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A Disability Does Not Hamper Volunteerism

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Toronto Star, January 24, 2004, courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.

Picture this:

A volunteer who is blind reading to children to improve their literacy.

A volunteer who uses a wheelchair helping out with disaster relief.

A volunteer with a cognitive disability providing companionship and support to elderly people.

A volunteer who is hard of hearing using sign language to help educate the public about violence against women.

If you have a hard time visualizing any of these scenarios, you are not alone. But you do need a dose of reality.

Yesterday, the Star's Health section looked at ways people can change their lives. Volunteering was featured as one of the keys to opening new doors. But for people with disabilities, many of these doors remain locked, including, ironically, some belonging to not-for-profit groups that publicly champion disability rights.

At a time when funding is tight and warm bodies stretched way too thin, that's a crime. It means a vast pool of talent is going to waste, talent that could be harnessed easily with a few minor adjustments, primarily in attitudes.

With that in mind, the federal Volunteer Canada website includes a manual to help not-for-profit groups dismantle barriers. You'll find Volunteer Connections: Creating An Accessible And Inclusive Environment by clicking "Topics" on the menu down the left side of the home page, then "Creating Accessibility."

Its goal: "To help managers of volunteers engage volunteers with disabilities ? while avoiding the trap of involving (them) as 'token' representatives of their 'group.'" Much of the advice would be equally valuable for any profit-based company thinking of hiring someone with a disability.

Here's a smattering:

Although many not-for-profit groups aim to create a better world for people seen to be disadvantaged or vulnerable, "the philosophy of inclusion for all is not necessarily followed in practice," it notes.

"The vast majority of volunteer organizations believe that no individual should be denied the opportunity to volunteer if he or she has the skills and determination to help them achieve their mission," it says.

But they also fall prey to society's basic assumption that people with disabilities are the recipients of volunteer services, not volunteers themselves. And they are not immune to the myths that shroud so many disability issues.

It is not true that volunteers with disabilities may be less reliable because of health concerns, that they are at greater risk of accidents and that making a workplace accessible is very costly, the manual notes.

It is also a myth that people with disabilities want to be involved in their own causes?that someone who is blind, for example, would likely want to volunteer with a group serving the blind community.

But until a group has made the effort to find constructive ways of accommodating special needs, the myths persist.

"One of the greatest misconceptions about accessibility is that it will cost more than your organization can afford," the manual says. "For the vast majority of accommodations, this is not the case."

In fact, it says, studies by the U.S.-based Job Accommodation Network show:

31 percent of accommodations cost nothing (modifying a work schedule, for example).

50 percent cost less than $50.

69 percent cost less than $500.

88 percent cost less than $1,000.

What's more, a study of paid employees by the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work shows that, on average, for every $1 a company puts into making accommodation for an employee with a disability, the company gets back $10 in benefits, such as increased productivity.

The biggest component of successfully recruiting volunteers or paid employees with disabilities is, of course, an open mind.

"The most important requirements are flexibility, a positive attitude and ? commitment," the manual notes.

It also offers a number of other websites with helpful information. They include:

The Association for Volunteer Administration:

The Job Accommodation Network:

The University of Texas' service leader project:

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