From policy to reality: Supporting Australians with a disability to volunteer overseas

Ben Clare, a member of the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, on assignment in Samoa as an inclusive education officer. Photo by: Scope Global

Sydney-based professional Ben Clare, who has a visual impairment, has twice volunteered in the Pacific with the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, an Australian government initiative that promotes economic growth and poverty reduction in developing countries.

“I was always interested in working with people with disabilities, and was searching for a long-term opportunity to really implement change,” Clare said, crediting Scope Global — one of three implementers of AVID — for quality pre-departure preparation. “Once in-country, I was also provided with a support person who showed me around the workplace and helped with logistics such as where the local buses were.”

The 35-year-old explained that volunteering not only built his confidence but also provided career opportunities.

“On assignment I helped to increase my colleagues’ skills working with blind and visually impaired people, which ultimately led to more community awareness and students with disabilities being better able to participate in the community,” said Clare, who is now doing regular consultancy work for the disability sector in Pacific island states.

Skilled Australians have volunteered overseas for years with the purpose of supporting those with disability to lead better lives. But more recently, Australians with a disability have been better supported to fulfill that purpose by volunteering overseas themselves.

With appropriate support, these volunteers can lend their valuable skills to organizations overseas, and often share their own experiences of living with a disability to inform their work with colleagues and host communities.  

Progress toward equal volunteering opportunities

Since the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade implemented the Disability for Inclusive Development policy for AVID in January 2013, Scope Global has been revising its systems and processes to ensure that all people with a disability are encouraged and supported to volunteer in a developing country.

This begins with recruitment and selection, according to Scope Global’s Rebecca Nield, who heads up a team of human resources professionals. Simple changes to the online application form to increase its readability and explain what support is on offer has created a marked increase in the number of applicants specifying that they have a disability, she said.

“The selection process is based on merit and works within the parameters of the Australian Equal Opportunities Act,” Nield explained.  

As part of the process, all candidates are asked if they have a disability that may require reasonable adjustments through the application and selection process, such as emailing documents compatible with screen reading computer software. The program can then support volunteers on assignment with reasonable modifications to the workplace, Nield said, such as the provision of additional equipment or facilities, or of interpreters, readers, attendants or other work-related and living assistance.

Scope Global’s duty of care means that the proposed host organization must be able to support all volunteers, not just those with a disability, and some may be deemed as not having the necessary facilities.  

A medical consultation and health management plan should also consider the conditions and environment of the assignment location.

Katrina Lancaster-Maggs, who has a hearing impairment, volunteered as a deaf empowerment officer with an inclusive education organization in Samoa, where she was able to relate effectively to the deaf community and add a great deal of value to the services provided for them.

“My assignment gave me an insight into how deaf people in other countries live, and how fortunate Australians are to have access to so much that is often taken for granted,” she said. “If you’re thinking about becoming an Australian volunteer, just go for it and don’t be afraid to ask if you have any requirements.”

Next steps

While Scope Global has made some important first steps in ensuring that its management of AVID is inclusive, there’s still a long way to go.

Next steps include ensuring that international staff members have the necessary training to be able to better support Australians with disabilities in the field. Recently, staff at Scope Global’s head office in Adelaide completed disability-inclusive development training, which is hoped to be replicated with international staff.

The organization is also forming partnerships with disability sector organizations in Australia, and staff are raising awareness of the AVID program’s push to become more inclusive through participating in events and recognition days such as International Day of People with a Disability.  

It’s also important to learn from the experiences of alumni, so Scope holds workshops with returned volunteers with disability and volunteers who have worked in disability-related organizations to ensure that Australians with disability have every chance to effectively volunteer overseas.

Tell us your own volunteer story on Facebook or tweet us using #DoingMore, and check out all Doing More content here.

Doing More is an ongoing conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Australian Red Cross, Cuso International, IFRC, MovingWorlds, Peace Corps, Scope Global — formerly Austraining International, United Nations Volunteers, Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance and VSO.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Anthony Rologas

    Anthony Rologas is the senior manager - volunteer program strategy at Scope Global, based in South Australia. Prior to that, Anthony worked in a number of project and human resource management roles in the Australian public service and university sectors. Anthony has firsthand experience of the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, having spent 12 months on assignment in the Philippines where he helped the Local Government Academy develop its distance education programs.