Volunteers with Disabilities Have Much to Offer, but Opportunities May Be Limited by Existing Barriers

A study funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).

Workers with disabilities have different patterns of employment compared to workers without disabilities. Previous research has shown that workers with disabilities tend to work fewer hours, are more likely to work in temporary positions, and are less likely than their peers without disabilities to hold higher-paying professional or management jobs. People with disabilities may encounter similar inequalities when volunteering. Although past research has found that a substantial percentage of people with disabilities participate in volunteering, volunteers with disabilities may have difficulty accessing needed accommodations or supports from the organizations with which they volunteer. As a result, like paid workers with disabilities, volunteers with disabilities may engage in different types of volunteer work from volunteers without disabilities. In addition, certain types of organizations may have a higher proportion of volunteers with disabilities than other types of organizations.

In a recent NIDILRR-funded study, researchers looked at data on volunteer activities performed by Americans with and without disabilities. The researchers wanted to find out if people with disabilities tended to volunteer for different types of organizations compared to people without disabilities. They also wanted to find out whether the types of volunteer activities that people with disabilities perform are different from those performed by people without disabilities. Finally, they looked at the extent to which volunteers with disabilities participated in particular types of organizations.

Researchers studying Disability, Volunteering, and Employment over the Life Course looked at data from the Current Population Survey (CPS), a large national survey of Americans aged 15 and older. The researchers looked at data from 55,240 respondents, collected between 2009 and 2015, who reported volunteering during the previous year. The respondents were asked to describe the organization with which they did the most volunteering. These organizations fell into one of eight categories: religious; schools or youth-serving; social or community service; political, civic, professional, or international; sport, hobby, or cultural; hospital or health-related; environment or animal welfare; or other types not already listed. The respondents were also asked to describe their major volunteer activity within the organization, which was categorized as professional, such as serving in a leadership role; teaching, coaching, or mentoring; distribution, such as passing out food or collecting donated items; other specialized activities; general activities, like clerical work; or fund-raising.

The respondents also answered questions about whether or not they had trouble seeing, hearing, walking, remembering or concentrating, dressing or bathing, or running errands. The respondents who answered yes to any of these questions were categorized as having a disability. In addition, the respondents answered demographic questions such as their age, race/ethnicity, gender, and marital status, which could also relate to volunteering patterns.

The researchers found that 4,525 of the respondents (8%) reported having a disability. When the researchers compared the respondents with and without disabilities, they found that, even after accounting for demographic differences:

  • Respondents with disabilities were more likely to volunteer with social/community service organizations than respondents without disabilities.
  • Respondents with disabilities were less likely to volunteer with school/youth organizations and sport/hobby/cultural organizations than those without disabilities.
  • Volunteer rates were similar for hospital or health organizations and for environmental or animal care organizations.
  • In general, respondents with disabilities reported different volunteer activities from the respondents without disabilities. Compared with respondents without disabilities, a lower percentage of the respondents with disabilities reported engaging in professional volunteer tasks like serving on boards, fundraising, or doing coaching, teaching, or mentoring tasks. On the other hand, a higher percentage of the respondents with disabilities reported doing distribution tasks like passing out food. This was true across different types of organizations: With the exception of sport and hobby organizations, a higher percentage of volunteers with disabilities reported distribution tasks in every organization, compared to those without disabilities.

The author noted that, unlike employers, volunteer organizations are not required to provide reasonable accommodations to volunteers with disabilities. Consequently, people with disabilities may be less likely to volunteer for organizations or activities that are not already accessible. In this study, the volunteers with disabilities were less likely than their peers without disabilities to volunteer for youth organizations or sports or hobby clubs, perhaps because these types of organizations may operate in less accessible settings. Furthermore, even in the same type of organization, volunteers with disabilities may be less likely to be invited to occupy leadership positions or other skilled service tasks. This may be due to the pervasive stigmas and doubts about what volunteers with disabilities can contribute. Volunteer coordinators may wish to obtain training and explore innovative strategies to reach out to this untapped pool of potential volunteers, including engaging volunteers with disabilities to help build accessible and inclusive policies and practices.

To Learn More

Research In Focus previously examined this topic in People with Disabilities May Offer an Untapped Volunteer Pool for Organizations.

The ADA National Network and its regional centers assist people with disabilities and organizations in understanding their rights and responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other disability rights legislation. Contact the nearest Regional ADA Center by calling 800/949-4ADA (4232).

The Job Accommodation Network has a factsheet which discusses how volunteers may be covered under each Title of the ADA.

To Learn More About this Study

Shandra, C.L., 2020. Disability segregation in volunteer work. Sociological Perspectives, 63(1), 112-134. This article is available from the NARIC Collection under Accession Number J84173.

Research In Focus is a publication of the National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC), a library and information center focusing on disability and rehabilitation research, with a special focus on the research funded by NIDILRR. NARIC provides information, referral, and document delivery on a wide range of disability and rehabilitation topics. To learn more about this study and the work of the greater NIDILRR grantee community, visit NARIC at http://www.naric.com or call 800/346-2742 to speak to an information specialist.