BRIDGES TO THE FUTURE:
Supported Programs for
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1 The Concept of Supported Volunteerism
2 Organizational Support Required for Supported Volunteer Programs
3 Managing Volunteers with Special Needs
4 Issues, Concerns and Challenges
5 Future Directions
A Some Supported Volunteerism Programs in Canada
B A Note on Terminology
C The Missing Link in Supported Volunteerism: Volunteers with learning disabilities
D Job Accommodations: Services to assist organizations
A very special debt of gratitude is owed to two people who served as primary advisors in the development of this project: Linda Graff, a Hamilton consultant on issues in volunteerism, and Marianne Scott, the Executive Director of the Volunteer Action Centre in Edmonton.
Thanks should also be extended to the following individuals who took time out of hectic schedules to provide critical comments on various drafts of this text and to share their thoughts on supported volunteering:
Alan Currie and Jean MacKinnon of the Victoria Volunteer Bureau; Charles McCaffray of Challenge: Community Vocational Alternative in the Whitehorse; Kathy Strachan of the Independent Living Resource Centre in Winnipeg; Linda Western and Sheila Donison of the Coquitlam Volunteer Centre; Gilda Good, Michèle Pagé and Igor Ziemba of the Central Volunteer Bureau of Ottawa-Carleton; Michelle Provost of the Volunteer Bureau of Montreal; Carol Biely of the Richmond Information and Volunteer Centre; Martha Parker and Keith Seel of the Volunteer Centre of Calgary; Ruth Anderson of the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton; Doris Noel and Tracy Manrell of the Burnaby Volunteer Centre; Joanne Cooper and Syrelle Bernstein of the Volunteer Centre of Metropolitan Toronto; Sandra Murphy and Leigh Thorne of the Volunteer Centre of the Community Services Council in St John's; Dale Cuthbertson of Volunteer Vancouver; Alex Honneyford of the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services; Barbara Robertson of the Office for Disability Issues, Government of Ontario; Seymore Applebaum of Cross-Cultural Connections in Toronto; and Bruce Lund of the Victoria District Office of the Department of the Secretary of State of Canada.
Without the generous assistance of all of these people, this text could not have been completed.
Supported volunteer programs are an emerging trend in volunteerism. Their aim is to encourage the integration of volunteers who have special needs by offering them support they need to succeed in volunteer jobs. This exciting new development is spearheaded by a number of volunteer centres across Canada.
With the ever growing need for volunteers, it is vital for voluntary organizations to explore new ways of attracting volunteers. Supported volunteer programs are a creative way to tap into the diverse human resources in a community, while at the same time making volunteer opportunities accessible to those with special needs.
Traditionally, there has been a strong tendency for voluntary organizations to recruit volunteers from the middle and upper classes of the non-disabled, white population. However, there have been changes in recent years.
There is now a greater acceptance of the necessity of encouraging volunteers with special needs and from diverse backgrounds to become involved in `mainstream' volunteering. Nevertheless, there are still barriers to the participation of individuals who have special needs due to disabilities or disadvantageous circumstances.
This text discusses the concept of supported volunteerism, examines factors in the success of programs supporting volunteers with special needs, and addresses key issues and challenges related to supported volunteerism. It also provides a brief review of the innovative programs that are being piloted by Canadian volunteer centres, as well as a list of the major resources in this field.
This book is aimed primarily at volunteer centres and bureaux, but we hope it will also be useful to other voluntary organizations and to government departments at all levels interested in social services and equality issues.
Supported volunteer programs are both a challenge and an opportunity for the voluntary sector. Volunteers with special needs may require special support at first, but they can bring a wealth of skills, knowledge and experience to the job. We hope that the information in this book will inspire more organizations to move in this direction.
* * *
I have used the phrase `special-needs volunteer' throughout this book to mean not only disabled people, which is the usual scope of this term, but also people who are at a disadvantage as volunteers because of the circumstances of their lives. Such disadvantages may include poverty, illiteracy, unfamiliarity with an official language of the country, or discrimination because of race or ethnicity.
What is key in all these discussions is not the disadvantage but the fact that it hampers those who have it in their efforts as volunteers.
For a fuller discussion of terminology, see Appendix B of this book.
This book focuses on formal programs that have been established specifically to increase the involvement of volunteers with special needs. It should be recognized, however, that many volunteer centres and other organizations provide similar support informally to individual volunteers already.
Supported volunteer programs: definition and rationale
There are various programs across the country that promote the involvement of volunteers from a specific group in the overall population. Programs geared to seniors or youth, for example, are among the most popular. By definition, such programs engage in active recruitment and targeted marketing, rather than simply responding to demand, as is the usual way.
