Give Happy, Live Happy: When People with Disabilities Volunteer

Societies have always depended on a considerable force of people who engage in “good works”. These are usually women making food for a neighbour or helping out with chores or tending to those who are sick or sorting and giving away clothes that children have grown out of. Much is made of the importance within Judaism of Tzedaka – doing justice (but often thought of as charity) and of Tikkun Olam – repairing the world. We Jews are good, at least in the Diaspora, at volunteering which is usually about doing something for the other.

While those who volunteer are often portrayed as selfless or even heroic, recipients of “charity” are often portrayed as “the needy” or as helpless groups or individuals who need looking after. Don’t get me wrong – we all need looking after and the last thing I am suggesting is that we shouldn’t engage in charitable acts. But we do need to revisit the language and ideology surrounding actors and the beneficiaries. This is important because “the poor”, “the disabled”, even “the refugee” are objectified and seen in passive tense (as victims, not as actors in their own stories).

Last year I wrote about a Jewish music festival in Melbourne Australia, Shir Madness where 15-20% of our 150 volunteer team were people with disabilities. I wrote of Michael, one of our Venue Managers, who had spent many years at a special school and had never previously been given a position of responsibility. I wrote of a blind 40 year old woman who was, on the day, not just a great volunteer but also a great disability advocate. I wrote of Jono, a young man on the spectrum who was part of my dream team. So that was one success story about inclusion – but it only came about because I was responsible for recruiting and managing volunteers. And I understand disability and actively work to ensure, whenever I can, that having a disability isn’t grounds for exclusion. We will only be an inclusive society when this is the norm, not the exception to the rule. I want to share with you another story from Australia.

Last week, Australia celebrated National Volunteer Week with the theme “Give Happy, Live Happy”. I was invited to an event in honour of volunteers at a disability service provider, Inclusion Melbourne. My daughter has 3 different volunteers through Inclusion Melbourne who work with her during the week. These women make a massive difference to Eli’s life. As it happens, my daughter, Eli, also volunteers with Inclusion Melbourne in two capacities. She has just started meeting every week with an elderly lady, with whom she shares coffee and has a walk in the park. Eli is a photographer and has been taking photos at Inclusion Melbourne events. These experiences also make a massive difference to her life, for it is here that she feels valued and that she has a contribution to make.

The benefits of volunteering are well-known and study after study shows that the volunteer gains, often as much or more that she gives. The positive outcomes being a volunteer include:

So who should volunteer? I’d say pretty much everyone. We could all benefit from being volunteers, but this is incredibly important for people with disabilities. Having a disability can easily lead a person to having a life lacking in all the things that volunteering could provide. People with disabilities are often socially isolated, have low self-esteem, have little sense of purpose and rare opportunities for a sense of achievement. By volunteering a person with a disability will have that sense of dignity and respect that is so often lacking.

Under Jewish law, every Jew is obliged to give tzedaka. The law does not say that able-bodied people much give tzedaka, or that this is the task of the benchmark male. Women are not exempt, nor are people with intellectual disabilities or those who are poor. People with disabilities and anyone who receives tzedaka must also give tzedaka. Jewish communities, in the USA, in France, in the UK, in Israel and across the Diaspora should be aware of this and, among other things, should provide opportunities for people with disabilities to volunteer and play an active role in their communities. That way, people with disabilities can gain the benefits accrued by volunteers and can “give happy” and “live happy”.

About the Author
Melinda Jones is a feminist human rights scholar & activist, working on a range of social justice projects on women's empowerment; disability, Judaism and Jewish law; and gender and children's health rights. Her previous research has included books, chapters and articles about the rights of vulnerable people in domestic and international law. Topics have included the rights of people with disabilities; free speech & racial hatred; the rights of the child; religion & the law; and feminism, gender & women's rights. Melinda taught political science and law at Australian Universities for over 20 years.
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