Have you noticed that when you ask young kids what they want to be when they grow up they never say they want to be a volunteer? Why is that? Maybe it’s because from a young age we’re taught that much of the value imposed on us by both society and ourselves is based on our positions and ultimate success in paid employment, i.e. how much we earn.

It’s true that some of this value is tied to receiving payment that supports our basic needs. However, I think a lot of the value we give to paid employment goes beyond the simple supply of our daily necessities, but more to bolstering our social status and valued roles. This can be seen at dinner parties when the person you’ve never met asks you what you do for a living.

You’re not being asked about your hobbies and definitely not about your volunteer work, but rather about your chosen career. What a shame! By not asking others about leisure or volunteer activities we miss out on the richness and multi-dimensionality of people. If there were more conversations about volunteerism then over time there would be increased acknowledgment of the value of these activities and roles. Volunteering not only benefits communities as a whole but also the individual who volunteers their time. Being a volunteer builds skills, knowledge, connections and social networks that can be phenomenal!

One group that particularly benefits from volunteering is people with disabilities. Due to barriers within employment structures that still exist today, many people with disabilities will find volunteering to be a more accessible activity. Volunteers often have more flexible work hours and application processes. There’s sometimes more of a willingness to match a volunteer’s skills and abilities with a task, compared to the world of employment. By applying the theory known as Social Role Valorization (SRV) we can see that people with disabilities who volunteer can achieve access to what SRV theorists often refer to as “the good things in life.”

The Social Role Valorization theory is a powerful set of ideas useful in addressing the marginalization of people in society by supporting them to have access to the same good things in life enjoyed by typical people and draws on normalization theories which were often used to argue for deinstitutionalization of people with developmental disabilities. Current SRV theory states that by allowing for and encouraging participation in valued social roles, people with disabilities will gain access to the things that improve quality of life. However, it’s not exclusively about access to material goods, it’s about having meaningful social networks and satisfying productive roles that make a difference for the individual as well as the collective good. Most often SRV theory applies to employment and housing spheres. However, for those with disabilities, volunteering is gaining ground as a meaningful activity in which they’re building connections and valued roles thanks to key groups—including government—requiring volunteers on key boards and committees related to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).

The AODA aims to make Ontario accessible to people with disabilities by 2025 and the government has set a requirement for people with disabilities to be significantly represented on committees that develop or alter these legislative standards. This has given volunteers with disabilities a meaningful voice and unprecedented access to key roles in shaping this groundbreaking law. The voice of the disabled community is now equally represented at a Provincial level and these volunteers not only bring their experience, but they have the opportunity to build new skills and make connections with countless others in the business and/or public sectors. By encouraging and actually requiring volunteer involvement from those with disabilities, it allows this group to have more meaningful involvement in shaping communities than ever before!

For me, the outstanding impact these volunteers make on the AODA emphasizes the power of volunteerism! It makes me want to ask everyone, not only about their work, but also about their volunteer roles. Oh, and I’m definitely going to encourage the next generation to become volunteers!

Andrea Walsh is an occupational therapist and person with living experience of disability. She is passionate about empowering persons with disabilities through creation of opportunities for meaningful participation and inclusive community building. She works at Trent University as the Institutional Accessibility Advisor and volunteers actively on her city’s Accessibility Advisory Committee.
image: disabled worker in wheelchair in a carpenter’s workshop via Shutterstock