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Who: Volunteering in Plymouth (ViP)

What: Broadening the range of volunteering opportunities to students with extra support needs, through a buddying scheme

Why: A student’s idea, to develop inclusive practice within student volunteering

Where: Within the university and projects across the local area

When: Ongoing since the 09/10 academic year, with various activities throughout the academic year

Project description

I-buddy is the realisation of a student's idea, intended to help students with disabilities take part in the full range of volunteer opportunities in the Students' Union. The project aims to open up a range of established student-led projects to students with extra support needs through a buddy scheme where students are able to support one another to meet any particular needs and deliver high impact community outcomes.

The project is open to all students and adopts a social model of disability as opposed to a medical model. The first consideration was on what people could do rather than what they had difficulties with. As a result students were paired based on what they were able to achieve together, thus we had students with registered disabilities working as buddies as well as being 'buddied.'

Several of our students attached to this project have won awards and the team has been commended for the work we've done in the university and the wider community.   

three students from Ibuddy

Students involved in Ibuddy


  • Creating an inclusive atmosphere within ViP and the University of Plymouth Students’ Union (UPSU)
  • Providing opportunities for all students to volunteer, socialise and learn from each other’s experiences
  • Providing opportunities within the community to establish more inclusive practice

Results and outcomes

What worked well

Student experience

The I-Buddy project has proven to be a highly rewarding and confidence building experience, with a range of volunteering opportunities with eight community partners. These included both one-off and part time projects; particularly successful was the work with the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership to help regenerate neglected rural railway stations in Devon and Cornwall. Yet, it is the experience of the volunteers which has stood out overall. Volunteering has really made an impact upon the lives of the students involved, in particular for those with disabilities but also those without, for whom it has been a learning experience, challenging perceptions.

"My first year was not miserable, but hard for the first few months, milling around in a big city – but I joined volunteering and made lots of friends, it was a real turning point for me." Student 

"Before I joined volunteering I did not really have much of a social life, it’s nice to meet some more down to earth, chilled out people, easier to get to know people – socially it’s been a huge benefit for me." Student

Overcoming Perceptions

"I’m in final year but this is my first year volunteering at Uni. I volunteered outside Uni before, raising 10,000 for cerebral palsy, but from this I wanted to extend it to other students. Students need to learn more about disabilities, not ignore it, this project has helped so much with that." Lead Student

Throughout this project it has been clear that those with disabilities cannot be put into a singular category, they are a group of difference, with each person having very different experiences. The project has been successful in understanding these differences, as the ‘buddying’ approach to volunteering has been very fluid, with buddy pairs including those with different disabilities helping each other.

Communities got more exposure to students with extra support needs; in some projects this was very powerful, for example work in schools sends a strong message to children that constructive and interesting experiences are available to those with disability. 

Additionally for the students involved these opportunities became a chance to ‘get to know’ the community and make a difference to their environment, where those who were disabled are often perceived to be those in need of help.  

"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." Student Volunteer

Steering group

This project has led to a shift in the culture of volunteering in UPSU, with growing awareness of inclusive practice. An important factor in this has been the organising a steering group. The volunteering students were invited and encouraged to contribute their views, to develop the university as a more inclusive atmosphere. This resulted in some really interesting outcomes, to improve university social spaces including the provision of signage in the SU building to highlight the venue as welcoming and open to all, and the provision of contracts for buddies outlining confidentiality and trust. 

What didn't work well

In developing inclusive practice within volunteering at UPSU we have faced some challenges in developing our services to match this aim. In particular, this project made us aware of the need to develop the SU website to be more accessible, particularly for those with communication difficulties. Though this process took longer than hoped, due to other time commitments.

It was also a hope that this project could begin to stimulate a more inclusive atmosphere across the campus. Unfortunately the greatest challenge we have met with this project to obtain the attention of senior members of staff. 

Resources required

  • Approaching disability through a social rather than medical model
  • It was essential to invest time and energy in the development of activities and ensuring there is support for all the buddy pairs, including the time to coordinate a steering group
  • Working with the University Disability Assist Services, was a crucial partnership in raising awareness of the social aspect of students with disabilities’ university lives
  • All students were given training in disability anti-discrimination to provide a baseline of knowledge, by our community partner, Plymouth Guild
  • For the gardening project special tools were required – Nottingham Retail Supplies and PETA (UK)

Top Tips

  • Carry out disability anti-discrimination training at the beginning
  • Useful to have connections to the disability service, an internal support structure, makes it much easier to develop the project, a vital resource if the project is transferred
  • Mix buddy pairs to include those with varying disabilities
  • Take an informal approach. This encouraged a greater participation and understanding of the students with disabilities, concentrating on what they could do over what they could not
  • Investing time in developing these opportunities is essential, to arrange volunteering and to ensure clear communications between buddies
  • Having buddies accompanying students with disability was really useful for integration into partner organisations as it meant that (perceived) responsibility for the individual was not given to the organisation
  • Do not focus on the disabilities that students had (we didn’t even ask!) but focus on what they feel comfortable doing themselves; in all cases the levels of involvement of students with disability was easily as high as students without disability
  • Challenge stereotypes positively
  • Be assertive and ask, rather than be hesitant around disability


Name: Claire Massey

Name of organisation: University of Plymouth Students’ Union