Methods: In-depth interviews were conducted with 20 older adults from three Midwest towns who identified as having serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs. Participants had to have volunteered with an organization in the last year. An iterative process between initial analysis of data and selection of new participants was used. Participants in this study were also selected purposively for maximum variation in terms of type of disability/impairment, race, gender, and age. The constant comparative method of analysis was used to identify themes from the data. The thematic findings convey participants’ discussions of how their participation benefited organizations and communities.
Results: Three themes related to organizational and community change were identified from the interviews. The first theme, Increasing Organizational Inclusivity, explores participants’ discussions of how including older adults with mobility-limiting disabilities can help organizations not only function more effectively but also become more inclusive and accepting and better connected with the community in general and the disability community in particular. In the second theme, Positive Perceptions of People with Disabilities, participants explain how including older adults with mobility-limiting disabilities in activities where they can highlight their strengths and be seen to be making contributions can help improve community members’ knowledge about and attitudes towards people with disabilities. In the third theme, Making Things More Accessible for Everyone, participants discuss their frustrations with inaccessible environments and negative social attitudes, and they highlight the importance of addressing these social justice issues for people with disabilities, especially in light of the increasing number of people with disabilities that will come with the aging of our population.
Conclusion and Implications: Participants in this study noted that while it can be challenging, non-profit and other community-focused organizations have a responsibility to include people with disabilities as volunteers. Participants’ discussions of seeing people with disabilities in active roles where they contribute to the lives of others provides important insights that can help expand knowledge of how to address social and environmental barriers to participation by people with disabilities and other marginalized populations.