Knowbility, Inc. is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to support the independence of children and adults with disabilities by promoting the use and improving the availability of accessible information technology. Many ideas for working with volunteers with disabilities.
Packed with practical information, stories, tools and resources, this guide provides support and advice for making organizations more socially inclusive and including individuals with mental health problems as volunteers.
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Working with the Mentally Ill
Submitted by A volunteer coordinator
Are you hesitant about accepting someone with a mental illness as a volunteer? I hope this story will be food for thought.
In January 1998 I interviewed Alyce Jones (not her real name), who was interested in volunteering at our home for the aging. Alyce was accompanied by Jean, the art therapist at a nearby shelter for homeless, mentally disabled women, which is where Alyce lived. Jean had encouraged Alyce to apply for a volunteer position, believing it would be a way for Alyce to get back into the community and lift the depression that she was being treated for.
I tried not to be distracted by Alyce’s missing front teeth and dark wig, but concentrated on her exquisitely written application which revealed that she was a highly skilled person with numerous interests. She spoke softly with clarity and sincerity. Jean, Alyce, and I discussed the type of emotional support and supervision Alyce would need and reviewed the various volunteer positions available. We settled on her becoming a one-on-one friendly visitor. The directors of our Social Services and Therapeutic Recreation departments worked with me to develop a focused yet flexible plan for Alyce.
The director of Therapeutic Recreation prepared a list of residents who might benefit from Alyce’s visits and the director of Social Services agreed to oversee her work. Alyce and I also agreed to meet daily, which gave me the opportunity to coach and praise her and especially to listen to her talk about her work. I was overjoyed to learn that Alyce had befriended sweet Mary on the fourth floor and was writing letters for her, and that Alyce and Mrs. Johnson, a blind resident, were spending time in our beautiful garden, sharing their love for history and story telling.
In February Alyce and Jean invited me to visit the shelter. Located across the street from a crack house, the shelter housed 300 abused and dysfunctional women: mothers and daughters with nowhere to go. Armed guards escorted me upstairs to the Transitional Living Community, Alyce’s unit, where there are 30 residents. The unit was peaceful compared to the din below and above us. Alyce introduced me to the residents and staff and gave me a tour. When Alyce walked me back to our agency, I saw a different woman. I saw her in completeness: her strength, courage, intelligence, and adaptability--traits that would empower our nursing home residents to flourish within their physical, mental and emotional limitations. I saw a woman fulfilling needs for self-esteem and self-expression through meaningful volunteer work.
Over the next few months our talks became less frequent yet more valuable, taking on a new dimension of challenging cohesive teamwork as she drew up her own action plan for resident involvement. Alyce began to communicate directly with the social workers and was helping various recreational activities for the residents. By May the wig was gone and Alyce had new front teeth. The change in her appearance mirrored the transformation within. This confirmed my belief that everyone has a gift to offer. If these gifts are recognized and the abilities of each person are received with open minds and hearts, true magic happens.
Working with People with Disabilities
Working with adults with severe developmental disabilities
Submitted by Dolores Cattiny, North Jersey Developmental Center
, Totowa, New Jersey, USA
Volunteers who work with adults having severe developmental disabilities may need extra support and coaching, especially in the beginning. It may be emotionally difficult for volunteers to work with individuals who have developmental or physical disabilites causing a change in physical appearance or affecting vocabulary skills. Volunteers may feel embarrassed by some of the behaviors of the clients or may be fearful of being hurt. Other issues may surface: volunteers may feel helpless, hopeless, sad or angry.
Good training is a must, as is open communication. Volunteers must feel that they can ask questions, seek guidance or just vent frustrations. Showing interest in their work and expressing appreciation are also very important. Our supervisors teach volunteers about our philosophy of normalization: giving clients the most normal environment possible where they develop life skills to the greatest possible extent. Volunteers not only teach clients basic skills like holding a spoon; they also serve as role models.
Supervisors teach volunteers ways to communicate with clients with disabilities that affect their vocabulary skills such as sign language, language boards and touch. Volunteers also learn to look for smiles and head movements. Supervisors help volunteers learn to look for progress so they can see the positive, not just the negative. We assure volunteers that clients have feelings and that friendship with the volunteers improves their quality of life. When a client is able to leave the center for a group home in the community we can all celebrate; and our volunteers know they were part of what made this possible.
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Last Updated: December 7, 2016
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