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Straight from the Horse’s Mouth: Tips on Working with Disabled Volunteers

Could your recruitment ad easily read, “Wanted: Accomplishment-oriented problem solvers for volunteer positions. Daytime long-term availability preferred. We can offer lots of work, hours and experience.”? It could? Then you should be out there recruiting disabled people!

Studies undertaken over the past decades have proven that disabled workers out-perform, out-produce and out-stay the vast majority of non-disabled workers. Because unemployment is high among individuals with disabilities — these folks — anxious for an opportunity to prove themselves, are often available during the weekdays. What’s more, disabled individuals need substantial work experience for their resumes, so someday they can persuade potential employers that they can do the job.

How do I know? I am one of those people. I have been in volunteer management for twelve years, have run a successful training business, am a professional writer, and have led the way in using the Internet to advance our profession. And I’m blind. The primary reason I have succeeded is because people get to know me over the Internet — a level playing field indeed. Sometimes I wonder, if they knew I was blind, would they still hire me to train or consult? Then, I would most likely have to do a lot more than just overachieve. I would also have to overcome people’s misconceptions about disabled people like me.

I’ve talked to hundreds of disabled people over the years. In spite of how talented, eager, or persistent these individuals are — and no matter how important “giving back to the community” or gaining work experience is to them, the sad truth is that most have had trouble accessing volunteer opportunities. I’ve experienced this too, even from VPMs I’ve trained myself. Why do VPMs drag their feet when the topic of recruiting disabled volunteers comes up for discussion?

  1. They cannot get beyond their own assumptions about what disabled people can do. They think, “If I lost my eyesight (or hearing or mobility or whatever), I’d be helpless!” This is an amazingly common conception, but it overlooks the fact that people who become disabled adjust and learn to do things in different ways. There is no task in the world that some disabled person cannot do. Don’t forget President Franklin D. Roosevelt was disabled. So is the National Home Secretary of Britain — he’s blind.
  2. They tend to lump all disabled people in the category of being intellectually impaired. Not only can developmentally disabled people do challenging work, only a fraction of “disabilities” include any impairment to intelligence. Disability is largely an issue of mechanics. A person who is disabled is a normal person with one or more mechanical functions not working ideally. My eyes are “broken” but, believe me, nothing else is.
  3. They are uncomfortable about being around disabled people for fear of doing something wrong. You needn’t be. We’re only too happy to help you.
  4. They think disabled people will be needy and a burden. Some may be, but so will some “normal” people. You can screen out the truly needy. Most disabled people, however, will go out of their way to be self-sufficient. After all, we have something to prove.
  5. They are afraid that bringing a disabled volunteer on board will cost a lot. Even in paid employment, the average accommodation costs less than $50. Most accommodations cost nothing. In the case of disabled volunteers, you will find that most of us are quite willing to provide our own access, such as, in my case, magnifying tools.

Most volunteer work is based around problem solving. Can you think of another group of people with more hands-on experience with solutions? Our whole lives are spent being clever and innovative.

There really is only one “rule” for dealing with disabled people: forget everything you think you know about disabilities. Start learning the truth by talking to those of us who are disabled. Disability is not the end of life — just the start of doing things in new ways.

For lots of advice and ideas about disabilities and the people who master them, take a look at these and other articles on eSight Careers Network(tm). Most relate to vision loss, but the basic approach is much the same for all disabilities.

An Essay: No One’s Fault, Everyone’s Responsibility (
As an “employer”, high unemployment rates among people with disabilities is not your fault. No one is to blame. Instead, everyone is, in some way, responsible. Here’s how you can help — as an individual — on a situation-by-situation basis.

High Turnover Antidote: Hire Employees With Disabilities (
Losing good employees is a terrible drain on a company. Among the most economical solutions to high turnover: hiring and retaining qualified employees with disabilities.

How To Foster a Work Environment That Values Employees With Disabilities (
As a manager, supervisor or proprietor, you share the responsibility for fostering the acceptance of disability in your workplace. Here’s how to gain that acceptance.

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Blind Employees But Were Reluctant to Ask (
These candid questions about employment of people who are blind or visually impaired often go unasked — and, therefore, are generally unanswered. Here are some straight answers.

eSight Digest: Recruiting People With Disabilities (
These five articles give human resources personnel, especially those involved in recruiting, the essentials they need to tap a new pool of qualified candidates for a wide variety of jobs.

Webliography for Locating Job Candidates With Disabilities (
Employers who are hip to the rewards of employing qualified disabled people are often puzzled about how to locate them. Here’s a sample of some Internet resources which can help you gain an edge.

Don’t let the employment focus distract you — these principles apply to managing volunteers also! There are literally hundreds of other useful articles on eSight Careers Network(tm). And you won’t want to miss Hit Pay Dirt By Recruiting Disabled Volunteers right here in Volunteer Management Review(tm).

Whether you have a legal or even ethical responsibility to recruit volunteers who are disabled, the primary question remains, “Why would you want to pass up this opportunity?” With an estimated 40% of Americans alone having some disability, why would you want to turn — well — a blind eye to having people like FDR — or me — overachieving in your volunteer program?

Nan Hawthorne

About the Contributor: Nan Hawthorne

Nan Hawthorne is a professional journalist and content developer living in the Seattle area and has been a practitioner, trainer, consultant, and writer in the profession of volunteer resource management for many years. She came to international attention as founder and coordinator of the CyberVPM online forum, a pioneering effort in using the Internet for professional networking in the field of volunteer resource management. She is the founder of International Volunteer Managers Appreciation Day, held every November 1.
Hawthorne is the author of three training kits, “Recognizing Volunteers Right from the Start,” “Building Better Relationships with Volunteers,” and “Managing Volunteers in Record Time.” She has written over 150 articles on volunteer management. In addition, she has written articles for eSight Careers Network, specifically regarding competitive careers for those who are, like herself, blind or partially sighted.
Hawthorne has received recognition for her work through a Dufort Award for Excellence in Volunteer Management, as Nonprofit Nuts and Bolts “Favorite Internet Resource [provider] on Volunteer Management,” the Victim-Assistance Online Award for Excellence, LA Times Pick of the Day, as well as having a biography included in “Who’s Who in America.”
Hawthorne is best known for her “what works?” approach to developing and managing volunteer programs.

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