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4 Tips for Volunteers Who Work With People With Disabilities

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If you are the parent of someone with a disability, when introduced to someone while in the company of your child (very frequently), their expression tends to switch to “poor thing” mode (poor mom and/or poor child/teen/adult).

Back home in Venezuela, during almost three decades of non-profit involvement, I worked with many volunteers of all ages. Our oldest and most popular program was “Jugando Juntos” or “Playing Together.” It was a quarterly socialization event that brought together children and teens with and without disabilities. Our volunteers were responsible for setting up the venue, organizing the fun activities and picking up the mess at the end!

This photo is from one of those events (a field day).

Mother and son

Liliana and her son, Axel, are running a race! Laughing and enjoying themselves!

Axel is a young adult with cerebral palsy and other disabilities. Liliana is raising him by herself, and although it takes a toll on her physically (Axel is now a tall young man and transferring and caring for him takes lots of effort), she is always ready for fun, along with Axel, of course.

A banner promoting The Mighty's new Our CP Journey group on The Mighty mobile app. The banner reads, Join Our CP Journey — a supportive and uplifting space for anyone who has cerebral palsy. Let's help each other find the courage to keep going. Click to join.

On the day of the photo, I remember observing the reactions of the three high school volunteers tasked with helping Axel. Initially, they were hesitant even to get close. But Liliana’s tone set the mood for the day. She briefly explained Axel’s needs, emphasizing his good humor and eagerness to participate as fully as possible. By the end of the day, the high schoolers were interacting with Axel very naturally, helping him navigate the obstacles and joking around with him and his mom.

In short, “poor thing” was not accurate here, to say the least!

My recommendations for newly recruited volunteers are:

  1. No assumptions, please.
  2. Start out with a smile.
  3. Do your best to identify commonalities. For example, “Cool outfit!” or “Nice cap!” or maybe “Are you a fan of that team?” (noting the logo on the person’s shirt).
  4. Let things flow naturally, looking beyond the differences.

It usually works and certainly did on that memorable field day in Venezuela!

Photo credit: Corina Clamens.

Originally published: July 1, 2020
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