This is an excerpt from Inclusive Leisure With HKPropel Access by Mary Ann Devine & Lynn Anderson.
By Kimberly D. Miller and Brent D. Wolfe
Communities have often overlooked the many talents that exist among individuals with disabilities. In other words, more often than not, people with disabilities have been viewed as being in need of caretaking and support from volunteers rather than as individuals who have something to give to their communities. As a result, individuals with disabilities are often seen only as the recipients of volunteer service and not the givers. “Inclusive volunteering brings individuals with and without disabilities together to improve their communities by placing them in positions to be recognized as community assets with many gifts and talents to share” (Stroud et al., 2006, p. 51). Furthermore, inclusive volunteering sits in the middle of the social justice principles of equity, access, participation, and human rights (Yanay-Ventura, 2019).
Having identified several benefits of volunteering, and introducing the idea of inclusive volunteering, it might be helpful to discuss several examples of what inclusive volunteering can look like. Jeffery (all names used are pseudonyms) was a man in his 30s who had autism and limited social and communication skills. However, if you wanted to know the location of 687 Piedmont Street or 3100 Market Street, he could get you there without the use of a map. He memorized maps and did so before the widespread use of smartphones, so there was no Google Maps application to use for quick reference. An inclusion facilitator identified a match between Jeffery and a Habitat for Humanity ReStore that capitalized on this strength. Jeffrey’s skill was highly respected and valued by the fellow volunteer who drove the Habitat for Humanity ReStore truck to pick up donations from locations across the city. Two mornings per week, Jeffery and a peer volunteer jumped in the ReStore truck and headed out to pick up donations. His peer would read Jeffery the list of addresses for their pickups, and Jeffery quickly processed the order in which the addresses should be visited to make the trip as efficient as possible. Jeffery’s peer would start the truck and Jeffery would start calling out directions to the first stop and so forth. The driver never had to worry because he knew Jeffery would get him anywhere without the need for a map or to carefully plan a route; Jeffery was his own personal GPS.
Inclusive volunteering can be done individually, in pairs as with the example above, and in groups using the spirit of cooperation. Another inclusive volunteering example involved a group of high school students with moderate-to-significant cognitive impairments who partnered with university undergraduate students to develop and maintain a quarter-mile trail through a heavily vegetated area over the course of two academic semesters (Miller et al., 2002). When the volunteers first met, they participated in icebreakers and team-building activities so that they could get to know one another and, more importantly, learn how to work cooperatively based on the strengths of individuals in the group. Subsequent sessions occurred at the trail site and began with a quick team-building activity to get everyone in the cooperative spirit. From there, volunteers organically formed dyads and then led by an agency representative, would be presented with several tasks that needed to be completed. The students with disabilities were always empowered to take the lead (e.g., choosing a partner, choosing which task they wished to work on). Tasks this inclusive group completed included using deadwood to line the trail and mark its direction, clearing unwanted foliage, constructing steps down to the trail, constructing two footbridges and three waterfalls along a creek, planting trees, bushes, and flowers along the trail, and constructing and placing numerous birdhouses and several benches throughout the trail.
Another example of inclusive volunteering is Khalil, a young adult with cerebral palsy who used a power chair for mobility and an augmented communication device controlled with a head stick for speaking. Khalil had a reputation for having no fear when it came to asking others to donate money to a good cause. His wish was to be a bell ringer during the holiday season for the Salvation Army but did not have the support he needed to volunteer in this capacity. The first time he asked the organization to be a bell ringer, they were unsure of how to support him. Not to be deterred, Khalil approached the Salvation Army again, this time with the assistance of an inclusion facilitator. The inclusion facilitator explained how an adaptation could be set up so that Khalil could independently ring the bell and how his augmented communication device could be set up for him to communicate. This time, the Salvation Army enthusiastically agreed. Khalil programmed his augmented communication device with a pleasant greeting and request for donations to the red kettle. The inclusion facilitator affixed a long dowel across the top of the kettle stand and used a string to hang the bell from the dowel. The inclusion facilitator also recruited a volunteer peer who met Khalil at their assigned store on the days scheduled, set up the adaptation for Khalil, and served as a social companion to Khalil while they volunteered. As shoppers approached, Khalil would put on his incredibly bright smile, ring the bell with his head stick, push the button on the keyboard to play his message, and say as loudly and clearly as he could, “Please give.” His red kettle always filled quickly. Although helpful, the peer lacked Khalil’s assertiveness, enthusiasm, and charisma. It was the combination of their efforts that created the magic.
In another example of inclusive volunteering, creativity led to the perfect match between Kenny, a preteen with autism fascinated with blowing bubbles using a bubble wand, and an assisted living facility. How could this keen interest that many saw as a deficit due to it being age inappropriate be capitalized on as a strength and a way that Kenny could benefit the community? Staff at the assisted living facility had noted challenges in engaging some residents in a daily exercise or movement program. An inclusion facilitator matched Kenny with the assisted living facility that he would visit twice per week when the weather was good. A peer volunteer and agency staff helped gather residents to join Bubble Mania where they sat outside in a circle on a large concrete pad. Kenny was placed in the middle and given the opportunity to do what he enjoyed most, blow bubbles. The residents were encouraged by the peer volunteer to reach out and pop bubbles with their fingers and feet before the bubbles reached the ground, thus providing opportunities for large muscle movement. It became a game with residents keeping count of how many bubbles they could pop and who popped the most. Although agency staff continued to struggle with engaging residents in exercise or movement programs on other days of the week, they had absolutely no problem getting them engaged in Bubble Mania. The residents looked forward to Kenny’s arrival and Kenny felt valued for doing what he enjoyed.
These examples provide powerful illustrations demonstrating inclusive volunteering and share several commonalities. First, in each case, the individuals with the disabilities were clearly meeting an identified community need. The contributions these volunteers made were valued by the agencies they served. Second, the volunteers with disabilities were not being pandered to or patronized. Instead, the volunteers were respected for the skills, abilities, and interests they had and the contributions they could make. Finally, in each of the above examples, there was an interdependent relationship among the person with the disability, the other volunteers, and those who were being served. All parties were necessary and integral to making the experience a success.