The aim of `supported' volunteer programs is to involve people who have special needs arising out of disabilities or disadvantaged circumstances and keep them involved in volunteering. Like other special programs, supported volunteer programs are a deliberate attempt to recruit volunteers from target groups that have been under-represented. However, supported programs have an extra dimension that is critical: special arrangements for the placement of volunteers and individual support for them once the placement has been made. This support may also extend to the manager of volunteer resources.
In supported volunteer programs, a concerted effort must be made to help volunteers who have special needs because of disabilities or disadvantaged social or economic circumstances to function at their best. To achieve this, barriers to their participation must be identified and removed, and suitable accommodations made so they can succeed at their volunteer jobs. The result is a supportive environment which puts the accent on abilities rather than difficulties.
Two basic tenets underlie the concept of supported volunteerism:
The target population for a supported volunteer program may include:
There is, of course, enormous variation between and even within these special-needs groups. For example, the job placement and support required to integrate a person with a disability will differ greatly from that required for a newcomer who is struggling to become fluent in English or French. Likewise, a person with a hearing impairment will have needs that are dramatically different from someone who has an intellectual disability. Beyond that, the precise nature and impact of the special need can vary tremendously from one individual to another.
Support for volunteers with special needs can come in many different forms, depending on the target group of the program and the needs of the individual. The range of possibilities for support (known as job accommodations) includes:
For some people, this support might involve just a technical aid like an amplifier for the telephone. For others, it might involve one-to-one training and extra guidance at the beginning. For still others, more complex support could be needed to ensure success. This might involve flexible work assignments, extended training periods, ongoing guidance and perhaps even a `buddy' or `mentor' system pairing the volunteer with another person.
Great care must always be taken to ensure that the placement is suited to the abilities and interests of the volunteer. In some cases, co-workers, both volunteers and staff members, may have to be sensitized to the special needs of the volunteer (with the consent of the volunteer). In all cases, the manager or supervisor will have to be knowledgeable, sensitive, and skilled in matching a volunteer with a position.
Supported volunteer programs are an effective means to ensure more equal access to volunteer opportunities. They are related to the concept of employment equity in that the ultimate goal is to achieve a volunteer work force in which the proportion of the various target groups is comparable to their numbers in society.
Supported volunteerism also relies on approaches similar to those of progressive programs that have begun to emerge to provide assistance and support to employees who have special needs because of disabilities.
In one sense, supported volunteer programs could be considered to be both a social service and a catalyst for social change in their own right. By offering people with special needs the opportunity to participate as volunteers and to enjoy the benefits that volunteering can offer, they promote social equality.
By providing an avenue for social integration, they can help break down stereotypes and prejudices that have a negative impact on all areas of the lives of Canadians with special needs.
Supported volunteerism: philosophical underpinnings
Supported programs for volunteers with special needs are based on the following principles:
Barriers to volunteering faced by individuals with special needs
People who have disabilities or special circumstances face a variety of barriers (although usually not intentional) that have traditionally blocked or limited their access to volunteering and to many other aspects of society, as well.
In addition, appropriate support systems to make the volunteer experience possible for those with special needs generally do not yet exist in the voluntary sector.
Every special-needs group encounters barriers to volunteer participation that stem from external factors:
Social and attitudinal barriers
The greatest obstacle to integrating individuals with special needs is public attitude. All too often, attention is focused on the disability or difficulty. There is also a common tendency to overlook abilities, skills and strengths and to assume the worst case. Although based on myth and misconceptions, discrimination remains deeply entrenched throughout our society.
Attitudes and stereotypes are complex psychological processes that have emotional, intellectual and behavioural elements. They are sets of fixed ideas that have been built up over time, and they are very resistant to change. Most of us hold stereotypical attitudes (both positive and negative) towards specific groups of people, even though we may make an effort not to.
Negative stereotypes about individuals who are different in any way are very common. There may thus be reluctance in any organization to accept `unusual' volunteers. Whether conscious or not, this lack of acceptance on the part of others may show up as obvious discomfort or patronizing attitudes towards individuals with special needs. For some, the very idea of involving volunteers with special needs may push strong prejudices based on ignorance and fear to the fore.
For individuals from any of the groups mentioned above, there may also be economic deterrents to volunteering. For many, their special needs or circumstances will have affected their chances of obtaining employment or earning a living wage. If their lives are in constant economic turmoil, the costs of volunteering could be a major barrier to their involvement. Paying out-of pocket expenses such as transportation, parking, child care, meals, and materials would be prohibitively expensive for them.
