What's the role for disabled volunteers in the response to Covid-19?

13 May 2020

A few days ago, a visually impaired athlete took her smartphone and streamed an audio described workout on Facebook.

The class was followed by lots of other visually impaired people wanting to exercise during lockdown.

This may lead us to ask ourselves if there is a role for disabled people in the response to the current pandemic? A lot of them are actually facing difficulties to meet their essential needs such as getting food deliveries or picking up prescriptions.

This example of providing an accessible workout illustrates the solidarity among the disabled community. But should disabled people only find volunteering opportunities among other disabled people in these challenging times?

Indeed this workout class was not only followed by disabled people. In a time where millions of people feel trapped at home live streams of workouts help to maintain physical but also mental wellbeing and to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness. In this scenario your “personal trainer” might have an impairment, but that does not change the quality of the service. It even allows everyone to follow it without looking at the screen.

Given that by not being inclusive the third sector misses out on so many talented and determined volunteers, it is time to reflect on how to make volunteering more inclusive within an emergency situation. Disabled people are usually seen as recipients of charitable work, but they also can and want to volunteer themselves.

When creating new opportunities, have you ever focused on being inclusive, even in these stressful times? To what extent should the third sector accommodate access needs when the help they provide is demanding and urgent? Do you think disabled volunteers should stay at home in order to not put their life in danger?

In the current crisis every helping hand is needed. Organisations may have to distribute their resources wisely to deliver their services while also protecting everyone involved. Looking after volunteer’s physical and mental wellbeing should always be a priority for volunteer managers. We should consider the impact on a volunteer who may have existing mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. Mental health conditions are often undisclosed.

Is it appropriate to put someone who may have a mental health condition in a crisis situation where they can be triggered by their experience? Isn’t it contradictory with the aim of what a good volunteering project should look like? How do we remain inclusive in an emergency situation? Is it okay to not be inclusive if an organisation feels they cannot support a volunteer with additional needs?

Ultimately, is it fair to deny volunteering to those who have an impairment or a mental health condition when it should be a best practice to support everyone? Be realistic with what you can offer and what you need from your volunteers. Have a conversation with the applicant. It is important they feel empowered to make a decision about whether your volunteer offer is suitable for them.

Guler Koca, Melissa Lonie and Susanne Philipp
Project Scotland