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How to Hit Pay Dirt by Recruiting Disabled Volunteers

Summary: Robert Stewart and the Humane Society of Austin & Travis County in Texas show how to effectively integrate volunteers with disabilities into your organization.

Author:  Nan Hawthorne

Can Blind and Partially Sighted People Volunteer?

Humane Society of Austin & Travis County

Stewart, Other Volunteer Program Managers Offer

Learning More About Working With Disabled

Can Blind and Partially Sighted People Volunteer?

Of course, blind and partially sighted people can
volunteer. The real question to ask here is: May they

It's estimated that as many as 70 percent of all
Americans with disabilities who can and wish to work
are unemployed. If these individuals can work, they
can work as volunteers, if they choose. Yet, while the
thousands of nonprofit, government-based and other
organizations clamor to fill their volunteer needs,
people with disabilities continue to find the door to
volunteer service locked.

Robert Stewart, coordinator of the Special Teams
Volunteer Program at the Humane Society of Austin &
Travis County in Texas, tells of dozens of disabled
people who attend his orientation and informational
meetings. Most ask, after attending these meetings,
whether they can volunteer at the animal shelter. He
is always surprised by the doubtful looks they give
him as they ask. But it is they who are surprised when
he says, "Yes, certainly! Come on down and we'll

For a variety of reasons, volunteer programs tend to
reject potential volunteers with disabilities, and
they do so without giving these people even a trial
period. Blind hopefuls recount story after story of
being given, at best, the run around and, at worst,
told outright they can not do the work.

What reasons do the volunteer program managers give?
The words don't come easy, but it boils down to
ignorance and misinformation about disabilities and
how disabled people work.

Some are afraid of the cost of accommodation. Others
mask their own discomfort with rationalizations. And
some are aided and abetted by volunteers with
disabilities too willing to accept someone else's lack
of confidence. And, finally, there are some jobs some
people with disabilities really cannot do -- yes, most
blind people don't drive. But blind people also don't
apply for driving jobs.

The locked door means many things. It means disabled
people have less access to serving their communities.
They have less access to the many rewards of giving
oneself, in terms of time, talent and effort, to
others. They miss the chance to provide prospective
employers with a more well-rounded r鳵m鮠The
community loses willing hearts and minds as well as
helpful hands and energetic spirits -- and a fully
involved citizenship. And our society misses out on a
fully integrated community.

Organizations also lose the enthusiasm, hard work and
practiced problem solving skills of volunteers with
disabilities. While complaining about how difficult it
is to get enough volunteers, they pass over the
approximately 70 percent of the people with
disabilities who can and want to work but who are
unemployed. And they miss every single gift each of
these volunteers could have given them, their clients
and their communities.

I asked Robert Stewart to tell you about his very
successful, active group of volunteers who have
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Humane Society of Austin & Travis County

Right up front, the Humane Society of Austin & Travis
County demonstrates its value for both animals and
people. Its mission, you see, is to "make our
community a better place for people and animals."
Stewart, who stepped into the position of Special
Teams Volunteer Program Coordinator when it was set up
to provide volunteers from local disability
organizations (among others), explains that "respect
for all living things" is a core value for the Austin

The organization's executive director, Karen Medicus,
had already stressed the importance of including
volunteers with disabilities in its traditional
volunteer program. But she recognized that the Austin
Shelter was not really equipped to handle a targeted
effort. In 1998. she established a new program,
Special Teams, which includes both disabled volunteers
and other team efforts from groups such as Junior
League. The Special Teams mission is to create and
support partnerships between the Austin Shelter and
these targeted groups.

Some of the disability groups involved are
Dayhabilitation for the Cognitively Disabled, the
Texas Commission for the Blind and the Texas State
School for the Blind as well as other local
organizations serving those and other
disabilities. "We're lucky; in the state capital that
we have a lot of disability programs," Stewart adds.

Linda Locke, Assistant Principal and Career Education
Director for the Texas State School for the Blind and
Visually Impaired calls the Humane Society
opportunities "an extended campus." She reports that
the organizations where their students work "welcome
them back year after year." These work sites and
others (the school uses for-profit organizations as
work-study sites, too) find that the disabled
individuals teach other workers and volunteers how to
deal with disabled clients and customers more

For their part, the students and other volunteers
with disabilities have an invaluable opportunity to
practice meeting those less "trainable" expectations,
such as reliability, cooperation, punctuality, focus,
organization and collaboration. Job Coach Margot
Marshall reports, "It isn't so much job skills they
learn as how to meet expectations in a work
environment that you really need to do (in an actual
work situation) to learn."

Locke adds, "The students who work with the
Department of Health mostly do clerical work, but that
offers them a chance to progress in those skills,
(improve) in productivity. As they practice and
improve, they also grow in pride and confidence."
Potential employers of these young people may balk at
how slow they may be, Locke admits. But, with the
practice, the students develop speed, and this barrier
is lifted.

Career education teacher Mike Smith adds, "Instead of
simulating work in class, we go out and work." It's a
project that provides invaluable opportunities for

Smith reports that he sometimes needs to overcome
resistance from volunteer program managers. "I think
people think to themselves, 'When I close my eyes I
can't even get from here to there, so how can blind
people volunteer?' They don't understand that not all
blind people are totally blind and that even totally
blind people cope very well with using other faculties
for tasks."

