Christopher Hawthorne Moss
Is your Program Ready to Welcome All Volunteers? A Checklist
Can you honestly say you are ready to welcome in every qualified applicant for a volunteer project? As a profession we tend to be warm and embracing men and women, desiring to provide people who want to help with the personal development and reward as much as we want to contribute what we can to our organization's vision. Program planning generally supports our efforts to include everyone who is ready, willing and able, and a concept called "Universal Design" is tailor-made to make our own ideals come to pass. Universal Design applies to facilities, programs, communications and other aspects of any worthwhile effort. The idea is that programs like yours can be open and welcoming to any person, regardless of gender, race, age, language, you name it. Making this openness a reality is a large part of what managers of volunteer resources strive for. Perhaps the most daunting however, is making sure our programs are welcoming of people with disabilities.
One of the stumbling blocks, and a big one it is, is that it is difficult to know just how to make a program accessible to people with disabilities. There are such different needs, so many inventive solutions, and little guidance for any but the ablest researcher. Fortunately the University of Washington's DO-IT Program has put together a checklist that covers all the bases in helping you access the talent and dedication of all volunteer candidates. In its free brochure, "Equal Access: Designing Your Project to Be Accessible to All Participants " (http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Programs/design.html) provides logical, easy to use plans and links to resources for applying Universal Design to your program.
To begin, you need to turn your approach to inclusion upside down. Your job is not to figure out what people with disabilities can do in your program. It's your job to figure out how they can do any task and how you can help make that possible. Exactly because disabilities are so different from each other, there is no job at your organization that cannot be performed by a person with a disability. Start by identifying the barriers a person with a disability may encounter if he or she offers to volunteer. As you explore you will come to understand better what needs to be fixed and how. For example:
- Is your volunteer program web site readable by visually impaired people using talking computers?
- Are your recruitment and training videotapes captioned so people who are hearing impaired can access the important information in them?
- Can people who use wheelchairs for mobility get into the building or, once there, maneuver comfortably within the facility?
People with disabilities are an increasingly large part of all our communities. Further, if your organization receives funding from government and many corporations and foundations, you will be expected -- and even required -- to apply inclusive policies in your volunteer program. But more importantly, your nature makes you want to have as many talented and caring people as you can to help. You may be surprised at how easily you can make this happen if you use DO-IT's checklist to improve your program.
For example, besides the recognizable issues of whether your organization's office is physically accessible, you need to consider the ramifications of inclusion in planning communications, staff training and technology.
- Is disability an important part of policymaking and strategy, and is there a designated point person to handle all related issues?
- Have you considered how your information and referral materials can be accessed by people with visual or learning disabilities or how your answer person will handle someone who comes in and has a hearing impairment?
- Have you made sure that volunteer workspace and supplies are where anyone can get to them, whether or not they use wheelchairs or simply cannot reach high shelves?
In the area of staff training, DO-IT provides this checklist:
- Are all staff members familiar with assistive technology and alternate document formats available to participants?
- Do all staff members know how to respond to requests for disability-related accommodations, such as sign language interpreters?
- Are all staff members aware of issues related to communicating with participants who have disabilities? Do staff deliver conference presentations and exhibits that are accessible to all participants?
- Are project staff and contractors in specific assignment areas (e.g., web page development, videotape creation) knowledgeable about accessibility requirements and considerations?
The DO-IT resource goes beyond a list of self-evaluation questions and offers links to its own and other tools you can use to address barriers. The organization has a broad variety of tools available free online, including videos, to help you climb over hurdles. You see, the answers are out there. By following the checklist you reap the additional reward of being ready to involve clients, employees, members of the media, donors, public policymakers and other members of the community who have disabilities as they become more and more part of everyday life and pursuits. And we will.
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