Appendix II - Volunteers with disabilities: experiences, issues, and recommendations
Volunteers with Disabilities: Experiences, Issues, and Recommendations
Peace Corps is one of the few international organizations to involve people with visible disabilities in its international development activities. There have been blind volunteers in South America, deaf volunteers in the Philippines, and orthopedically handicapped volunteers in Africa.
In 1980, the first deliberate effort to recruit and train a group of volunteers with disabilities was begun. Eight hearing-impaired volunteers and four volunteers with normal hearing were recruited to work in a deaf education program in the Philippines. Trained at Gallaudet College, the world's only liberal arts college for hearing impaired persons, this group of volunteers is just beginning its tour of duty in the Philippines. Both Peace Corps and the International Center on Deafness at Gallaudet are carefully monitoring this innovative project and a thorough evaluation of the experience will provide much-needed information on the benefits and hazards of such programming.
In thinking about volunteers with disabilities, it is important to keep in mind that the abilities of volunteers are vastly more important than their limitations. Norman Acton, Secretary General of Rehabilitation International, is fond of asking, "Who among us is seriously able? That is... people without flaw - 20/20 vision, perfect blood pressure and kidney and liver function, superior intelligence, no allergies, nerves of steel, no pains in the joints or back, strong, nimble, and filled with both bodily and social grace." Mr. Acton goes on to say that probably fewer than five percent of any population can claim to be seriously able and the rest of us manage to cope in ways that are defined more by culture than by physiology. It can be argued that, all things being equal, a Peace Corps Volunteer who lacks a sense of humor may be more "disabled" than another who walks with a limp or hears poorly.
We say this not to minimize or romanticize disability but rather to suggest that most Peace Corps Volunteers are less than perfect. Some disabilities will critically hamper the effectiveness of a particular assignment, in a particular country, at a particular time. Furthermore, it is obvious that Peace Corps does not recruit mentally retarded persons, people with drug or alcohol problems, or those with a record of mental instability.
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Survey Results
As part of this study, a survey was made of randomly-selected Returned Peace Corps Volunteers working in special education and rehabilitation. The returned volunteers were asked to comment on the role of disabled volunteers serving in the Peace Corps. There was a general consensus among the returned volunteers that such persons provide excellent role models, serving as examples of skilled and competent professionals in countries where disabled persons do not usually have the opportunities to work productively and make valuable contributions to the life of their communities.
Returned volunteers also noted that disabled volunteers often help to improve the overall image of disabled persons. "Recruitment of disabled volunteers," one RPCV noted, "is basic to Peace Corps' ideals and policies." Another noted that a disabled volunteer has the best awareness of the needs of other disabled persons and is best able to stimulate the involvement of host country disabled persons in Peace Corps projects.
One former volunteer summed up the positive side of recruiting disabled volunteers by stating that, "to have a handicap and succeed is the best selling point for education of the handicapped."
Other volunteers saw reasons to be cautious in the selection of disabled volunteers. One noted that there is not enough supportive assistance to adequately cope with disability and that the Peace Corps is not sensitive enough to the needs of disabled persons. Others believe that it is harder for a disabled volunteer to be accepted into the culture. They assert that disabled volunteers encounter many more difficulties due to cultural prejudices which make adaptation more difficult.
Country Director Survey Results
According to the Country Director's Survey conducted in December, 1980 and January 1981, Peace Corps Volunteers with disabilities have worked in 17 countries out of 31 responding to the survey (Malaysia, Thailand, Oman, Morocco, Korea, Philippines, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Liberia, Gabon, Senegal, Botswana, Lesotho, Jamaica, Colombia, Ecuador and Belize. In Upper Volta, a disabled volunteer was recruited but left during training.). Asked if they believed disabled volunteers could work effectively in their host country, all except two agreed that they could. Nepal's country director stated that while most disabled volunteers would not be effective, hearing-impaired volunteers would be acceptable. Togo's country director responded that such a selection would depend upon circumstances.
