Michael’s life took a turn for the better when he became a volunteer at Melbourne’s first ever Jewish Music Festival, Shir Madness. After a phone interview he was allocated to one of the most senior volunteer roles of venue manager. He attended the training and spent some time clarifying details of the task at the volunteer briefing. He did a really great job on the day. Unbeknown to us, Michael had spent many years at a special school and had never before in his life been given a position of responsibility.
Michael felt empowered by his experience and has gained confidence to look for work. He loved being part of Shir Madness and has promised to volunteer again for our next festival in 2 years time.
Emily is a blind woman in her 40s who also volunteered at Shir Madness. She had said she wanted to be a meet and greet person, which we worried would be difficult for her. So when she started her shift we scheduled an extra one of our floaters to be there as back up. It turned out that she had great fun and did a remarkable job. Not only did Emily write to me afterwards saying that she loved being involved, but others wrote about their surprise that she could do the job so well.
Jono, a guy on the spectrum in his late 30s, proved to be one of the most versatile and helpful volunteers. Jono was a member of my dream team – people who were on standby to do whatever was needed whenever it was needed. Jono helped set up tables, carried equipment, delivered food to the green room and even spent some time checking wristbands at the entry to venues. He couldn’t last very long in any particular role, but as long as we were very clear about what needed to be done and how it should be done we were able to keep his anxiety at bay. We certainly want him back next time.
These are just three of the many stories I could tell about volunteers at Shir Madness. The festival involved 30 artists/ensembles performing on 6 stages over 10 hours. The festival sold out when we reached venue capacity at 1200, and we had to turn people away at the door. To make this happen we depended on volunteers – and we needed 150 volunteers to work from bump-in at midnight through the day until bump-out finishing at midnight.
So we reached out to every organization and every network in the Jewish community that we could find. Because I believe that people with disabilities are ordinary people with strengths and weakness like anyone else, I included in the call out people with disabilities who I knew and worked through their networks in the same way as I called out to the university student body, retired baby boomers, synagogues and everywhere else I could think of. The application to volunteer asked the person’s name and age group, with room to comment about your preferred type of task. Because shifts were for 4 hours, I also asked if there were issues of stamina to let me know so we could organize some shorter shifts or split shifts. I did not ask about ability or disability.
Before we ran the volunteer briefing and training, either I or a member of the management committee rang and spoke with every applicant. We asked what they were interested in doing so we could match volunteers to task. We were particularly looking for people we thought could take the jobs involving more responsibility. But we also wanted to know who was a people person, meeting and greeting, and who would be better behind the scenes. A number of people told us they needed to be sitting or couldn’t managing more than two hours. No one asked and no one told us that they had a disability unless they felt telling us would help ensure them a role they felt able to play.
Of the 150 volunteers on the day 15- 20% had disabilities. We had blind volunteers and deaf volunteers, people with mobility impairments, people with intellectual disabilities, people with psychiatric disabilities and people on the spectrum. They ranged in age from 18 to 80 years old – although like most of our volunteers they were in their mid-to-late 20s or their 30s.
There was certainly no madness involved in including people with disabilities in Shir Madness. We needed volunteers. We needed people to contribute doing tasks they felt comfortable with and something they enjoyed. So volunteering was a win-win situation. Every single volunteer was a Mensch. There is no reason to believe that this was different when the volunteer happened, also, to have a disability. What is a little off, though, is that anyone should ever think otherwise.
I have no proof of all this by way of photographs. We had no disabled poster boy or girl included in our marketing. This is as it should be. When inclusion is normal, it should be nothing to write home about.
Melinda Jones is an Australian human rights lawyer and a disability/inclusion advocate. As a result of acquiring a disability, Melinda retired from teaching law at the University of NSW in 2001. She is widely published, most recently a book Critical Perspective on Human Rights Law and Disability (2011). A Melinda is currently working on a book, Judaism, Justice & the Rights of People with Disabilities.