For adults with disabilities, this immersion into a
work environment can be helpful, but, more than that,
it supplies work experience, a proven "track record"
they can use as credentials in future job hunting.
Stewart recounts the experience of one developmentally
disabled volunteer whose progress with the Humane
Society translated into paying work at a local
veterinary office. His new job, carved out of the job
descriptions for veterinary assistants, allows all
concerned to concentrate on the work for which they
are best trained.

Stewart enumerates the work both disabled and non-
disabled volunteers at the Humane Society of Austin
and Travis County do. While there are administrative
and maintenance tasks to be done, the main focus is
working with the animals. Besides feeding and washing
the animals as well as taking care of their living
spaces, volunteers spend time with cats and dogs. Cats
require much physical attention, so volunteers take
time to sit with them, play with and brush them. Other
volunteers walk and play with dogs in the dog exercise
area. And volunteers often assist with adoptions of
the pets they have cared for and loved.
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Stewart, Other Volunteer Program Managers Offer

Robert Stewart says, more often than not, the people
with disabilities he meets are literally begging for
opportunities to give back. Locke agrees. "Especially
with blind kids," she points out. "They have been
cared for so long; they thrive when given a chance to
give of themselves." Given that the need for
volunteers everywhere is great, it is disappointing to
also learn that these same eager people are repeatedly
turned down simply because volunteer program managers
and others question whether they will really
contribute more than they require.

Stewart, whose program involves more than 100
disabled volunteers, encourages other volunteer
program managers to open their programs to include
disabled volunteers. "The only thing we don't have
blind volunteers doing is driving our trucks!" he
comments with a chuckle.

"Just ask the volunteer what they need to do the
job," he says. "You'll find the cost of the
accommodations is zero to nil." Some of the few
accommodations the shelter has had to make for blind
volunteers are Braille signs on office and visitation
area doors, raised markers on washers, dryers and
other shelter appliances, and training materials
available in large print and on cassettes.

And what does Stewart say the Humane Society gets in
exchange? "Great volunteers," he quickly adds. "A
massive amount of work. They put in 9,000 hours in
2000. And it has been a great experience for staff,
other volunteers and the public to see disabled people
of all types working with the animals."

I asked him and other volunteer program managers who
have opened meaningful opportunities for people with
disabilities in their programs what they would want to
say to their colleagues in the profession. "Any extra
effort you put in," Stewart responded, "is worth the
endless amount of giving we get from the volunteers."

He goes on to counsel, "Don't indulge in the
liability excuse. I call it 'lie-ability.' They'll be
covered by the same procedures, policies and insurance
as you should have for all your volunteers."

"Give these folks a chance," urges Donna Boyland,
Director of Volunteer Services for Witham Health
Services in Lebanon, Ind. "Most are very willing
participants, and, if you step outside your box, you
can create meaningful services for them. We have one
volunteer who has fingers grown together so only has
two on each hand, has a cleft palate (so difficult to
understand speech), yet this person delivers inpatient
trays at the noon mealtime and does a wonderful job."

Boyland continues, "Have a lady who is mentally slow
(we'll say), and I am the only one who would let her
even attempt to volunteer. She is one of my best and
will do anything asked of her. Goes above and beyond
and is very proud of her work. Have one who comes in
on Sunday afternoons and does what we call 'Friendship
Tea.' Sets up in main lobby and serves Earl Gray tea
and fancy cookies to visitors, families and employees.
Give these folks a chance, and you may find you have
tapped a new resource in your community as well as non-
disabled friends and family."

The Texas School for the Blind and Visually
Impaired's Mike Smith makes sure volunteer programs
feel comfortable partnering with the school. His
program offers lots of support and supervision and,
perhaps most importantly, an opt-out option. "I make
sure they have a no-lose situation," he says.

Smith recalls placing several students in a
government volunteer program over the objections of a
couple of lower level staff. "That was in September,"
he says. "By Thanksgiving, they were best buds!"

Even Stewart has had to deal with some resistance
from staff at the Humane Society. "I do have to keep
on it," he laments, "but experience always wins them

Stewart echoes what other volunteer managers told me -
that one recruits for the skills, not the
disabilities. When we learn to look at people with
disabilities as glasses that are "half full" and
not "half empty," we will begin to tap the huge
resource that is in volunteers who happen to have a
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Learning More About Working With Disabled

The best source for information about any aspect of
working with disabled volunteers are the disabled
volunteers themselves. Don't be afraid to ask how the
person will do a task and what tools they might need.
In most cases, they will already possess those tools.

But, for more information, I recommend the following
resources, which can offer a great deal of assistance
and advice. See Related Links for links to these and
other resources.

  • Creating Opportunities in Volunteering
    (From Retired and Senior Volunteer Programme of United

  • Disability Inclusion (ADA) & AmeriCorps
    (From Texas Commission on Service)

  • Disabled Volunteers, UN International Year of
    (Some information about included

  • eSight Careers Network (contains a series
    of articles on blind and partially sighted people and

  • First Person: Benefits of Virtual Volunteering
    for People With Disabilities,

    (The unique opportunity presented by virtual
    volunteering for both the organization and disabled

  • Seeking Volunteers? (Why you need to
    recruit disabled people to volunteer)

  • Steps to Inclusion (Speech about how to
    begin including disabled people in volunteer program
    in PDF format)

  • Working With Online Volunteers Who Have
    (List of useful resources)
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