The Benefits of Recruiting Volunteers Who Are Blind
by Nan Hawthorne
Bothell, Washington

On the proverbial principle that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar, it is of benefit to a person who is blind or partially sighted, or indeed any person with a disability, to know what non-profit organizations can achieve by actively recruiting us. Too many managers of volunteer resources are at best uncertain how to make this relationship work or at worst, see it as all work and no benefit to themselves or their organizations. It is time to look at it with a positive mindset.

When you approach the organization with which you want to work, remember these points about what the organization achieves by offering you an opportunity.
  1. The community of people with disabilities who are perfectly able to work is a huge and largely untapped group of potential volunteers. Many people with disabilities are available to volunteer during the day, something becoming scarce now that most women work outside the home and many retirees are pursuing other interests.

  2. People who are blind or visually impaired or have other disabilities are supremely practiced problem solvers, frequently having a different, more practical approach to solving problems. This can make them invaluable assets to the organization's work and represent success, not burden.

  3. A person with a disability is an unparalleled source of information about what it takes to include people in programs. Human service organizations can learn more about how best to serve their clients and which tools and resources actually work. Arts organizations can discover how to accommodate supporters with disabilities and learn how all senses can be used in the arts. Civic, political, religious, environmental and educational groups can learn how to use a variety of tools to impart their messages.

  4. Experience with a volunteer with a disability provides a chance to learn how to work with future volunteers and employees who need accommodations.

  5. The positive public relations is worth any extra effort. Engaging volunteers with disabilities demonstrates the organization's sincerity and commitment to achieving integration of all people in the community. On the immediate scene, having such volunteers in the organization improves employee morale and also makes employees better at their jobs.

  6. It is the right thing to do.
A "word to the wise:" consider whether volunteering is covered by anti-discrimination laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The jury is still out--literally--on whether volunteering is covered by this particular law. It is unlikely that volunteering will ever be included in the ADA's employment provisions, but it may very well be applied in case law for public accommodation. Services available to the public may not be reasonably denied to people with disabilities, and an attorney may soon enough argue that volunteering is a service that provides job training and personal fulfillment to its customers, in this case, volunteers. Whether or not that ever happens, don't forget that the ADA is not the only document outlining the rights of people with disabilities. States and provinces, counties and boroughs, cities and towns often have their own regulations. Furthermore, funding organizations, such as United Way, have their own requirements for participating organizations. Now on one hand the manager of volunteer resources can research every possible law or rule, or he or she can just do the right and beneficial thing and recruit volunteers with visual and other disabilities.

For the volunteer, remember these final points about effective use of volunteering to advance your own career and life plans.
  1. Do your research. Make sure you know what you want to get out of volunteering and choose positions that will help you achieve your goals. Don't let the manager create a special position for you, but insist that you can and want to do the same work as other volunteers.

  2. Be open and honest with the volunteer coordinators you approach. Be confident and cheerful and be ready to tell the managers how you will accomplish assigned duties. Be prepared to furnish your own accommodations and live up to the expectations you set.

  3. Document your performance as a volunteer. When you first offer your help to an organization, ask for a job description. If it does not already exist, ask for one to be written. Ask for regular work evaluations. Job descriptions and evaluations go a long way toward lending legitimacy to your work when you talk about it with employers.
Finally, make the most of the experience for yourself. Learn, enjoy, feel pride in your work. There is no law that says you have to do paid work to be personally fulfilled. Volunteer work is a job. If you choose volunteer work, you contribute to your community and are productive. There is much to be said for a career as a volunteer. You can get work you could never find in the marketplace of paid work, there is more flexibility and less pressure, while achieving as much or more. That you are not paid does not cheapen the accomplishments, and you know without a doubt that you have been an instrument of good. As someone for whom charity is done, you are part of the solution in doing for others.

Do you have questions about volunteering not answered in this series? Contact the author, Nan Hawthorne, via DIALOGUE at .

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