Did you know only 6% of formal volunteers are disabled? (taken from an article by Neil Crowther)
As I write this, it is National Trustees’ Week. I’ve been a trustee a couple of times in my career and I’ve just been appointed as trustee for a charity which I’m looking forward to sharing more about next year. We know that being a trustee is so beneficial for both the charity/organisation as well as the trustees. However, I think it’s safe to say that the trustee world is a very exclusive one. You have to be ridiculously confident, know the right people and be informed to come across these opportunities, and that’s just to be appointed, never mind succeeding in the role! A Guardian article shared that some disabled people were waiting up to 4 years for a volunteer role and that’s something I can believe. As a disabled person, I thought I’d share just some of the barriers that are out there that I’ve either experienced or seen in others’ circumstances. Just to note I am a disabled wheelchair user so this is just from my perspective.
The low expectation of disabled people
I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a huge misconception that disabled people don’t want these roles. I often get pats on the head for simply going on a food shop, so imagine people finding out I’m a trustee of a charity. Their head must combust. Seriously though, I think the most important aspect to keep reminding ourselves is that we NEED disabled leaders in order to be a more inclusive society. For this to happen we need people to invite us to the table.
Not feeling welcome
I speak about this a lot in my training sessions, but the way you present your organisation tells a lot to potential colleagues. The way you speak about topics, images you use and news you report on tells us what’s important to you. If I see organisations considering accessibility for example, I see them as much more accessible and would encourage me to reach out to them. Communications is extremely important, especially when we all are mostly living our lives online.
The extra energy it takes
It’s well known that it’s much harder for disabled people to be employed due to the (un)conscious biases we have. Having that in mind, for a lot of people – we have a limited amount of energy. This therefore may have to be used for mainly employment to simply make sure we can afford to live. Voluntary opportunities can be harder to make time and energy for. However, I don’t think this should put people off offering trustee roles to disabled people – it’s just about respecting this ratio and making sure this is taken into consideration. For example – adding breaks into meetings, providing minutes to meetings so people can catch up and still offer feedback in their own time. It’s about changing your system to suit a diverse audience.
Accessing the inaccessible
Speaking of accessibility, the way meetings are conducted are obviously a huge factor that will be a barrier to many. Disability Horizons shared in 2017 that often the barriers to volunteers are similar to the barriers in society rather than the work itself and I totally agree. At the moment, with covid 19 changing the way we work – for me this has become much more accessible as a wheelchair user. I don’t have to think about travel, toilets and accessibility. If you’d like more information about accessible meetings, I did a previous blog post on this. However for other disabled people online meetings are not as accessible e.g. those who require captioning or BSL interpretation. So asking trustees what their access requirements will hugely benefit both you and the trustee.
Feeling like an outsider
Lastly, even if you have managed to navigate these barriers it still can be hard for people to feel able to share their opinions. When I was first a trustee I had NO idea how it all worked, what it would look like and how I would input my opinions. I’m often the only person who is the wheelchair user in the room – I’ll have specific thoughts about accessibility, however sometimes I will be nervous to share my opinion as I know I’m the minority in the room. One way you can get round this is inviting individuals to comment throughout the meeting – this will encourage those who may want to say something but are less confident to do so.
Ultimately, having disabled trustees is such a positive and inclusive step. You will gain unique feedback that you may never receive before and therefore change the way you run to include even more disabled people in the future. I’ve loved being a trustee and know that the experience has massively helped my career as well as helping others learn how to be accessible in both long and short term ways. If you have any questions about making your opportunities more accessible, I have bespoke training and consulting packages to guide you in the right direction so feel free to give me an email. In the mean time, I hope this helped in some way – have you recently made changes for the better? Let me know!