The access ramp to volunteering

The Person Inside

No matter our challenges, we all want to lead productive lives. We all want to be change-makers at some level. Part of this sense of accomplishment and satisfaction comes when we feel that someone else has benefited from something we have done. By volunteering, we enrich the lives of others. There are many intrinsic and extrinsic benefits to volunteering.

Most folks take the access ramp to volunteering for granted because volunteering is easily available to them. But being differently-abled puts a whole new light on this access. The fact of the matter is that people with disabilities are, more often than not, excluded from the arena of volunteering.

Disabled folks are often regarded as the recipients of volunteering rather than the providers of service. In the past, I’ve had myriad high schoolers spend their time with me, helping me through art and dance classes or playing basketball and video games.

Many people traditionally think that volunteering requires social interaction skills and the ability to handle oneself physically well in face-to-face interactions. There are many nuances to volunteering — you may have to travel somewhere, meet people, explain, physically assist and have decent fine motor skills.

Given my lack of verbal communication skills and my disorganized body, these requirements seemed like an impossible bar for me to meet. For the longest time, I wondered if individuals like me would ever get the experience of volunteering.

Fortunately for me, I discovered that there are nontraditional ways that one can volunteer — I just needed to not be boxed into the mindset of the traditional skill set. So I drew upon my writing skills as a source of volunteering.

During my high school years, I embarked on projects such as image description for Bookshare. Bookshare is a resource that converts textbooks into accessible formats for folks with print disabilities. I was part of the team that created a detailed description of the diagrams in these textbooks so that they too could be included in the audio format. I’ve also done other volunteering tasks, such as translating data-heavy field reports about the plight of the children of migrant brick-kiln workers into web-friendly content for a literary project.

Volunteering in these nontraditional ways made me feel like I too am a contributing and productive member of society, no matter my disability status.

I had expected to find more such opportunities when I joined UC Berkeley. After all, UC Berkeley is known for its activism and service organizations, so I assumed that there must be some role for me. A majority of the booths that line Sproul Plaza are aimed at service activity and actively seek student volunteers. I’ve even heard stories of students being overwhelmed by the number of flyers pushed on them as they walk down Sproul.

Alas, I usually walk away from Sproul “flyer-less.” Apparently, the outward face of disability does not invite the receipt of flyers. A series of students walking in front of me are handed a flyer. But when I approach, the hand that is raised up to hand out flyers drops down to the side and the student very politely waits for me to walk past.

I wonder whether there are subtle behaviors that precede the receipt of a flyer. Perhaps there is a certain level of eye contact, fleeting or otherwise, that takes place before a flyer is handed over. Making eye contact is not something that we autistics are known for.

Likewise, when I walk up to a booth to inquire about volunteer opportunities, I am usually met with bemused or skeptical looks. The presumption is that I would not be able to do it anyway.

At the end of the day, it’s not so much the flyer we seek — rather it’s the opportunity to make our small mark on society.

I’m still trying to figure out how to get involved in volunteering at UC Berkeley and what my role could be. I am not the ideal person for the “clean-up-the-park” kind of physical volunteering, but there must be existing tasks or potential tasks that do not require body coordination and verbal skills.

In the meantime, I’m trying to get involved in other ways. This semester, for example, I’m writing this column for The Daily Californian. An opinion column in a newspaper publication is not technically “volunteer” work. Nevertheless, I am excited at its reach in raising awareness about issues that differently-abled students like me face on a daily basis. If I have helped contribute toward improving the quality of life of even one other special-needs individual by changing attitudes of people around them, the effort on my part is totally worth it.

To the student handing out flyers on Sproul and manning the booths: Take a chance on the rest of us, even if we don’t fit the typical profile. Presume competence. There is actually a lot of untapped potential and new perspectives that can be gained when the differently-abled like me are involved and included in volunteering efforts too.

Hari Srinivasan writes the Thursday column on his experience as a nonverbal autistic student. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @HariSri108.