Nothing about us without us – the importance of involving disabled volunteers

Many people will have seen the recent programme on the BBC, Then Barbara Met Alan, which explores the history of the disability rights movement and the phrase ‘Nothing about us without us’. It highlights the importance of disabled people living their own lives and the patronising attitudes that charities can have towards disabled people.

What do you think of when you think of a disabled volunteer?

  • A teenager with a learning disability looking for work experience.
  • An autistic parent who wants to use their perspective to help families with autistic children.
  • A wheelchair-using CEO who wants to give their business expertise to help struggling charities tackling food poverty.
  • A person with an anxiety disorder who wants to meet new people and make friends.
  • A marketing executive with chronic asthma who wants to join an environmental campaign.
  • A visually impaired accountant who wants to volunteer as they’ve been told it will help them get a promotion.
  • A deaf student who volunteers at a charity shop because they’re obsessed with vintage fashion.

Disabled volunteers volunteer for as many different reasons as non-disabled volunteers. Take our volunteering service in Waltham Forest, for instance, 13% of volunteers self-declare as disabled or say that they need additional support. That’s a lot of volunteers who are excited to give their time.

If you think of disabled volunteers as one type of person or with one set of needs, then you’ll be missing out on a lot of talent, enthusiasm and perspectives.

For organisations that want to involve disabled volunteers, here are some top tips:

  • Learn about the social model of disability and challenge your thinking about where the limits of disabilities are. For example, when you see someone wearing glasses do you think of them as ‘disabled’?
  • Take care that you use modern, up-to-date language. See this guide for some suggestions.
  • Look carefully at the required skills and experiences for your volunteering roles – what is essential and what is a ‘nice to have’. If you have an autistic volunteer who does not use the phone, but would be excellent at other parts of the role, consider making adaptations.
  • Consider having versions of your role descriptions in large print, audio recording, BSL interpretation and Easy Read form.
  • Provide information for others to make decisions, rather than deciding for them. So, if your building has a step, do not say “not accessible to wheelchair users” but rather “there is an 8cm step”. The volunteer can then decide for themselves.
  • Allow volunteers to give their time from home if possible.
  • Consider, if able, providing travel expenses for taxis.
  • Use disabled people to stock recruitment photos.
  • Money is tight, but when making funding applications consider how you can ask for things that make you more accessible and inclusive.
  • Be willing to have an honest and open conversation about disability and the needs of your volunteers.
  • Accept that sometimes a volunteer’s disability may mean things take longer or are done in different ways.
  • Have a clear code of conduct which lays out clear expectations. Do not tolerate abuse or discriminatory ‘jokes’.
  • Get in touch for specialist support and advice (emails below): Waltham Forest (Legends of the Forest), Volunteering Barnet, or Volunteering Kingston

If you are disabled and interested in volunteering, we’d love to hear about your experiences and how we can improve our service. Please get in touch with one of Groundwork London’s volunteering services: Waltham Forest (Legends of the Forest) –, Volunteering Barnet –, or Volunteering Kingston –


Molly Sweeney, Volunteer Development Coordinator – Legends of the Forest


You can find out more about how you can get involved in this year’s Volunteers ’Week on the official page here.

In the meantime, if you are looking to volunteer and start a new exciting journey today, you can discover all our available roles below:

Volunteering Kingston

Legends of the Forest, Waltham Forest

Volunteering Barnet