Working with people who have a disability

People with a disability are often thought about in terms of what they cannot do. Yet often people with disabilities have amazing skills and are truly inspiring. For people with a disability, volunteering can be an avenue to enable involvement in the community. Volunteering offers a chance to be valued, learn new skills and experiences and meet new people. It can also lead to paid employment, confidence, friendship and enjoyment.

In this article, a person with a disability is defined as someone who has a substantially reduced capability to communicate, socialise, learn and travel, and is continually in need of support services. Disability refers to something which is attributable to an intellectual, psychiatric, cognitive, neurological, sensory or physical impairment or a combination of those impairments which is permanent or likely to be permanent.

This page aims to improve access to volunteering opportunities for people with disabilities by helping volunteer managers and not-for-profit organisations support and value volunteers with disabilities.

Barriers to volunteering

There are limited opportunities for people with a disability to volunteer. This can be due to barriers such as awareness and understanding in the wider community, access to transport and people with disabilities seeing themselves as recipients of volunteering rather than volunteers themselves.

Common myths and issues of people with disabilities volunteering include:

  • Lack of understanding around what a person with a disability can contribute to volunteering
  • Traditional attitudes of people with a disability doing 'light work'
  • Concerns that a person with a disability will not be as reliable because of poor health
  • Organisations unable to provide flexible work arrangements, physical access and provision of equipment

Negative or misinformed attitudes about people with a disability can lead organisations to create unnecessary additional barriers for a volunteer with disabilities. This includes: not giving the volunteer proper roles and responsibilities; not relying on them to be available; and the perception that employing people with disabilities increases the risk of accidents and injuries.

To ensure your workplace doesn't harbour such views, training staff and volunteers in disability equality before volunteers start work is a good idea. Managers and supervisors may also need disability awareness training in relation to communication, etiquette and language. This is particularly important if attitudinal barriers exist.

Addressing barriers to volunteering for disabled people is not as complicated as some organisations assume. Good awareness training, staff attitudes, mentoring systems and accessibility into buildings, toilets and social rooms is all it takes.

Of course, like everyone, people with disabilities have individual barriers that they have to overcome. It is important to consult with the volunteers and work together to identify and overcome obstacles.

Recruiting and interviewing

When recruiting for new volunteers, advertise in job centres and contact your local disability officer at the closest Centrelink office or council. Community-based employment agencies such as Djerriwarrh Job Futures and Windarring can also assist with volunteer opportunities.

Interview process

Being interviewed for a job or volunteer placement can be extremely intimidating, especially if it is your first time. Try to make the interview as informal as possible and more of a discussion. Before the interview, send the interview questions to the potential volunteer so they can prepare and ask what support, if any, they require. It's a good idea to ask the potential volunteer if they want to invite their worker or someone they trust to attend the interview as well.

During the interview

If the support worker or another person is present, it is very important that the questions are directed and answered by the volunteer not their worker or friend/family member.

If you are running the interview you should also:

  • Avoid acronyms, abbreviations and buzz words
  • Be clear on what training and guidance is available and whether specialist equipment and transport arrangements are available
  • Aim to keep the interview fairly short – twenty minutes or less is a good length for the interview

It's okay to give support during the interview and allow time for the volunteer to answer the question. Make sure you discuss potential barriers that might exist and jointly develop solutions. Ask what support, if any, the volunteer might feel they need when volunteering. This gives you the opportunity to plan and arrange support before the volunteer begins work.

It's a good idea to be open to the idea of a trial period; this will allow the volunteer the option of an easy exit without guilt.

Make sure you tell the volunteer when they will be informed about the volunteer position. If they were not successful, it's good practice to tell them why so they can prepare for future interviews or decide whether volunteering is for them at that particular time in their life.

Inducting and training

Allow more time to induct and train people with disabilities – not because they will take more time to get the idea, but because the logistics might be more complicated. This may involve making sure the interview room is comfortable, and that you can deliver the induction and training in a format most suited to individual needs.

It's a good idea to train people with different needs at different levels. For example, if there is a large group of volunteers who need to be inducted, volunteers with learning disabilities can be taught at a slower pace. Training should be adapted to take into account the different skills of volunteers. Often visuals and video clips work better than lecturing. For more information on induction and training sessions view our pages on Inducting and training for more tips.

Supporting and recognising

When working with people with disabilities, your duty of care may increase. This is because sometimes people with disabilities require more care and you need to be aware of the external environment, for example attitudes of other people and accessibility to services or events. It is beneficial to both the volunteer and organisation to develop informal and formal support and supervision systems including mentoring and individual skill development plans.


