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

Volunteer and Service Opportunities for People with Developmental Disabilities


Bonnie Shoultz is Associate Director of Training and Information with the Center on Human Policy, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York.

Charlie Lakin is Director of the Research and Training Center on Community Living, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Voluntary service, community service, and service learning offer many possibilities for persons with developmental disabilities to contribute to their communities in ways that bring them the joy, sense of belonging, opportunity to learn, and respect that come to all who contribute to the well-being of others. Such service additionally provides a means to overcome historical and current barriers to full participation in society. In considering these three service options, familiarity with the distinctive features of each can be helpful in designing and selecting opportunities that offer a good match between the individuals who desire to serve and the available service activities and needs.

Voluntary service, community service, and service learning may be described in the following ways:

  • Voluntary servicehas at its foundation the essential meanings of voluntary: It arises out of one’s own free will, it implies freedom of choice and lack of external coercion, and it reflects an individual’s decision to give willingly of time and ability to an activity that fulfills purposes and achieves goals valued by the individual. Voluntary service is performed without financial compensation.
  • Community servicehas at its root generally acknowledged needs of the community and actions by community members that respond to those needs. Community service is defined from the perspective of the community rather than the servant. Community service can be provided with or without compensation (e.g., AmeriCorps or Peace Corps participants received limited compensation). It can be performed with or without coercion or free choice (e.g., “community service” as an imposed penalty for legal infraction or as a requirement for high school graduation). 
  • Service learninguses community service as a vehicle to enhance individual development. It engages individuals in activities that are valuable or even necessary for the community, but does so for the purpose of achieving learning objectives. Those objectives might include improving social or employment skills, building self-confidence, encouraging social responsibility, promoting empathy, fostering environmental awareness, and so forth.  

The whole issue of voluntary service and tangible rewards for valuable, real work for people with developmental disabilities carries some historical baggage that must be addressed. Many people with developmental disabilities were, until recently, forced to work for no pay in both institutions and community settings. We have personally known people who were “paroled” from institutions into nursing homes where they were expected to work 60 hours a week for room, board, and a $5 a week stipend. They “volunteered” their time because of the coercion of knowing that if they did not, they would be returned to the state institution. In the 1960s and 1970s, courts intervened to pronounce such “peonage” illegal. But in the 1980s, the supported employment movement created new debates over “voluntary” work (also called “extended training”) and whether it constituted exploitation to ask people with developmental disabilities to do on an unpaid basis that for which others were paid, even though they were provided integrated work opportunities with the possibility of eventual paid employment as they developed skills and became acquainted with other workers (Bellamy, et al., 1984; Brown, et al., 1984). As a result of such controversy, many agencies have focused only on paid employment. But, increasingly, as volunteerism and community service have been promoted on the national, state, and local levels, more people committed to the well-being of persons with developmental disabilities (self-advocates, parents, providers, and professionals) have recognized the real value that performing service can bring to the lives of all citizens.

Volunteerism and community service have been avenues through which individuals have been able to improve their communities, gain marketable skills that could eventually lead to paid employment, test out interests and possible career paths, develop personally and professionally meaningful social connections, and experience the pleasure and satisfaction of the activity itself and of making a difference in the lives of others. For the many individuals with developmental disabilities who are dissatisfied with the limited options they have traditionally been offered to obtain these benefits, voluntary and community service, and service learning, may be an important alternative, and may have the added consequence of contributing to changing societal attitudes and opening doors for persons with disabilities that are now too often closed.

There are a number of specific barriers that have often made it difficult for individuals with developmental disabilities to participate in these service options, and these barriers must be addressed on the societal, organizational, and individual levels. Barriers include:

  • Persons with disabilities may not be aware that voluntary service options are available to them, or they may not have the support they need to get to pursue the options and participate successfully.
  • The gatekeepers (volunteer coordinators, nominating committees, etc.) in the various organizations to which individuals with developmental disabilities may apply may need education and support in thinking about how people with developmental disabilities could contribute, or could be supported in the volunteer work they might be doing.
  • Agencies supporting adults with disabilities, and school teams and staff supporting students with disabilities, have often not included discussion of voluntary community service opportunities in their support and personal planning services.
  • The programs and facilities of organizations involved with voluntary service, community service, or service learning may present barriers to persons with disabilities of which the organizations are unaware. These may be interpreted by persons with disabilities as evidence of a lack of interest or welcome.

In overcoming barriers and creating opportunities for service to others by individuals with developmental disabilities, it can be helpful to ask the following questions as a starting point in attending to the fit between the person and a particular option, and also in evaluating the ability of volunteer, community service, and service learning organizations to include individuals with disabilities:

  • Does the individual have interests or passions that can guide efforts to identify and support service involvements?
  • Are there existing opportunities that would allow the individual to pursue those interests and passions in a manner that provides service that is of value to the community? If not, can such opportunities be created?
  • Are there specific learning goals of the individual to which certain service activities might contribute?
  • Are necessary supports available to enable the person to participate in the service activity? If not, how can they be created?
  • Is the service activity supported by adequate and appropriate intrinsic reinforcers (e.g., integration, acceptance, respect, recognition, tangible rewards)?

The world is changing for people with developmental disabilities. Doors are opening that were once closed, and the doors to community involvement in the form of voluntary service, community service, and service learning are among those that must be opened wide.


  • Bellamy, G. T., Rhodes, L., Wilcox, B., Albin, J., Mank, D., Boles, S., … Turner, J. (1984). Quality and equality in employment services for adults with severe disabilities. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 9(4), 270–277.

  • Brown, L., Shiraga, B., York, J., Kessler, K., Strohm, B., Rogan, P., … VanDeventer, P. (1984). Integrated work opportunities for adults with severe handicaps: The extended training option. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 9(4), 262–269.