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Supported volunteering for adults with disabilities

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The CSV Vocal Project in West Norfolk share their experience in developing and implementing supported volunteering for adults with disabilities.


Disabled adults have historically been excluded from community, work and social opportunities. This has resulted in a greater dependency on the social care system.

CSV’s Supported Volunteering projects tackle this issue by enabling disabled adults to access their community and maintain their independence through volunteering supported by a mentor.

The first of these projects, the CSV Vocal Project, was initiated in West Norfolk in 1989.  It started out as a pilot project that enabled young adults with learning disabilities to participate in activities within their local communities. Over the last 25 years, the project has expanded to cover the whole of Norfolk, where it supports adults with learning disabilities to develop their skills, independence, confidence and community connections through active volunteering. Similar sister projects are now also present in Essex, London and Scotland.

The issues we faced

The government has recently made it their key strategy to tackle the problem, particularly through the ‘Valuing People Now’, ‘Valuing Employment Now’, and 'Fulfilling Potential' strategies and agendas. The Big Society also encourages community responsibility in solving the issues – but their efforts are hampered by challenging economic demands on individuals.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are still many myths, misunderstandings and barriers to disabled people being able to fulfil their right to active citizenship, choice and control, not least within the field of contributing through social action and volunteering:

  • There is a distinct lack of information regarding what support disabled people require to enable them to undertake volunteering. There is a lack of awareness surrounding the benefits that volunteering can have, both for the person and the organisation.
  • There is a link between volunteering and employment which has become a barrier for disabled people in their engagement in volunteering (fear of loss of benefits, sometimes mistaken correlation between volunteering and being ‘employment ready’).
  • There is not enough proactivity when it comes to engaging disabled people in volunteering, and some evidence to suggest that volunteer recruiters may ‘fish from the easiest pool’ – exacerbated by the increasing application of volunteering for work experience and therefore a larger pool of potential volunteers to choose from.
  • In the 2012-13 Citizenship Survey it was found that 37% of those with a long-term limiting illness or disability formally volunteered compared with 46% of those with no long-term limiting illness or disability.

The actions we took

The project provides three types of support to disabled people:

  • Mentor support – where the individual wants to volunteer or gain employment but lacks confidence and skills, and are matched with a mentor to support their skills training.
  • Supported volunteering – where the individual has gained the confidence and skills to move onto a volunteering placement supported by their mentor.
  • Volunteering/supported employment – where the individual has reached all aims they have set with CSV and no longer need their mentor. At this stage, they can now volunteer independently or move onto supported employment.

Positive outcomes

Through the consultations CSV held with the disabled people, social workers, carers and volunteer mentors, we found that:

On volunteering

  • Volunteering encourages better community integration, improves health and wellbeing, and provides for skills development. It also encourages individuals to move on from traditional day service activities into a more inclusive and active participatory environment.
  • Volunteering focuses on an individual’s assets and is a positive activity which builds self- esteem

On mentors

  • Mentor support could be extended to include social inclusion activities. It also promotes community integration as mentors develop an understanding and acceptance of the people they are supporting, and share this within their networks.
  • Mentors also benefit from increased employment skills – in particular within the social care field. 

On people with disability

  • In encouraging disabled people to take part in volunteering, support is sometimes needed to overcome barriers in access, attitudes, confidence and communication.
  • It is important to appreciate that disabled people want to volunteer for the same reasons as anyone else – it is not just about work skills.
  • Pilots in London and West Norfolk have shown that developing a similar programme for young people in Transition is highly beneficial; young people benefit from mentors, gain skills, and are able to navigate transition pathways and make positive choices for their next steps.
  • Partnerships with local Employment Advisors, where disabled volunteers supported by their mentors are able to access work opportunities, can enhance the volunteers’ paid work opportunities.
  • There are still other barriers to volunteering, including accessibility, stigma and expense.

Negative outcomes

On reflection, it would have been beneficial to have considered the support needed by organisations involving volunteers to help to break down the barriers – other than the volunteer mentor – and to have incorporated this into training programmes in a more formal way. This is learning which we are taking forward.

Lessons learnt

During 2013/2014, CSV supported 562 disabled people with 355 volunteers to participate in volunteering in their communities.

Recent statistics have showed that: 90% of volunteers with a learning disability felt more independent; and 65% of disabled volunteers felt more in control of their lives.

Lisa has a learning disability and was supported by CSV to volunteer in a community cafe. This allowed her to gain work skills and enhance her CV so she could get a job. After 12 months, she secured part time employment at a national bar and restaurant chain. Lisa said, “My confidence has improved and my social skills. Without CSV I would not have got anywhere and would be sat at home bored with nothing to do.”

Lee is 31 years old, has severe learning difficulties and has never worked. But since becoming a volunteer in a charity shop, he says his independence and confidence have dramatically improved. Lee said, “Before I joined CSV, I was very lonely and I did not have much to look forward to in my day. I love volunteering at Barnardo’s and I have made lots of new friends with the job. The job has really increased my confidence.”


Page last edited Jul 22, 2015

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