Work & Education

The value of volunteering if you’re disabled

Have you ever considered volunteering? We hear from Disability Horizons reader Mark Wilson about how volunteering has become an incredibly positive part of his life, and has made a great impact on others too.

My name is Mark Wilson and I am disabled. Or, as the brilliant disability activist Phil Friend might prefer me to say, impaired.

My impairment is generally the environment I move around in – a few dodgy attitudes and old-school politics that ignore the social model of disability. But there’s also the fact that I have no legs and one arm (so use a powerchair) and have a couple of other (by comparison) minor league impairments.

I was disabled from birth. Nobody ever knew why my limbs developed at different rates, but either way, it meant I arrived ‘differently abled’. I’ve always regarded myself as incredibly lucky. I walked for most of my life; have done high-level, stressful work, reasonably well; had a supportive family and am a fanatical lifelong Everton supporter and 40 years a season ticket.

Until recently, I spent a lot of my career leading big projects that saw me managing between 500 and 1,200 people in the public sector and creating policy documents around disability awareness training. I now work in social media and website content management, as well as volunteering.

I got into volunteering mainly through the encouragement of my gorgeous wife. So, about twelve years ago I started out shaking buckets for Macmillan Cancer Support, and things progressed from there.

Next, I got involved in helping out at its events, then I started running the banking operation for one of its large fundraising patches. This led to looking after the banking for three areas, alongside developing its local social media platforms. I’d well and truly been bitten by the volunteering bug.

I still volunteer with Macmillan, sitting on its hugely innovative and successful UK Volunteer Forum and its regional forums as the communications and social media lead. But I have branched out to more organisations.

I am now heavily engaged in volunteering with my wife’s new employer, the impressive Ronald McDonald House at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool, and I was also proud to be a trustee at Warrington Disability Partnership for five years. Three very different charities, large and not so large, but all three have one thing in common – a crucial face-to-face relationship with their volunteers, and that’s something I love.

The challenges and benefits of volunteering

Being disabled (sorry Phil!) and an active volunteer has its challenges. In my case, these are the very same things I’d describe as my usual everyday challenges – accessible travel and venues, or rather, not accessible at all. But I can honestly say that once you’ve tackled the ‘normal’ challenges disabled people face, there are few, if any, that are about the volunteering itself.

In fact, the opposite is true. All the places I’ve volunteered at have accepted every volunteer, no matter how different they might be, far more readily than many employers would. After all, you are giving up your time for no pay, you care enough to want to help and, most importantly, you have life experiences and skills that make you able to contribute and help deliver results.

Changing perceptions around disability

There will always be people that don’t expect to see you volunteering. I was never keen on holding a bucket outside a shopping centre, or arena, or pretty much anywhere, because of some people’s reactions. When I did it for Macmillan, people would often arrive at my bucket and bizarrely blurt out: “Well that must have been a vicious cancer mate” or “sorry it’s left you like that.”

That’s why it’s so important that disabled people get involved in volunteering – it’s a great way to make a change to how society sees us. I have become a very visible example of ‘volunteering is for everyone’. I have also been able to use my knowledge of living with a disability to help ensure others can get involved in volunteering.

At Ronald McDonald House in Liverpool I am the first wheelchair-using volunteer that this smaller charity has ever had. That means that there is a lot of learning going on. By me just being me, I have highlighted some general access improvements that it’s going to make.

At Macmillan I am involved in designing new accessible volunteering strategies to ensure that disabled volunteers can avoid some of the day-to-day challenges they face and get on with the volunteering.

As well as looking at access to appropriate travel and venues, and meeting and conference environments, I am also working on how the challenges for people with learning needs and sensory impairments can be minimised to enable them to volunteer alongside anyone else.

So what’s my message to any person with an impairment of any kind thinking of volunteering? It is a simple one actually. Do it!

You’re likely to encounter the same challenges you tackle in your everyday life. But getting through these difficulties will be more than worth it. Volunteering is one of the most positive things I have ever done in my life. I adore being part of something that makes a difference to people’s lives, not only through the charity work itself but also through changing perceptions of disability and leading the way for more disabled people to volunteer.

Within the last five years I have taken early retirement, which has given me the freedom to do even more volunteering. I was used to a frenetic lifestyle and, to a degree that’s not changed. I’ve simply replaced paid work for unpaid, and my lovely Apple iPad calendar is almost, but not quite, as full as it used to be. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

By Mark Wilson

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