This Saturday it is the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Supporting disabled people to live happier, healthier and more meaningful lives is very important to us at Volunteering Matters. Communications Manager Kate Bermingham spoke to Jemma Mindham, Business Development Manager for our disability projects, to find out more about our work to support people living with a physical or mental disability.

Kate: What benefits can volunteering bring to people living with a disability?

Jemma:  Volunteering helps people living with a disability to recognise and improve the skills they already have, and develop brand new ones. This is critical for disabled people who are often made to feel as though they can only be the recipients of care rather than active givers. Volunteering completely turns this around and focuses on people’s strengths and abilities. Volunteering is also a powerful social tool: it introduces disabled people to new networks and experiences, whilst also raising the profile of disability in a positive way in everyday life.

Kate: The UN sustainable development goals seem to be very relevant for disabled people. Particularly the goals that focus on health and wellbeing, reducing inequalities and promoting good employment opportunities. Can volunteering help to move us closer to these goals?

Jemma: Absolutely. Much research has been done on the physical and mental wellbeing benefits of volunteering. On our own supported volunteering programmes for disabled volunteers, 97% of people reported increased self-esteem and 95% reported increased confidence and independence.

Research also suggests that traditional employment support for disabled people is often not successful. An NCVO report found that many disabled people simply get lost in the system. 78% of disabled volunteers on our supported volunteer programme said they learned new skills, including retail and service-related experience (a growing employment sector). They also gained key employment skills such as time management, communications and working in a team.

Kate: Tell me about a Volunteering Matters disability project that is making a big difference to disabled people and their families.

Jemma: Our innovative Futures programme, based in Norfolk, supports young disabled people who are in the Transition between children’s services and education and adult services, or indeed adult life out in the community.  We know from Department for Education studies that between the ages of 16 and 19, disabled people are more likely to be in the NEET group at least once, and that disabled young people aged 16-24 are less satisfied with their lives than their peers.  There is a tendency for support to fall away at key transition points as young people move from child to adult services.

The Futures programme matches them to a community mentor who supports them to develop a personal progression plan during this critical point, which they then put into effect together. The plan focuses on linking the young person up with experiences and networks in their community which can help them to develop a sense of who they are, where they want to go, and what they want to do. This enables them to make informed choices about what comes after education.  This includes supporting them to volunteer.  In personal reviews of participants, 60% reported increased confidence and self-esteem, and 83% felt they had more choice.

The programme has supported some young disabled people to change their life courses. One young man, who attended 6th Form at a complex needs school for two years, had always been interested in hospitality and helping people. We set up three work placements for him in the field of hospitality. His confidence grew whilst attending these placements and he showed that he was able to follow instructions and work with limited adult support. He chose to leave school a year early and take up a place at the local College, where he hoped to undertake a hospitality course.

Kate: How can people who don’t have a disability support those who do? Can they also participate in disability projects?

Jemma: One of the most impactful ways of breaking down barriers and stigmas, and enhancing the skills of disabled people, is through the support of other community members.  This is the bedrock of our supported volunteering programmes, such as Futures.

We recruit, train, and match community mentors to disabled volunteers, and support them to enable the disabled volunteer to recognise their skills, map a personal progression plan for them, and achieve it. Our Volunteer Mentors act as impartial advisors throughout their match. They aim to ensure that the disabled person does not build up a reliance on them and their support. Instead, they help them to develop sustainable networks and, skills, and build confidence to make their own positive choices.

It is also important to recognise the impact and value of peer mentoring – in Ipswich, our Headspace programme for people with mental ill health is completely supported by people who have experienced mental ill health themselves.  The value to the mentees is incredible – they feel confident and comfortable being supported by someone who empathises with their situation.

I am pleased to say that we have been able to provide one-to-one mentoring support to twice as many people as we initially predicted. 31% of mentors report improved job prospects, and 70% of mentees report increased resilience. It’s a win-win situation.