Beyond the roadblocks mentioned above, there are a range of psychological barriers to volunteering for people who have had chronic difficulties gaining access to activities that would otherwise be considered a normal part of the Canadian way of life. These internal barriers may include:
Finally, people with special needs or circumstances may not understand the concept of volunteerism in general and supported volunteerism in particular. Examples include:
Benefits to the volunteer with special needs
It has been recognized for a long time that volunteering offers many advantages that serve as psychological incentives to the volunteer, whether conscious or not. In fact, recent studies have shown that volunteering can have a very positive effect not only on the volunteer's mental health and sense of well-being but also on physical health.
Volunteering meets some of the most basic needs that we all have as human beings, for example feeling needed and productive. And, if it is an enjoyable and rewarding experience, it offers the opportunity for self-satisfaction and self-fulfilment that comes from doing something worthwhile. By expanding one's network of social contacts and offering the chance for social interaction, it also breaks down feelings of isolation.
Because volunteering provides opportunities to use existing skills and knowledge and to draw upon one's own experience, it fosters personal growth. It also gives people a chance to try out new skills or activities in a less threatening environment.
Many people who have special needs may experience low self-esteem because they have been marginalized by society. For them, the positive aspects of volunteerism can be even greater.
Volunteering can be a `normalizing' experience because it offers an avenue for increased social contact and a way to integrate into mainstream society.
It allows individuals with special needs to be part of a team, to be accepted by peers, and to develop a sense of belonging and community. It also has the potential to provide recognition for those who have been largely marginalized by society.
As it confirms the volunteer's value to society and his ability to make a meaningful contribution to the community, volunteering has the potential to build self-confidence and self-esteem.
It can strengthen an individual's control over her life and help her become self-sufficient, thus increasing her capacity for self-help. In this way, volunteering can be a means to achieve personal empowerment.
Volunteer work can also be a stepping stone to paid employment or expanded career horizons. It develops skills and practical knowledge and provides valuable work experience that can help people enter, or return to, the labour market.
These benefits may be of particular importance to individuals with disabilities since their involvement in the labour force has traditionally been very limited. Many are unemployed or underemployed and are denied access to the work experience they need to compete fairly in the labour market.
Benefits to the organization
Programs to support volunteers who have special needs offer advantages to organizations that go far beyond a sense of satisfaction from striving for fairness and equality. They can also enrich the organizations.
To design, market and deliver services that are appropriate to a given community requires the active involvement of a broad spectrum of the population. When they are exposed to a wider range of experience and ideas, organizations are likely to make better decisions. And they are likely to become more innovative and creative.
It is thus to the benefit of voluntary organizations to attract a much broader cross-section of the population than in the past. (This applies to clients, staff and board members, as well as to volunteers on the front line.) In the 1990s, diversity and appropriate representation from the community may even be critical to ensuring the survival of an organization.
Supported volunteer programs are one way to address this need. By encouraging open participation, voluntary organizations are able to tap into a broader range of human resources from all segments of society. They can then develop a team of volunteers with diverse skills, backgrounds and languages. And, as a result, they will receive valuable input from different perspectives.
Volunteers with disabilities or special circumstances can meet needs of an organization that could not be met as effectively through other means. A balanced mix of volunteers can increase the organization's understanding of its clients' needs.
For example, because of their own experiences, special-needs volunteers might be especially sensitive to the needs of alienated and neglected members of the community. Former clients of an agency make excellent volunteers, whether to deliver services, develop programs or serve on the board of directors.
Studies have shown that employees with disabilities have better records than their non-disabled co-workers for performance, attendance, job stability, and even safety. Although supported programs are relatively new, evidence is beginning to suggest that the same may hold true for volunteers.
In general, organizations report that most volunteers with special needs are highly motivated and hard-working if they are properly nurtured. Thus, when given the support they require, they may well be among those volunteers who are the most productive and most committed to the work of the organization in the long run.
Prerequisites for success
Effective outreach to new segments of the community requires an investment of time, energy and probably also money. If a supportive environment does not exist, volunteers with special needs are being set up for failure. When an organization establishes a supported volunteer program or accepts volunteers with special needs, it must be prepared to meet certain conditions.
In addition to a broad social vision and a commitment to social equality, these prerequisites are:
Finally, to have a successful program that encourages the participation of volunteers with special needs, it is critical to foster the concept of self-help. This is a philosophy of helping people to help themselves.
Individuals with special needs and circumstances should be seen as moving along a path towards self-reliance and personal empowerment. They should be encouraged to play an active role in planning their volunteer careers. If the unspoken objective is to do something for them, the program will likely be regarded as patronizing, and as a result, will alienate potential volunteers.
Approaches to organizing supported volunteer programs
There are various ways supported volunteer programs can be organized. Each has its own particular advantages.
