Making Disability a Priority in your Volunteering Programme

Twenty per cent of the UK's population are registered as disabled, but only 6% of volunteers have disabilities.

Woman smiling Everyone knows that Equality and Diversity are supremely important, but when starting a new volunteer programme, how can you ensure it is accessible to all?   

The social model of disability suggests that it is society that disables people, not the individual, and we need to do everything we can do reduce barriers to volunteering.   

What are the barriers to volunteering for people with disabilities?   
  • Inaccessible information
  • Inaccessible transport
  • Lack of flexibility with tasks and roles
  • Policies and practises that do not accommodate for individual needs
  • Prejudice and stereotyping
  • Inaccessible buildings / lack of suitable equipment
  • Lengthy recruitment / application processes    

Language use is another important factor in accessible advertising, recruitment and management of your volunteer programme. Phrases such as the handicapped, the disabled and the blind should always be replaced with 'people with' because nobody should be defined solely by their disability. In the same vein, don't describe someone as a diabetic or a depressive, because this again defines them entirely by their disability. Also try to avoid anything like suffers from, confined to, afflicted by or victim of - some people 'have' disabilities and some people 'use' a wheelchair.   

Reasonable adjustments  

You have a duty to make reasonable changes for volunteers with disabilities - this includes flexible working hours and tasks, and physical workplace changes such as providing a ramp.   

Questions to ask yourself: 
  • Could a wheelchair get into each room of our building? 
  • Do we have a lift and how do we evacuate people when a lift is out of use? 
  • Do we have sufficient toilet provisions? 
  • Is the application form accessible in large print, easy read, Braille or as an audio file? 
  • Do we have a hearing loop installed?   

What can I do?

The only way you can be truly accommodating is to make plenty of time to get to know each of your volunteers. The more you know about them and their needs, the easier it will be to support them. Always specify in your adverts that you can provide alternative application routes if necessary. Be flexible and prepared to make changes to the way your organisation works - a diverse and well supported volunteer base is more valuable than strict rules that limit your supporters. Be patient with people who need different kinds of support; coordinating volunteers is just as much about building people up as it is running your organisation or projects. Finally, always remember what is was like when you first started volunteering, how nervous it can make people when starting in a new place, and try to be as empathetic as possible.   

You can find out much more about creating a volunteering programme and making it more inclusive in The Volunteering Toolkit and the Making Volunteering Inclusive Toolkit available from Voluntary Action Leeds. When you feel ready you can apply for the Volunteering Kitemark which recognises good practice. If you would like a copy of the Toolkit and Kitemark information, call VAL 0113 297 7920 or visit  

Emma Bennett is a charity Trustee and Volunteer Coordinator for a Leeds Supplementary School, Charity Blogger, and a former researcher & administrator for Voluntary Action Leeds and Young Lives Leeds. Emma is extremely passionate about volunteering, young people and mental health and has worked extensively on a wide variety of Third Sector projects. She writes and works in digital for High Speed Training, who provide online safeguarding and equality & diversity courses. @emm_benn    

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