One-on-one mentoring is a great way to support volunteers with a disability. It is important to work alongside volunteers and guide them rather than standing over them. A mentor's role is vital in how well the volunteer feels included in the organisation, valued and understood. Mentors should be patient, reliable, friendly, respectful and understanding of individual needs. It is good practice to train a second mentor/supporter to cover when the main mentor is absent.

Individual skill development plans

For people new to volunteering and a professional work environment, it's a good idea to have some sort of plan or guidelines to measure what has been achieved. Individual skill development plans focus on enabling the volunteer with a disability to access a range of opportunities and provide support to fully develop the skills and interests of the volunteer. For best results the plan should be developed by the volunteer manager and person with a disability and their support worker (at the request of the volunteer). The plan should be based on the person's interests and strengths and specify objectives and strategies to achieve them.

Total communication

Total communication encourages people to think outside of the box to communicate (other than verbal and written communication) by using different ways to communicate. The following ways to communicate are all considered part of total communication: gestures, body language, sign language, using symbols, objects, photographs, Braille and facial expressions.

While we all generally use body language and gestures when we are talking, the idea behind total communication is more about changing the way you think about communicating. For example, when you or a volunteer is having trouble getting their point across, draw what you are trying to say or ask the volunteer if they can draw.

Total communication is particularly useful for people with learning difficulties and hearing impairment. For total communication to be an effective support mechanism for people with disabilities, it is important that staff and existing volunteers receive training. Training can be done in-house and is really about introducing people to the different ways of communicating.

Retaining and rewarding

When new volunteers start, it's extremely important to identify and acknowledge their existing skills. This is particularly important for volunteers with disabilities who are often thought about in terms of what they cannot do. Low expectations can lead to lack of confidence and low skill development. Improving the volunteer's existing skills increases the likelihood of different opportunities and the volunteer will enjoy the experience and develop new skills.

Like anyone else, volunteers with disabilities appreciate being thanked, recognised and rewarded for their efforts and achievements. However, it's important to judge the situation on each occasion; a big ceremony might be great for some volunteers' confidence but it might be patronising and embarrassing to others.

More information and ideas on how to retain, reward and recognise volunteers on our website can be found on our Rewarding and recognising section.

Volunteers with physical difficulties

The most important thing to remember when working with volunteers with disabilities is that they are not unintelligent. This may seem obvious but it happens! It can be incredibly demeaning for a volunteer to be spoken to in a slow monotone voice and worse yet, to be talked about when they are present.

Similarly, people who are hearing impaired and people who are blind are not simple. It is common for their senses that are not inhibited to be stronger than usual. It is important to identify and acknowledge the volunteer's strengths. If there are existing misconceptions about the capabilities of people with disabilities in the organisation, it's important to work with the volunteer to create cultural change in the organisation. It may require training in disability equality or total communication training.


Travel can sometimes be difficult for people with disabilities. Consider how much effort it takes volunteers to travel and work with them to minimise the trouble. If your organisation has the capacity, provide transport for the volunteer or travel with the volunteer on public transport to assist them. It is a good idea to provide travel training to staff if you plan to transport volunteers with disabilities.


Make sure there is at least one room physically accessible for a person in a wheelchair and they are able to access meeting rooms and social areas like the tearoom. Make sure there are disabled toilets and parking.

IT support

One way to ensure volunteers with a disability are included in your organisation is by investing in IT equipment. 'Big Key' keyboards, calculators, and specialised computer programs will enhance the ability of a volunteer who is vision impaired. Your organisation could also invest in talking newsletters. Remember if you do invest in technology, make sure you provide equipment training after you make the purchases!

Volunteers with mental illness

It is important to recognise that a mental illness can be just as debilitating as a physical impairment.

Volunteers have a choice whether to disclose their mental illness. Not disclosing however, means the volunteer manager or mentor may have more trouble trying to give support and guidance.

The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Training and Research Program, auspiced at Orygen Research Centre, University of Melbourne, teaches the acronym ALGEE as an Action Plan to assist giving help to someone developing mental health problem or in a mental health crisis. This first aid is given until professional help is obtained, if needed, or the crisis resolves itself.

The MHFA Action Plan (ALGEE) stands for:

A: Approach, assess and assist in any crisis

L: Listen non-judgmentally

G: Give support and information

E: Encourage appropriate professional help

E: Encourage other supports

Volunteer managers, staff and mentors are recommended to complete the 12-hour Mental Health First Aid Course. More information can be found on the MHFA website.

Organisations are also encouraged to consult mental health professionals.

Volunteers with learning difficulties

Volunteers with learning difficulties need person-centred supervision and work. When inducting and training people with these disabilities it's important to deliver the information to suit their needs and keep in mind that volunteers with learning difficulties often have trouble with short-term memory.

A good solution is to ask volunteers to repeat what the task is rather than asking if they understand. Make sure all information is in easy to read formats (at least 14 point type) and has pictures.

Tools and resources