Tending Plants

Volunteers with special needs

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not always easy to find the right volunteer opportunity. With so much to consider: location, time commitment, skill level, knowledge level and more – it can take some time to find an opportunity that is a good fit for the volunteer and the organization. This process can be even more daunting for a volunteer with special needs.

This can include a person with physical challenges, developmental delays, or mental health challenges. It may be that non-profits are not equipped to accommodate some volunteers (perhaps they are on the second floor in a building without elevator access), or they may not have roles suitable for people of varied abilities. It’s also possible that staff and clients have no experience in working with, or alongside of, people with various special needs. Unfortunately, a person’s own comfort level may influence their ability to be inclusive. This is completely unjust, but often it’s the reality.

In fairness to volunteer managers, it can be difficult to screen a potential volunteer (for example, interviewing someone who is nonverbal can be challenging), or to place someone with a physical challenge if the role calls for mobility. 

So, it will come as no surprise to people who live with these challenges that volunteering can also come with barriers. There are ways to limit some of those barriers and to help the organization to see the potential in involving people with special needs:

Supported volunteering

If you feel that you might not be able to perform the tasks on your own, then see if you would be able to bring an aide, friend or family member with you. Remember they will also be considered volunteers and will have to go through the same screening, orientation and training processes as you. Or, perhaps the non-profit organization has a volunteer that could be matched with you.


Perhaps you’d benefit from being paired with a mentor who can assist you in gaining the confidence to volunteer. Maybe the physical volunteer tasks come easy to you, but interacting with others is the real challenge.  Perhaps you’re looking at volunteering as a way to build your resume and hoping it can lead to employment. Especially if you have little experience in this area, having a mentor to coach you as you navigate the culture of the organization might be helpful. Ask a friend, family member or an aide, or perhaps the agency might be able to pair you up with an existing volunteer. There may also be resources at agencies such as Gateway or Inclusion Alberta that could be helpful.

Be open and honest

No different from other volunteers, be clear about your abilities and limits. What do you like to do? What are you good at?  What kinds of support or special accommodations do you need? What will your commitment level be like? Do you have to rely on DATS or public transportation that might cause you to have a schedule that may not mesh with the volunteer role? Is there a reason you might not be able to make 100% of your shifts? (anxiety, treatments, etc.)

NOTE: If you are looking for volunteer opportunities on behalf of someone with special needs, be sure you can answer these questions. If you will be assisting the person, explain what your level of involvement will be – will you simply be on the premise and observing only, or will you be assisting them? Be prepared to go through the same processes as the person you’re working with in order to volunteer.

Finding opportunities

If you want to volunteer with someone with disabilities, or an organization that serves this community – there is no shortage of opportunities. However, if you are a person with diverse abilities, it’s a different story. Just as any other volunteer, it’s important to consider what your passions, strengths and interests are. What are you hoping to get out of volunteering? How long can you volunteer?

Click here to get ready to volunteer.

Click here to see how to find volunteer opportunities.

"help people even when you know they cannot help you back."