The APCD* in the Philippines stated that only medical reasons and not a disability per se should keep a potential volunteer from serving.
The country directors were evenly divided on the question of whether or not a disabled volunteer would find life too difficult in a developing country to be effective in his or her work. All country directors except two (in Korea and Lesotho) agree that there would be too few in-country resources for a disabled volunteer, and eight countries believe that host country nationals may have negative feelings about disabled volunteers (Malaysia, Thailand, Oman, Morocco, Liberia, Botswana, Yemen and Paraguay).
A few country directors also believe that a disabled volunteer might require more staff attention (Ghana, Senegal, Yemen, Colombia, and Ecuador).
Twelve country directors agree that safety and security might be a problem for a disabled volunteer (Thailand, Morocco, Sierra Leone, Ghana, The Gambia, Liberia, Botswana, Senegal, Yemen, Colombia, Ecuador and the Central African Republic).
* Associate Peace Corps Director (Program Manager)
Other concerns regarding utilization of disabled persons as Peace Corps Volunteers include a scarcity of sophisticated medical treatment (Malaysia, Nepal and Ecuador) and restrictions on private ownership of vehicles, as well as transportation difficulties (Zaire, Botswana). In Botswana, the Ministry of Education rejects the notion of recruiting disabled volunteers.
Many directors recognized positive reasons why disabled volunteers might be recruited. Eleven country directors believe that disabled volunteers are more committed, 14 believe they inspire other volunteers, eight believe they actually need less staff attention and 24 believe they serve as positive role models.
In terms of special training for disabled volunteers, the majority of country directors recommend training both for the staff and for the volunteer. Upper Volta's director expressed the view that staff training would not be needed and that too much training for the volunteer could be a negative factor. The director in Benin does not recommend additional staff training, and Zaire's director recommends only the effective recruitment of disabled volunteers with appropriate skills, without any special training.
The general impression derived from this survey is that country directors are cautiously optimistic about the continued involvement of Peace Corps Volunteers with disabilities in most countries.
Recommendations Concerning Volunteers with Disabilities
Based on the survey findings and interviews with several disabled volunteers and former volunteers, the authors wish to make the following recommendations to Peace Corps personnel regarding volunteers with disabilities:
• During the International Year of Disabled Persons, convene a three-day seminar for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who have disabilities.
Comment: Select 10-20 such volunteers to come to Washington to meet for two days and to prepare a special program for the entire Peace Corps staff on the third day. Use the proceedings as a guide in recruiting, training and programming.
• Encourage more publicity of the work of disabled volunteers in publications serving the disabled community in the United States.
Comment: Peace Corps is the first organization to remove the barriers to international service for disabled persons. Take credit for this, discuss it more fully, and learn from the experience.
• Do not make strict policies concerning the use of volunteers with disabilities.
Comment: Be flexible and look primarily at the abilities of the person who is applying. Disabled people usually are the best judges of their own limitations.
• Avoid surprising host agencies and in-country staff with disabled Peace Corps Volunteers.
Comment: The interests of privacy are not served by neglecting to inform staff and host agencies that a new volunteer has a disability. The "sink or swim" approach is very risky.
• Recruit potential volunteers in the Independent Living Network and the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities.
Comment: Disabled persons are organizing dynamic and effective self-help and advocacy groups throughout the United States. Similar groups can be initiated or encouraged in developing countries at low cost with few institutional constraints. The Independent Living Centers and the ACCD have direct communication with skilled and assertive disabled persons.
Throughout its history, the Peace Corps has involved disabled persons as volunteers naturally, effectively, and quietly. There are some occasional problems with being a disabled foreigner in a developing country but there is no evidence to suggest that disabled volunteers have more problems or fail more frequently than their able-bodied colleagues.
In many instances, skilled and sensitive Peace Corps Volunteers with visible disabilities have transformed the attitudes of entire cities and, by their determined example, have broadened the hopes and vision of hundreds of other disabled citizens in their host communities.
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