For most, the term ‘accessible’ refers to catering for those with disabilities, from having a ramp up to a building, to creating easy-read documents or monitoring noise levels. I was at a brilliant event yesterday; a discussion group involving 25 disabled people (and their personal assistants where necessary). We were talking about the issues currently being faced by disabled people and how we could start to tackle them. Everyone in the room brought something different; different skill sets, experiences and ideas.
One thing that came up a number of times was the fact that ‘access to work’ does not apply to voluntary placements. Access to work is provided by the governments and funds any reasonable adjustments a disabled person might need in the work place (for example, a desk that a wheelchair user can comfortably use). This makes workplaces much more accessible to disabled people, giving them increased opportunities to find employment. Without funding, voluntary organisations can struggle to afford reasonable adjustments needed by people, reducing the opportunities that are available to them within the third sector.
Disabled people lose out, that much is obvious. Their volunteering opportunities are reduced, preventing them from gaining certain experiences which could impact their future employment opportunities. It also means that their opportunities to meet others are reduced, increasing the potential that they become isolated, preventing them from feeling part of the community. It’s not just these people who lose out, though, organisations do too. They lose valuable volunteers. People with tenacity and drive; people who have overcome personal difficulties and have skill sets that able-bodied people may find harder to acquire.
As I began to think more about this, I realised that the accessibility to volunteering opportunities doesn’t just need considering for disabled people. How many opportunities are run 9-3:30 on a weekday, and therefore inaccessible to those under 18? How many are run somewhere that public transport doesn’t reach? How many are run during the day and don’t make arrangements for young children?
All of these things are worth considering. I can’t count the number of people I’ve heard say: ‘I would love to volunteer but…’. The ‘but’ is normally something relatively simple which could be easily fixed. I know that personally, I’ve stopped volunteering with people for a number of reasons. Often this is down to transport, I can’t drive so have to either be able to bike there, or be able to use public transport. Sometimes it’s due to the organisation not being able to refund travel costs, often I can fund it myself, but this has been a barrier in the past. Once I stopped working with an organisation because they expected me to read reams of paper weekly, and I couldn’t manage all of that on top of my uni work – splitting the paragraphs into bullet points would have made all the difference.
What I’m trying to say, is that there are many barriers to volunteering, but most of them are fixable and once they are fixed, your organisation is opened up to a whole host of new potential volunteers. When you’re setting things up, think of the type of people you want to engage. Think about those who are likely to have time, those who will be interested in your cause; what sort of barriers might they face? How can they be overcome? Work with people, speak to people, encourage open discussion and try to understand their needs. By making volunteering more accessible to all, we develop a richer pool of people with more experience, more skills and more networks.