCorps is about more than making the living allowance. For people with developmental disabilities it would be about service, inclusion, education, skill building, and relationships. But everyone should be knowledgeable about the financial impact before they start.

Another economic barrier emerges from the low incomes that many individual with disabilities have. Limited resources can affect things such as access to transportation to volunteer activities, and the ability to purchase uniforms or other required volunteer items and equipment. Organizations must look at any volunteer requirements that involve expenditures on the part of volunteers, and identify options to remove economic barriers to participation.


Persons with developmental disabilities may have low involvement in community service and volunteerism because program planners have assumed they could not or would not want to be involved. However, attention should be focused on changing the environment to accommodate all people rather than attending to one person’s disability or inability to participate. As the environment becomes friendlier and more accommodating, it will not be a question of whether persons with disabilities will be able to contribute. It will more be a question of where can their abilities be best utilized.


  • President’s Committee on Mental Retardation. (1983). The mentally retarded worker: An economic discovery. Washington, D.C.: Author.

  • The Arc. (1998). The importance of friendships between people with and without mental retardation. Arlington, Texas: Author.