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How Volunteering Changed My Perception of My Impairment As a Disabled Person

19/07/2016 11:09 | Updated 19 July 2016

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In May 2016 I was approached to see if I'd like to give a presentation at the UN Office in Geneva as part of an international conference on volunteering, run by one of the biggest social movements in Russia, Vector of Friendship. Of course, I jumped at the chance, but there was a question in my head: 'what will I talk about?'. The only brief I had been given was to deliver a TEDx-esque type presentation as part of the UN Library Talks series which was entitled 'Getting More Than We Give: How Volunteering Changed My World'. I came to the conclusion that I would deliver a presentation on how volunteering allowed me to think differently about my visual impairment and about disabled people as a whole.

As a disabled person I believe two things to be true: the impairment defines the person, unless the right mind set is adopted; and the actions of disabled people who come before us usually define the future successes of disabled people today.

Disabled people are defined by their impairment, arguably because it is the only thing that stays consistent throughout their lives. Age, location, education standards, relationship status... these all change, at some point, in a person's life but their impairment often stays with them forever. Due to this, it is my belief that, unless coupled with the correct mind set as a disabled person, impairments can negatively impact upon us from an early age. This is due, partly, to the fact that disabled peoples' perceived abilities are defined by the actions of disabled people who have come before them. Unless it has been achieved by someone else, it is believed to be impossible. Disabled people, from an early age, are constantly faced with phrases such as "can't", "won't", "shouldn't", "mustn't", and "but" - all of these words are what I like to call clause words, meaning - in principle - that they always add a clause to something someone is about to say. Unless disabled people learn how to think about their disability in a different way, and learn that barriers (and beliefs!) are there to be broken, negativity can onset from an early age. Volunteering taught me this, and that's what I wanted to get across in my speech.

In my life I have volunteered with various organisations, two of which have - in different ways - helped me think about my impairment in a positive way. These organisations were MACS and OYT Scotland and both taught me different things.

Ocean Youth Trust Scotland is Scotland's national sail training charity and takes young people, between the ages of 12-24, to sea in order to experience an adventure under sail. By sailing with them as a young person, and later as a trustee and watch leader, OYT Scotland really explored my boundaries by teaching me to push my barriers as far as they can go. By learning to work with people in a confined space, learning how to hoist a main sail in force eight winds, cooking for 18 people or by watching people being sea sick, knowing that we need to carry on, I learnt resilience and that everyone is different, everyone faces challenges. The variance of characters that I encountered on my voyages was simply outstanding and it made me understand that everyone is on a journey and they don't know where their final destination is. It's not just disabled people who are different. OYT Scotland was the first place where my ability was defined by my actions, and it is the first place that taught me ability is about perception.

Similarly, MACS is a charity that I've grown up with and it has taught me important life lessons, too. As a young person it provided a peer support network of older and adult members with my condition who were doing the things that I had been told by society that I couldn't. It's important to note, here, that even though my parents told me I could do whatever I wanted, society had a different view - this is hard to cope with as a young person.

By having older people to look up to, I learn that anything is possible if you try hard enough. Now, as Chairman of the charity, I see that philosophy coming true every day. Whether it be by taking a group of our young people away on activity breaks, or by raising awareness of the conditions and delivering case studies internationally, I am reminded how able each of our young people are, and how much they have to offer the world. That is what volunteering with MACS has taught me. It has given me a passion for helping others.

By simply saying "yes" to two volunteering opportunities when I was younger, my outlook on disabled people, and my own personal view of my impairment, has changed and the ability to believe in myself has increased.

That is the message I wanted to get across in my presentation at the UN.

I hope it came across clearly.

The conference was full of other inspiring young people. I was introduced to a Maltese woman who is fighting for equality in her country; a German Ph.D student who is campaigning to make the voices of young people heard, worldwide; a Saudi Arabian who wants international peace; and an even more eccentric Scotsman than I who wants to help others be the best they can be. I now call them friends.

If I believe anything after the UN conference, it is the following...
1. Being disabled is not about ability, it is about society's barriers. Ability is defined by actions;
2. Everyone is different, not just those who are disabled;
3. Anything is possible - disabled people face barriers in life but barriers can be lifted; and
4. Anyone can change the world for the better if they truly believe in the cause.

I put it to you that ability is merely a perception of peoples' limits, and a perception that must be challenged at that.

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