Our Youth Advisory Panel member, Jack Welch, writes about inclusive volunteering and creative opportunities.

The attitudes to voluntary work and the impact it has had on the individuals getting involved are changing for the better. An example is the Step Up to Serve research, showing that 1.4 million young people are engaging in some form of voluntary social action with an aim for 50% of those under 20 to be engaged by 2020.

No longer is the concept of volunteering just associated with being stuck in a charity shop or an excuse for free labour, but a way in which people can get involved in activities from the media to heritage and have skills which employers need. For those who are classed as disabled, whether that be a physical impairment or learning disability that affects aspects of somebody’s everyday lives, volunteering is an ideal pathway.

Back in 2010, 70% of those with a disability thought that employers were wilfully discriminating against their job applications. This would otherwise be illegal in the provisions covered in the Equalities Act passed in the same year, and previously the Disability Discrimination Act, but it seems that many would still be unprepared to give the opportunity because of underestimating someone’s real talents. However, the Disability Action Alliance (DAA) has drawn up a charter to encourage voluntary organisations to increase their diversity of disabled volunteers. Something is clearly still wrong when 47% said they never volunteered because of lack of support.

Investment in projects that are diverse in nature and scope are vital, but also ensuring they are inclusive with the right support from staff and volunteers, to ensure that the personal growth of a disabled person can be successful. When this group are the most likely to be isolated because of common barriers like transport or accessibility, which is often intensified, organisations which are prepared to address this can have a tremendous pay-off. In heritage, a project I was part of in the Dorset Youth Association, ‘Walking in their Shoes’, contained 20 young volunteers aged 15-25 to create a history trail of two significant historical periods for the county.

Having a learning disability myself, but perhaps not a great need for additional support, I was able to see the impact of volunteers with more challenging needs having the support of other adult helpers supporting the group (all voluntarily) and give meaningful activities within sessions. The group itself though was a mix of the non-disabled and disabled, of young and adult volunteers, meaning that each of us could benefit from one another’s experiences. As a result, the group has had one success after another, including a British Youth Council ‘Youth on Board’ award for the project.

It’s not just in heritage though, but in areas such as the fashion industry too which young people are campaigning to change. The benefit of having organisations such as Fixers around has enabled those who may have otherwise been voiceless to change attitudes in their communities. The example of someone’s success in the media to change their perceptions around models is just one way in which a creative outlet can be utilised to change the world around them. Mencap too have produced a set of insightful guides from drama to dance, and one for young people specifically, in what project engagement could mean for them. There would perhaps be no excuse for organisations to be unprepared for inclusion to exclude disabled applicants if these were more widely circulated.

Naturally though, as from my own experiences, the barriers built from a young age can break self-esteem and believing that perhaps you are not welcome in well-established circles, in which your needs would be seen as a burden. It is heartening to see the specialist institutions like The Orpheus Centre, an arts college set up by Sir Richard Stilgoe for disabled people to find their calling in the arts, but sadly these are not located everywhere in the country. Integration and patience are what is needed to have a real chance in which the disabled are not just the problems to be solved, but rather the solution. As shown by the Youth Sport Trust’s research, 58% of disabled volunteers feel they belong when they are involved in their communities. It feels all the more exciting that my new role on Spirit’s Youth Advisory Panel may help to shape some long lasting changes, with one of their priorities being enabling and empowering disabled  people. As a final thought, some can even make a career from their disability, like Tom Yendell, who paints without having any hands – the potential is limitless.

Helpful Links and Projects

Young Disabled Leaders – The Young Foundation

CATH Projects – Overcoming Communitarian Barriers

Is it too difficult for people with disabilities to find volunteering roles? – The Guardian (14 August 2013)