Rebecca Daniel, coordinator of the competence centre for inclusive international exchanges at bezev e.V.
“Go ahead, do it!" is the slogan for the initiatives run by Behinderung und Entwicklungszusammenarbeit e.V. (bezev) to promote the inclusion of volunteers with an impairment or disability in international volunteer programmes. In 2012, bezev launched a pilot project called "worldwards for everyone!" to include twelve volunteers with an impairment or disability in the weltwärts volunteer development programme together with numerous other participants. The number of people with an impairment or disability taking part in weltwärts (funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development) has been growing steadily ever since, with almost 70 volunteers going abroad since the pilot was launched. After the pilot ended in 2015, bezev received funding from the weltwärts programme when it was established as a centre of excellence for inclusion of volunteers with an impairment or disability. In April 2017, bezev implemented a new model project to promote the inclusion of people with a disability or impairment in international exchange programmes. The aim is to apply the experiences gained in inclusive work carried out under weltwärts to other initiatives. Individuals who want to volunteer for a few weeks, months or even a whole year can complete a placement abroad. They travel to countries in the Global South or Global North to help out at various charitable partner organisations on the ground. They generally travel alone or occasionally in pairs with other volunteers to work in orphanages, schools, hospitals, environmental organisations or other non-governmental organisations.
Volunteers begin preparing for their exchanges around nine months in advance. Flights and accommodation must be arranged, visas applied for and vaccinations organised. Around this time, volunteers get a first taste of the project in their destination country so they can learn about what will be expected of them and what they can expect when they get there – such as how accessible the conditions are on site. The sending organisation also provides support. bezev helps volunteers with any questions on organising and financing their additional needs. This includes agreeing special insurance rates, stockpiling and ensuring the refrigeration of medicines, arranging accessible accommodation wherever possible, ensuring suitable precautions are taken at the future place of work, finding mobility assistants for travel and work, and much more. It may sound like a lot of work, but it needn't be. Many volunteers with an impairment or disability only have minimal additional needs, not all of which are complicated. The important thing is to communicate regularly and speak openly about needs and obstacles, even if this can feel unfamiliar and a little intrusive. Photos, videos and Skype calls with foreign partner organisations can be of great help here, as can talking to former volunteers from the same project. It is helpful to have a good network of contacts who know about accessibility and what kind of precautions should be put in place. Contact with experts in the foreign country and, depending on the volunteers' needs, additional resources are also very valuable. What everyone can learn from this is that individuals with an impairment or disability in Germany and abroad know their needs and the situation on site best of all. It follows, then, that when organising volunteer placements abroad the guiding principle should always be "Don’t talk about us without us!"
Volunteers are also required to attend preparatory, interim and follow-up seminars. A wide range of methods and tools are used for inclusive groups, such as sign language interpreters, modified presentations and accessible rooms. Some seminars are held in plain or simplified language to make sure that volunteers with learning impairments or whose first language is not German can understand everything. This is also beneficial for hearing-impaired volunteers. Depending on the needs of participants, the lighting and noise in rooms is tested beforehand. Activities and games designed to break the ice at the seminar are checked and if necessary adapted to allow everyone to take part. The seminars also cover the topic of inclusion itself and dealing with impairment or disability in Germany and abroad. Some volunteers give presentations on their own impairment or needs; former and returning volunteers report on their experiences of how impairment or disability is dealt with in the destination country. The basic premise of the seminars is that “it’s normal to be different". And, in case of doubt, that things are also different in the foreign country – so the seminar is a great opportunity to practice speaking a different language (such as sign language) or seeing the world through different eyes.
Deaf volunteer Inna Shparber went to Buea in Cameroon in 2015 to work at a school for deaf children. When she applied, Inna originally wanted to go to India or South America. Her scepticism about Africa stemmed mainly from the way it is portrayed in the media. She also wanted to work on a project involving other deaf people. bezev had the perfect placement to match Inna's experience and her preferred field of work, but it was in Cameroon. Inna wasn't sure at first whether to accept the offer or not, but then she decided to go for it: "It seemed like I was destined to go to Africa. And it's true, it was absolutely perfect for me," said Inna, happily recounting her experiences in an interview after returning from her volunteer placement abroad. The courage to try new things and explore new horizons is part and parcel of spending a year abroad. Not everyone finds this step easy to take, and not because of any disability or impairment. Inna is a great example; her experience shows it really is possible. Although she had to learn the local sign language to be able to communicate with the children and teachers on the project, it was still easier for her than for many hearing volunteers who had had no contact with sign language before the programme. "Just try it. You can do it!" says hearing-impaired volunteer Til, who completed his placement at the same school for the deaf a year before Inna, in a campaign video by bezev encouraging other volunteers with an impairment or disability to take part. He adds: "You yourselves know your impairments and concerns the best of all. You know what help you need. 'worldwards for everyone!' means everyone can take part, including you."
Challenges and conflicts are a part of every volunteer programme and the possible solutions are as diverse as the individual needs of the volunteers and their environments.
In bezev's experience, many volunteers with a disability or impairment are used to dealing with obstacles and frustration, including in life in Germany. This can even give them an advantage over other volunteers during the preparatory phase.
It helps that some programmes have already worked hard to remove structural barriers. On the weltwärts programme, this is thanks in part to the ongoing work of bezev – for example, the age limit has been raised and made more flexible, now giving people with an impairment or disability aged up to 35 or over an opportunity to take part. The conditions for access were re-phrased; now the minimum requirements (personal suitability or a school-leaving certificate from a school for children with learning difficulties) are listed first.
The funding rules were updated to include a section on additional financial support for inclusive programmes to cover the cost of typical additional requirements such as sign-language interpreters or assistants. Extra hours of work for support staff are now also accounted for, e.g., to provide more intensive organisational and educational guidance, adapt specific methods to make them suitable for inclusive seminars, or take suitable precautions.
Another issue that is crucial to overcoming obstacles is open communication about needs and barriers, respect for one’s peers and, most of all, enjoying finding creative solutions to challenges. More often than not, the positive experience of engaging in inclusive work is enjoyable enough in itself – thanks, for example, to positive feedback received from partners in the destination countries who actively seek out volunteers with an impairment or disability because they are role models for other people with an impairment or disability in the country in question. This is one of the most valuable experiences to be gained from inclusive work in the field of international exchange. People with an impairment or disability are no longer perceived as dependent recipients of care, but as active members of the community who join their peers in donating their time to non-profit projects around the world.