Impact Feature Issue on Paraeducators Supporting Students with Disabilities and At-Risk
Why Bother? How Persons with Disabilities Benefit as Volunteers
Volunteerism by persons with developmental disabilities can be individually meaningful as well as valuable for the larger community. While volunteerism has historically been too often distorted into a substitute for “real life” and another form of devaluing, congregating, and exploiting persons with developmental disabilities, with insightful planning it can provide huge benefits for people with developmental disabilities. Five areas of benefit are discussed here.
Social Inclusion, Community Membership and Friendship
Given the social isolation of many people with developmental disabilities, volunteering is important and one of the most useful avenues for really getting to know other community members. The social lives of many people with developmental disabilities often consist of “activities” and “outings” such as shopping or attending movies, without genuine opportunities to get to know others. While people with disabilities are physically located in community homes, they are often socially not really full community members; they often go visit “the community” (everything outside the front door) like tourists. While sometimes community members may recognize and greet them, the degree of real friendship is often limited.
Typically, the only way any of us become friends with anyone else is that we get to know each other over time – seeing the same people in the same place, over time, with some activity shared in common. Volunteering alongside a wide variety of community members is one of the best means there is to naturally promote people getting to know each other, appreciating and befriending each other, and experiencing true belonging.
Ask any group of people where they got to know the friends that they have, and one of the frequent responses is that people became friends with others with whom they shared volunteer activities. For example, people get to know each other in their faith communities not primarily by attending services at the same time, but by being part of the committees and activities that contribute to that community’s life. Another example is one of the most innovative programs in the country, the City of Seattle’sInvolving All Neighborsprogram, which is run through the City of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods. People with developmental disabilities get involved in all kinds of neighborhood activities and programs with their neighbors, from painting murals to community gardens to cleaning up the river. Through these shared activities, many friendships between people with and without disabilities have blossomed.
Another frequent response to the question of where people met their current friends is “through work.” While efforts to promote volunteerism should never displace finding jobs and increasing the income of people with disabilities, many people with limitations in their abilities and vocational opportunities will not have the chance to befriend others through work; volunteering can provide powerful alternatives.
Of course, relationship opportunities are maximized when community members get to know one person with disabilities at a time, rather than having a group thrust upon them. Programs congregating individuals with developmental disabilities at the recycling center all at the same time will not provide the opportunity for real social inclusion. Substituting congregated community “volunteering” for a congregated day habilitation program will not promote community belonging. What is needed are ways for people with disabilities to volunteer as individuals.
Contribution, Happiness and Satisfaction
John Kennedy (“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”), Martin Luther King, Ghandi, and Mother Teresa all inspire us because they touch that part of us that longs to know we made a difference for others. We want to be a “point of light,” knowing we lit up life for someone else. Having such experiences is critical for self-esteem and happiness.
Freud has said that love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness. “Work” here does not necessarily mean a paid job, but that sense that we are doing something that makes a difference for others, that it is meaningful activity that contributes. One man with developmental disabilities who volunteered dusting books in a library said after his first night there, “The books were really dusty, they really needed me.” How many people with disabilities have that opportunity to authentically know and say, “They really needed me”? People with developmental disabilities often are on the receiving end of contribution. People without disabilities often report getting a great deal of satisfaction from volunteering for people with disabilities. When people with disabilities themselves have the opportunity to volunteer, they can receive those same benefits. The more opportunity they have to give, to contribute to others, the more personal satisfaction is possible.
Critical thinking regarding the volunteering situation is necessary to see whether people with disabilities are having those experiences. Simply “putting in time,” especially if one is not getting paid, is not sufficient. It makes a difference to find opportunities for individuals to contribute their unique gifts and talents (rather than volunteer opportunities anyone could fulfill), where others who are important to those individuals make sure they are acknowledged and appreciated, and where they receive the satisfaction of knowing they were “needed.”
Developing Marketable Skills and Job Opportunities
Volunteering provides many opportunities to learn and to practice skills that can be useful in paid employment. Most day habilitation programs across the country can probably provide examples of starting someone out in a volunteer situation that became a paid job. Of course, one of the things to beware of is that volunteering cannot substitute for work that should otherwise be paid. A useful gauge is whether non-disabled community members volunteer in that particular way; if they do, then it is also a legitimate volunteering opportunity for people with disabilities.
A fact of life is that “who you know” affects most everything. For instance, about 70% of all jobs are obtained through personal contacts. People who get to know politicians and legislators can often get personal and individual requests honored. Volunteering in elected officials’ offices, chambers of commerce, and city, county and federal public administration offices can provide very fruitful networking opportunities. One man who joined the Sertoma Club (a community service organization with many business owners and professionals) networked with his fellow club members when he bought a home of his own – he knew an electrical contractor who helped with his wiring and an attorney who helped him with his deed.
Status and Reputation
In any city or town in the country, examine the lives of the people considered the leading citizens. Almost invariably, everyone is involved in some form of volunteering. Actors and actresses, politicians, and corporate executives receive huge acknowledgment and recognition for their “charity work,” the benefits they put on or attend, the work they do for a vast array of groups, and many for their own foundations. Even in smaller towns, the people considered the leading citizens are involved in charity balls, fundraising events for the local theatre or opera, and local service organizations. Kiwanis, Jaycees, Elks, Lions, Optimists, the Sertoma Club, and myriads of other “community service” groups (often with many of the leading business owners and “high-end” people in town) all volunteer to help with festivals, parades, clean-up and beautification efforts, and booster clubs. The involvement of people with developmental disabilities in these groups and efforts can stimulate more highly valued social roles, connecting with more highly esteemed people, and greater status. For individuals who have historically been in the most socially devalued roles, their volunteering can serve to shift their own view of themselves, as well as their community’s and the entire cultural view of people with disabilities.
In conclusion, the activities undertaken to establish individualized, meaningful volunteer opportunities can be more than worth the effort. They can lead to expanded opportunities and multiplied benefits for the person with disabilities, communities, and the larger society.
Angela Novak Amado is Research Associate with the Research and Training Center on Community Living, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She is also Executive Director of the Human Services Research and Development Center in St. Paul. She may be reached at