Our ‘buddying’ scheme to help students with disabilities take part in rail volunteering

Tamar Valley Line and Looe Valley Line
University of Plymouth Students Union Great Western Railway
1st, Involving Young People
Community Rail Awards 2010

Inspired by a student at Plymouth University, the I-Buddy project helped open up volunteering on the branch lines to dozens of students with disabilities. It focused on the ‘buddying up’ of pairs of students – including giving those with disabilities the chance to help others.

I-buddy was the realisation of one Plymouth student’s dream that students with a range of disabilities could get involved with the full spectrum of volunteer opportunities on offer at the Student Union.

Dave F was a regular commuter from Newquay to Plymouth by train and wanted to get involved with our already established Rural Stations Project which was working with students to make rural branch line stations more attractive. Dave has some complex mental and physical disabilities from the result of an accident in childhood, but was so keen to be involved that he was constantly in the Volunteer Office pestering staff for opportunities.

Dave’s persistence paid off. When funding became available in 2009 through the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, the pilot was set up at Plymouth station. The team there knew Dave well as he commuted every day and their support was fundamental in getting the project off the ground.

Aims of the project

By using the Plymouth Station project as a pilot it was hoped that this would enable us to understand better how to facilitate more outdoor physical volunteering opportunities for students with disabilities. One of the first things that was obvious was that Dave needed adapted tools to enable him to take part. Through the funding specially adapted tools, kneelers and protective equipment were bought.

Another important angle of the project was the role other students could play in helping students with disabilities achieve as much as possible by working together.

Using a buddy scheme, students were paired up based on what they could achieve together.

The disability of the student was not an issue (we didn’t even ask) it was more important to find out what they felt comfortable doing and what they wanted to get involved with.

This meant that in some cases students that were registered disabled were acting as buddies as well as being buddied.

What worked well?

The project has been a learning experience for all those involved but most of all for the students.

Those with disabilities have found the project fundamental in not only meeting more people, making new friends and building confidence but in making student life happier. As one of the students said:

“When you go through life relying on other people to help you out, it’s quite refreshing when the tables are turned and you can help other people out.”

Those who have acted as buddies have found the project a great learning experience as those involved in the pilot were invited to sit on the steering group thus having a role in changing the culture inside the University for future students.

In the 2008/9 academic year of 836 students who volunteered, only 3 were registered disabled. For the 2009/10 academic year when the project began, this figure rose to 40.

What has happened since?

Since the initial pilot the Students Union is now completely engaged with the Disability Assist service at the University who regularly refer students to the Volunteer dept. This term alone, 5 new students have been referred. Staff from the Volunteer Service also attend monthly information sessions at Disability Assist which means that all staff and students now know all about the Buddy system.

The whole project has made the Students’ Union think more about inclusivity and has meant that changes have been made with regard to signage around the building, and a better more accessible website.

Meanwhile the project’s student leader Rachel Nafzger went on to be an Olympic torchbearer for London 2012 in recognition of her contribution to volunteering.

What did we learn?

We learnt that you can’t put people with disabilities into a one size fits all category, each individual has individual needs and wants and it is the fluid approach of the Buddy system which has worked so well.

Through the pilot projects, students have also been a positive force for a change of attitudes to disabled people and their abilities in the local community. Work in schools in particular has shown young children that disabled people have a variety of constructive and interesting experiences available to them.