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People with Disabilities May Offer an Untapped Volunteer Pool for Organizations

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

Volunteering has many benefits for individuals: According to past research, people who volunteer experience higher self-esteem, are happier, and develop stronger social networks than people who do not volunteer. Volunteering can also be a path to future employment. Volunteer activities may be either formal, as a structured service provided to an organization, or informal, like helping friends or neighbors. Despite the demonstrated benefits, people with disabilities may encounter physical or programmatic barriers to participating in volunteer activities, particularly formal volunteering. These barriers may include transportation problems, inaccessible spaces where the volunteer activity occurs, or a lack of accommodations. In a recent NIDILRR-funded study, a researcher looked at data on volunteering patterns from working-age American adults both with and without disabilities. The researcher wanted to find out whether working-age adults with different types of disabilities are less likely to volunteer formally or informally than their peers without disabilities. The researcher also looked at data from individuals who do volunteer in order to find out whether there are any differences between volunteers with and without disabilities in how much time they spend volunteering, or in their reasons for volunteering.

The researcher analyzed data from 145,979 working-age adults (ages 18-64) throughout the United States. The data were taken from the Volunteer Supplement of the Current Population Survey (CPS), a national survey collected between 2009 and 2015. The CPS includes a question about whether or not the respondent has a sensory disability (trouble hearing or seeing), a cognitive disability (trouble remembering, concentrating, or making decisions), a physical disability (trouble walking or climbing stairs), or more than one of these (multiple disabilities). The Volunteer Supplement to the CPS is an additional questionnaire asking about volunteer activities. The individuals were asked whether or not they had volunteered for an organization at all in the past year (formal volunteering) or worked with others in their neighborhood to help with something (informal volunteering). Those individuals who said that they had formally volunteered for an organization were asked how many hours per week, and how many weeks during the year, they had volunteered. The individuals were also asked how they started volunteering for the organization: whether they approached the organization themselves, were asked by the organization to volunteer, had a prior relationship with the organization, were required to volunteer, or volunteered for other reasons.

The researcher found that about 27% of the individuals without disabilities reported formal volunteering. In comparison, 24% of the individuals with sensory disabilities, 17% of the individuals with cognitive or physical disabilities, and 14% of the individuals with multiple disabilities reported formal volunteering. Rates of informal volunteering were the same for individuals with and without disabilities, with about 8% of individuals in each group reporting engaging in informal volunteering.

Among the individuals who did report formal volunteering, the individuals with and without disabilities as a group spent an average of between 2 and 3 hours per week over the year. When the researchers further analyze the results, they found that Individuals with disabilities reported volunteering slightly more hours per week than individuals without disabilities. Hours ranged from about 2.4 hours for individuals with cognitive disabilities to more than 3 hours for those with multiple disabilities, compared to 2.3 hours for those without disabilities. Individuals with disabilities spent about the same amount of weeks per year volunteering as individuals without disabilities, spending about 20 weeks engaging in formal volunteering with the exception of individuals with multiple disabilities: These individuals volunteered an average of about 24 weeks per year.

Generally speaking, having a disability increased the likelihood of a person being approached by an organization to volunteer versus signing up on their own, but it was not the most likely means of actually becoming involved across all disabilities. Compared with the formal volunteers without disabilities, the formal volunteers with sensory and physical disabilities were more likely to volunteer because they were asked, and less likely to approach the organization themselves. However, the formal volunteers with multiple disabilities were more likely to have had a prior relationship with an organization than those without disabilities and were most likely to become involved by approaching the organization themselves. In addition, the formal volunteers with cognitive disabilities were most likely to volunteer because they were required or for other reasons.

The author noted that in this study, fewer individuals with sensory, cognitive, physical, and multiple disabilities participated in formal volunteering than the individuals without disabilities but participated at similar rate in informal volunteering. Formal volunteering may present more barriers for people with disabilities than informal volunteering. Some of these barriers may be the same barriers faced by people with disabilities in obtaining employment, such as transportation challenges, inaccessible work tasks or job sites, or a lack of reasonable accommodations. In addition, people with disabilities may not have the resources, such as income or education, that would best equip them to become formal volunteers. However, those individuals with disabilities who did volunteer contributed the same amount of time to an organization as the volunteers without disabilities did. Service-oriented organizations may want to increase their outreach to people with disabilities as potential volunteers, and to work to reduce barriers and improve access to volunteer opportunities.

To Learn More

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may apply to agencies and organizations that engage volunteers. The ADA National Network regional centers can assist these organizations in welcoming volunteers with disabilities, including questions regarding rights and responsibilities and providing information on accommodations and physical and program access. Find the nearest regional center at

The Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that engages millions of Americans in service through programs such as AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, offers online courses, tips, articles, and other resources to encourage inclusion of volunteers with disabilities in service programs.

The Onestar Foundation offers a guide for organizations to help them plan for inclusive volunteer programs

To Learn More About this Study

Shandra, C.L. (2017) Disability and social participation: The case of formal and informal volunteering. Social Science Research 68, 195-213. This article is available from the NARIC collection under Accession Number J77665.

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