In disability culture, the delineation between ‘cared for’ and ‘carer’ is frequently blurred – you can help others, even if sometimes you need help too. It’s something worth remembering in National Volunteer Week, Alice Mander explains.
It’s National Volunteer Week – a week dedicated to celebrating the people in our communities who dedicate their time and energy to the causes, organisations and people they believe in. Having heard from and learnt about volunteers from all around the country, this NVW has got me thinking about my own understanding and relationship with volunteering as a member of the disabled community.
Volunteering is often framed in terms of giving and receiving – the volunteer is an active giver, and the recipient is a passive receiver of their services. This is something I struggle with, not only because it takes agency away from the receiver of a service, but also because it assumes that a giver is not a receiver themselves. For the disabled community, equating need and vulnerability with passivity is something we’re all too familiar with. It’s what perpetuates the assumption that if we can’t do something in the same way as our non-disabled peers, then our contribution will be comparatively less. I think, for me, this is why the terms “volunteer” and “charity” can be so fraught. Disabled people are often positioned as passive recipients, as opposed to being valuable individuals with a vast array of skills that we can also bring to the table.
Lauren Dewhirst is a perfect example of why this binary of cared for/carer is so wrong. Lauren was the inaugural president and co-founder of the Otago Disabled Students’ Association, and she was my fellow co-president of the National Disabled Students’ Association in 2022. She has a background of volunteering with Hato Hone St John, GirlGuiding NZ, Scouts Aotearoa, and an ongoing eight-year stint with the Otago University Students’ Association student welfare programme, Are You OK? As she says, “For me, personally, I reflect back on Lauren a few years ago, Lauren five years ago, Lauren 10 years ago, volunteering has always been my life blood”. Lauren is also disabled.
Despite the evident value that people like Lauren bring to community organisations and volunteering roles, disabled people’s ability to both give and receive is something she still sometimes finds she has to prove. “I definitely have had to be careful what roles I put myself into because attitudes of some people can be hurtful, and it can be challenging if someone brings their own experiences or beliefs into a situation, but are misinformed, or haven’t spoken to me first. It’s like, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that’, but have you asked if I can do that? Or did you discuss that with me first?”
The more I hear about and work with people like Lauren, the more I realise the value that disabled people bring to organisations. Having worked within the disability space and community for years now, I’ve come to recognise a beautiful characteristic of disability culture: our delineation between “cared for” and “carer” is frequently blurred. Not only does this welcome and encourage vulnerability, but it also allows us to explore and recognise our own limitations. For Lauren, this means knowing that she can’t pour from an empty cup, ensuring she is well enough and safe before she helps others. By showing up as our full selves, disability culture reminds us that vulnerability and interdependence is not a weakness but, rather, a beautiful characteristic of being human. Lauren even thinks that her volunteering, as a disabled person, has encouraged others to start volunteering their own time – “It’s been nice to be able to help prove that you can do anything.”
Disabled people know how quickly you can go from being a volunteer to being the person receiving help. Lauren tells a humorous story of being a first aid volunteer at a music festival, during which one of the security guards fainted from the heat. “Ironically,” she laughs, “he ended up in our tent sitting next to all the drunk people. Things like that can happen to anybody.” For disabled people we already know this; giving and receiving care is second nature. When you hang out with a group of disabled people, you’ll quickly notice how quickly we jump between roles. Someone might pick me up off the ground after a tumble, because my impairment means I have limited strength and mobility. But, in the space of an hour, I will help that same person cut their nails, because their limb difference means they need assistance. We know that giving and receiving is not a binary, and that you can help others, even if sometimes you need help too.
In fact, in many ways, this understanding allows us to be more empathetic and understanding of those we are assisting. Almost every volunteer I have spoken to in the build-up to NVW has benefited from the very services that they now offer. Our understanding of one another’s vulnerability and innate value allows us to support each other authentically, and more deeply.
Perhaps this is why both Lauren and I don’t completely relate to the term “volunteer”. For us, offering help in return for the help we receive is simply part of being a member of a community. Moreover, it is part of who we are. As Lauren says, “It’s funny, the word ‘volunteer’… it’s like the word disabled! I wouldn’t necessarily walk around and say, “Hi I’m Lauren and I’m disabled’ or ‘Hi I’m Lauren and I’m a volunteer’, but I’m both of those things! And it’s just part of who I am, I’m just being me and living my life, doing what I enjoy and what I want to do”.
So, this NVW, while we celebrate volunteers, let’s take a leaf out of disability culture’s book and also celebrate interdependence, community and vulnerability. Remember, to be a volunteer, you don’t have to be an unwavering, steadfast or bulletproof individual. Showing up as who we really are – warts and all – reminds others that needing assistance is not a weakness. Because, no matter who we are, at some point in our lives we will benefit from the help of others, and that’s a beautiful thing.