Impact Feature Issue on Parenting Teens and Young Adults with Disabilities

Involving Youth with Disabilities in Community Service Activities


John G. Smith is Project Coordinator with the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Ann Mavis

Julia Washenberger

The youth and young adults of America have long engaged in community service activities through churches, scouting, schools, and a myriad of other organizations, as well as on their own or with their families. With appropriate opportunities and support as necessary, young people with disabilities can join their peers in contributing to their communities and enriching their own lives by participation in voluntary service.

Youth and young adults with disabilities need encouragement and support to become involved in all types of activities that will foster their success in later life. Involvement in service activities in the communities where they live has the potential to provide many benefits, both to young people with disabilities and to their communities. To ensure such benefits occur for both parties however, it is important that service activities/opportunities be chosen and arranged to match the capacities, support needs, and interests of each individual. This is the key to ensuring that such activities truly support youth in making a successful transition to adult life, while also allowing the communities where they live to benefit from their efforts and gifts.

One way for young people with disabilities to connect to and have successful experiences with service activities is to include service learning as part of a student’s individual educational plan. Service learning combines community service activities that meet community needs with student learning and academic requirements. Students may carry out projects as a group or individually. Including service learning opportunities as part of the school day for students with disabilities can provide new avenues to pursue interests, develop skills, and prepare for employment, postsecondary education, community participation, and other experiences of adulthood.

Another way for youth and young adults with disabilities to become involved in service is through the volunteer activities available outside of school to all community members. These include volunteering with faith communities, nursing homes and hospitals, crisis services (such as food banks, homeless shelters), arts organizations, political campaigns, animal shelters, community beautification projects, civil rights/ human rights organizations, nature centers, and neighborhood block clubs, to name a few.

Whichever type of opportunity is chosen, it’s important for youth and young adults to first think about their interests and what kind of contribution they feel would be important to make to their community. They should also gather information about the service activity being considered, including where it takes place, what is expected of the volunteer, who they’ll work with, what training and guidance is provided to volunteers, what supports the youth or young adult may need to fulfill the expectations of the activity, and what supports and assistance are available.

Youth and young adulthood is a time when it is important to build the relationships and develop the skills that will translate into success in adult life. Instilling an attitude that values service to the community, while developing useful skills and a sense of making a difference to the community, cannot be underestimated in contributing to successful adult lives for all young people, but especially for those with disabilities. Schools, community organizations, governmental agencies, parents, and young people themselves need to become aware of the opportunities available for individuals with disabilities to participate in service activities, and to make the commitment to support the participation of youth and young adults with disabilities. In this way we will develop a system where everyone benefits, and where individuals with disabilities will feel valued and will contribute to their communities.