It is estimated that 1 in 4 people in the United States and 1 in 5 people in Canada have a disability. It is important for anyone working with groups of people to understand how they can create an accessible environment for participants with disabilities.
One of the most impactful service projects that I have ever done combined two organizations that I love. Our YVC affiliate partnered with the YMCA to host a Martin Luther King Jr. day of service. Among the YMCA group were my friends from YMCA Challenger. Challenger is an adaptive sports league for people with disabilities. That day I was able to serve alongside people with disabilities. I made dog toys with my friend Crystal and cards with Teddy.
I want more people to be able to volunteer. I do not personally have a disability, but my experiences with friends and family have made me passionate about creating accessible spaces. That being said, I want to share information that can be easily incorporated into any service project. I have put together a list of 9 ways that we can work together to make our projects enjoyable and accessible for everyone!
1. Be Open
At the start of any project be sure to tell your group that you are flexible and willing to work with them. This will set the tone for the rest of the project. Also, it is easy to add a note at the bottom of each registration email about accessibility. I suggest something like, ”We are committed to making our projects accessible for all. If you or your child have access needs or require modifications please contact program director/ adult email.”
2. Just Ask!
If you don’t know what you can do to help, ask the individual if you can help them with anything. Listen to their answer, and respond appropriately. If they say that they don’t need help, then don’t help them!
3. Change the Narrative
For a long time, individuals with disabilities were viewed as recipients, not providers of service. However, many are fully capable and willing to provide service to others in their community. Their desire to become active volunteers should not be overlooked. Their involvement should be as a fully participating, active, and responsible partner of the community service team.
4. Look at Location
Many areas where youth serve may not have many options in regards to the location for icebreakers, service learnings, and reflections. However, if you have multiple options of locations try to look for the one that may be more accessible. Some good things to look for include:
- Sound: High ceilings and concrete floors make sound echo and may make it harder for people who are hard of hearing to hear. Also, avoid places with high background noises such as near roads or around loud music.
- Seating: Volunteers with physical disabilities may need an area to sit and take a break. Look for chairs and benches wherever possible. If you have a volunteer with a mobility aid, look for an area that they can easily be in.
5. Don’t Make Reading a Requirement
Not all students are comfortable reading out loud to a group. Although having youth read part of a document can help with engagement, it can create stress and embarrassment for students with disabilities. Instead, ask the group for a volunteer to read out loud.
6. Offer Digital Documents
Many people who struggle with language, or are visually impaired, use screen readers to read documents. Most PDF documents can be read by these readers. Make sure your text is typed and that you avoid tables. When possible, add image descriptions to photos on social media, PDFs, and other digital content.
7. Focus on Icebreakers
Many of our favorite icebreakers involve memorization. This is a skill that many people with language-based learning disabilities struggle with. Also, people who are hard of hearing may not catch every word which is said – especially in loud settings. To make these games fun for everyone allow youth to volunteer to start the game and/or make it optional.
8. Offer Variety
Some volunteers may struggle to focus on a single task for long periods of time. Other people may find that certain tasks are better for them.
9. Caption Videos
When producing videos add closed captioning to ensure everyone can understand the content. When showing videos turn on captioning. YouTube makes it easy to add captions to things you want to share.
Overall – Be sure to let volunteers know that you are open to suggestions and that you welcome feedback. Not all disabilities are obvious. Let people know they can approach you if they need to modify how they participate. Try not to assume that someone is lazy or uninterested if they don’t fully participate.
Thank you for creating accessible projects for youth! Together, we can ensure everyone has the opportunity to serve.
About the Author
Caroline is a tenth grader in Kansas City. She has served with YVCKC for 5 years and she loves volunteering. This is Caroline’s second year on the International Youth Advisory Board and her third on her local Youth Advisory board. Her favorite part about YVC is helping other youth find a passion for service. Caroline’s favorite volunteer projects are helping children and working with individuals with disabilities. Outside of volunteering, Caroline loves taekwondo and band.