Volunteering for workers with disabilities post-retirement

Project team:

Prof Susan Balandin
Prof Gwynnyth Llewellyn
Angela Dew
Liora Ballin


In Australia as in other countries across the world, people with longstanding impairments (e.g., intellectual disability, cerebral palsy, brain injury sustained in adolescence or young adulthood) now look forward to a life expectancy that approximates that of able-bodied people (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2000; Bigby, 2002). This, coupled with the demographic bulge associated with the baby boomers born between 1945 and 1964, is resulting in a greater number of disabled older people, including those in employment services (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2000).

In Australia there is a 17,000 strong workforce in supported employment services with approximately one-third over 45 years of age (Family and Community Services, 2003). Organizations such as the National Industry Association for Disability Services (ACROD) are concerned that when these workers retire they will lose access to meaningful daily activities or opportunities for social participation in the community.

A challenge for supported employment services remains how best to support older disabled workers toward a healthy and active retirement when they wish to cease work. Optimum health and well-being, active support networks, and continuing involvement in the community are keys to successful ageing (Rowe & Kahn, 1997), resulting in a range of psychosocial benefits (Baldock, 2000). One way of maintaining an active role in society is to be a volunteer (Musick & Wilson, 2003; Prime Minister's Science Engineering and Innovation Council, 2003; Wheeler, Gorey, & Greenblatt, 1998).

The activity of volunteering is readily available to, and undertaken by, able-bodied people in Australia and is recognized as a valuable social pursuit particularly among citizens of retirement age. Despite the known benefits of volunteering however, there are few reports of disabled people participating as volunteers, and little is understood of their experiences or perceptions of volunteering.


The aim of this study was to explore and understand the opportunities and barriers to volunteering fro workers with disabilities post retirement.


The project was conducted in two phases:

Phase One: Individual interviews were conducted with 14 people 45 years and over who had long-standing disabilities and were employed in supported employment. The interviews were audio-taped with participants’ permission and consisted of two parts. The first part comprised the collection of demographic information and in the second part participants described their experiences of work and of living and engaging in the community; knowledge of volunteering; experience of volunteering and feelings about being a volunteer; and likelihood of volunteering including their perception of skills needed, confidence, and opportunity. They were encouraged to provide examples of their experiences during the interview. From these interviews a profile of opportunities and barriers influencing participation of workers with disabilities in volunteering and the reasons underlying these were developed.

Phase Two: Three focus groups were conducted with Volunteer Resource Centre (VRC) coordinators (1) and volunteer-involving agencies (2). A semi-structured interview guide was used to help ensure a range of experiences with people with long standing disability seeking formal volunteer work were canvassed within the available time. The focus groups provided participants with an opportunity to identify what they saw as the barriers and opportunities to people with disabilities as volunteers and to comment on the profile developed in Phase 1. From the focus groups a profile of opportunities and barriers influencing participation by workers with disabilities in volunteering and the reasons for these from the perspective of VRC and volunteer-involving organisation staff was developed.

Findings and Implications

Of the 14 participants in Phase 1, 12 people expressed interest in volunteering as something that they were already doing or would like to do in the future. The idea of volunteering represented an opportunity firstly to utilize existing knowledge, experience and skills, and secondly, to develop new skills, knowledge, and experience.

In Phase 2, VRC coordinators and staff from volunteer-involving agencies noted that approximately twenty percent of the people who applied to them for volunteer work identify themselves as having a disability. Despite this, they told us that they found people with disability ‘difficult to refer’ to volunteer positions due to two main barriers: firstly, the difficulties volunteer-involving agencies experience when trying to support a volunteer with longstanding disability and secondly due to the discrimination and stigma that people with disability may experience as volunteers in the community.

Despite the feeling that people with disability were difficult to refer and place in volunteer jobs, the majority of focus group participants expressed positive views about people with a disability working as volunteers and a number of participants had experience of working with people with a disability as volunteers. These participants viewed volunteering as an opportunity for people with a disability to enhance their life skills and improve their self esteem through community contribution. Further, they noted that volunteering provided opportunities to meet others and engage in valued, meaningful activity away from home. Participants viewed volunteering as an opportunity for the person with disability to be valued for the life experience they bring to their role as a volunteer. This included giving others the chance to learn about living with a disability and sharing their experiences with others. Participants agreed that the challenge was to build upon the existing skills of volunteers with disability and use these in creative ways.

This study showed that people with disabilities who are currently in supported employment consider volunteering as a viable alternative to work as they near retirement age. It also showed that while barriers exist towards their inclusion as volunteers, they represent an untapped source of volunteers to help fill the required volunteer workforce within the non-profit sector.

To ensure the best fit between those wishing to serve and those requiring volunteer services particular attention must be paid to the needs of both parties. Future work in this area must address the necessary environmental adaptations to ensure people with longstanding disabilities can access volunteer venues. Mentoring of people with disabilities in volunteer roles was also considered important as was training, of the people with disabilities and of other volunteers and paid workers within the non-profit sector.


Related Publications

Llewellyn, G., Balandin, S., Dew, A., McConnell, D. (2004) Promoting healthy, productive ageing: plan early, plan well. Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability 29(4), 366-369.

Balandin, S., Llewellyn, G., Dew, A., Ballin, L. (2006) “We couldn’t function without volunteers”: Volunteering with a disability, the perspective of not-for-profit agencies. International Journal of Rehabilitation Research, 29(2), 131-136.