So far, supported programs have been established by organizations that serve a `brokerage' function by helping volunteers find appropriate placements in a community organization or agency. Typically, these have been volunteer centres.
In Winnipeg, however, the Independent Living Resource Centre, a cross-disability group run by people with disabilities themselves, has established a supported volunteer program.
The promotion of volunteerism and the recruitment of volunteers are key parts of the mandate of volunteer centres. The centres have also established links with a wide variety of organizations in their community and are a source of information and support for those organizations. A volunteer centre could thus be considered a logical `home' for a supported program.
Another workable option is an organization that works for the rights of a specific disadvantaged group, such as the Independent Living Centre in Winnipeg mentioned above. This option offers the advantage of expertise in special needs and a focus on the overall development and empowerment of the individual.
It would also offer the possibility of a support network for volunteers with special needs. (The ideal situation would probably be to have such an organization run a program in partnership with the local volunteer centre, and so offer the best of both worlds.)
Alternatively, a larger voluntary organization with a well developed program for volunteer management could choose to run a supported volunteer program on its own.
A supported volunteer program could either target a single group or encourage the involvement of individuals representing a wide range of special-needs groups. However, when it comes to government support, the reality is that the funding sources tend to be very fragmented. (For example, mental health issues may come under a ministry of health, while issues relating to physical disabilities may come under a ministry of social services.)
This means that government funding will likely be tied to specific target groups. Although access to a more targetted program will be limited, it will allow the hiring of a program manager who has specialized experience.
Implications for the organization
To be successful, the process of integrating volunteers who have special needs will take extra time and effort. A supported volunteer program will thus likely require additional human and financial resources. For this reason, the small number of programs for supported volunteerism that have been created in Canada have tended to be financed through special grants, usually from government.
In the case of volunteer centres, there is a general consensus that the program manager for a supported volunteer program must be a staff person to ensure consistency. (Frequently, the responsibility for interviewing and referring volunteers lies with a group of volunteers who work on a part-time basis.)
Special training and knowledge are also considered necessary for this kind of position. These would include an understanding of specific disabilities and special needs (depending on the target group for the program), the ability to provide appropriate support to the individual volunteers, familiarity with the social services network in the community, and marketing and presentation skills. In short, this would not be an entry-level position in a volunteer centre.
Likewise, the agency or organization receiving volunteers should be aware that the manager of volunteers will need encouragement and support, especially since she is probably already stretched to the limit by regular duties. The manager will have to devote extra time and energy to integrate volunteers with special needs and must be allowed the freedom to go beyond traditional methods and approaches to recruit, place, orient, train and support these volunteers.
Awareness or sensitivity training may well be needed for the manager of volunteers, as well as for staff and other volunteers. Ideally, the Board of Directors should also have a special orientation to the concept of supported volunteering in order to develop a commitment to the cause.
For example, special training may be required to:
Policy changes may also be in order. For example, it will be necessary to reimburse out-of-pocket expenses where there is an economic barrier to volunteering for individuals with special needs. Some organizations have already adopted this as a general policy for all volunteers.
There are, of course, many potential constraints on change. A manager of volunteers or senior staff member may want to initiate change but may consider this impossible because of shrinking resources or perceived blockages at critical points in the decision-making chain.
On the other hand, the corporate culture of an organization (especially if driven by a persuasive Board member or chief executive officer) can provide a spur to change. So, too, can external pressure from community groups or funders.
Achieving a more representative volunteer base means bringing about change and change is often difficult for both organizations and individuals. Dealing with issues of diversity and change can stir up confusion, feelings of vulnerability, avoidance behaviour, and possibly even fear. Working through these feelings should be considered an essential part of the process of change.
Forging links with other organizations
With a supported volunteer program, a positive attitude towards outreach is critical. The manager of the program must develop relationships and foster liaison with organizations and agencies that are able to either place potential volunteers or refer them. Experience has shown that this process can be time-consuming.
As a first step, community organizations should be approached to determine how receptive they would be to volunteers with special needs and what level of support they would require. This first contact also provides an opportunity to sensitize other organizations to issues in supported volunteering.
Organizations such as the Independent Living Resource Centres, the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Canadian Association for Community Living can be very helpful in providing information on specific needs and ways to accommodate them. Ethnocultural organizations should be consulted, where appropriate. All of these organizations could also be excellent sources both for volunteers and for trainers with the skills and experience to sensitize staff and other volunteers to the needs of their members or clients.
Before developing a supported volunteer program, it is important to consult with some of the `consumer' groups run by people with special needs. It would also be a good idea to set up a steering or advisory committee that includes individuals with special needs.
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|Last updated : 1998/10/16|