"Mainstreaming" is a hot concept lately. The basic idea is to introduce the disabled and disadvantaged into society with the same access and opportunities as the advantaged and able. But as usual, a good idea has bogged down under "programs" and "funding" or maybe "advocacy". Equal access depends, to a big degree, on the actions and advocacy of outsiders--people who mean well but have never spent twenty-four minutes, much less twenty-four hours, overcoming a single obstacle. One aspect of mainstreaming leaps out. True equality is one of choices and decisions, not always passive participation in a program helpfully designed by an expert. So, how does a physically challenged person recapture his freedom of choice and decision? The answer may surprise you - VOLUNTEER!
A Wide Open Market
Volunteering overcomes one of the most common prejudices that physically challenged people face in the work world... a lack of imagination. Most people have never considered that there are alternative ways of doing the same job. Most times, they are willing to be shown as long as they don't have to pay for it. It is out opportunity and responsibility to demonstrate a flexible approach to life. Yes, it is up to US. Laws help, but the best example is the sight of a physically challenged person functioning in normal day-to-day activities...the old "picture is worth a thousand words" approach.
"Is everyone who works here like that?" questioned our latest visitor. "Like what?" the receptionist replied, somewhat confused. The visitor made a wide motion with his hand vaguely drawing a circle around the room. "The person answering the phone is in a wheelchair; the lady at the copier has braces and a cane; that lady is moving groceries with a scooter, and you just ran over my foot with your chair. Is everyone here sick?" he wailed.
This scene did not occur at an Independent Living Center, but at our local volunteer office. No one was sick, of course. It was just a coincidence that several physically challenged volunteers were working on the same day. This was mainstreaming at its best--self-determined, worthwhile, and routine.
Each of these volunteers had assessed what they had to offer and then found some place that needed their time and skills. Never mind that they may have been turned down previously for a paying job doing the same thing. What they were getting was payment of its own. The sense of doing something important to help others, of using old skills and learning new ones. They demonstrated publicly that disabled people have the same desire and commitment which they are willing to share in unique ways.
What interests you? What organizations in your area share this interest? Does the plight of the homeless move you? Do you enjoy working with children? Are you lonely and wondering where other lonely people like you are? What are you willing to do about it? What commitment are you willing to make?
Once you have defined your interests and found an organization or group that shares them, think of ways you can contribute. Are you homebound? Volunteer for the telephone committee reminding others about schedules and meetings. Offer to put mass mailings together for your church bulletin. You can do that from bed. Can you type or use a computer? Hook up by phone to your local agency. Would you like to be a receptionist? How about reading stories to children in hospitals? Do you mouth paint? Do paintings and drawings of clowns or cartoon characters for the children's ward of a local day care center. Maybe you could teach Sunday school, or volunteer to visit Sunday school classes and explain about your disability to the children. Children are fascinated by demonstrations of adaptive equipment. Satisfy their curiosity and help form their attitudes. What about setting up a daily telephone tree to call other shut-ins? You call one, that person calls another, and so on. Your love and concern can branch out all over town like this in just an hour. Like to write? Volunteer to write a newsletter article for your local charitable group (like EDNF). How about Project Literacy? You could teach someone to read in your own home. Do you like music? Maybe you could lead a sing-a-long at a nursing home. Or like our friend at the Center, load your scooter with groceries for the needy. There is no end to your ability to give, and no end to the organizations that would be delighted to get help (like EDNF). These are just a few suggestions. Let your imagination run free.
Do you want to work more directly for the interests of the physically challenged? Contact National Easter Seals about their guidelines for the press and media. Contact your local media people and go over the brochure with them. Put together a Special Friends group of others with disabilities for purposes of watching legislation and addressing community issues. Encourage your local Chamber of Commerce to form an advisory group to advise their member businesses on access and employment issues. Single out businesses which have shown outstanding responsibility, like installing Braille automated teller machines, and praise them. Get them positive publicity. Stuff envelopes for your favorite political candidate. Give a book review at the library.
Desire is all you need to do any of these things. There will be obstacles, of course, but that is one thing you are used to overcoming. Mostly, you will be surprised to find how quickly and warmly you are welcomed into a volunteer organization. The rules are difference here. People work because they want to, and because they believe and are dedicated to a cause. If you believe too, and commit your time and efforts, you will be welcomed like anyone else.
In addition to satisfaction, there are many other benefits to volunteering. In some states, volunteer work can be listed on a job application as valid experience without the obligation to state the job was unpaid. Some state rehabilitation agencies require that you demonstrate your rehab potential before they commit funds to your education or rehabilitation. Six months of regular volunteer work can be used to demonstrate your potential. Several of our volunteers have made valuable contacts that have led to paid employment. Others have picked up new job skills which have increased their marketability. One lady now does mailing labels for all the churches in town for pay. I run a counseling and advisory program by computer or telephone hook-up. Three disabled volunteers at a local independent living center applied and were accepted as VISTA volunteers and are now receiving a federal subsidy for their work.
This may be the answer you have looked for to take charge of your life. Your only limits are your imagination and sense of adventure. A word of warning though -- volunteering is contagious! Expect to catch the excitement and the good feelings.