Monday, 3 December 2012

On the time I closed my eyes to open them

Over the last several years I've trained hundreds of onsite event staff and volunteers to recycle and sort complicated event waste. I think I've had every question then along comes another round of "Stump the Recycler" and I'm reminded I still have a lot to learn....

This year's Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly threw me another challenge: how to train a visually-impaired volunteer to participate as a recycling monitor? 

I confess, when I first saw the note on my volunteer list beside Wesley's name I thought about asking if he could be assigned to another team. How could he recognise the tiny triangles, numbers, colours and labels that tell us how to recycle? It would be a major contamination risk, I thought. UUA, however, has very proactive programs to engage people with accessibility needs equally in their General Assembly. They even have an event staff person onsite devoted to this specific function. Passing my volunteer to another event team was just not an option.

I had to learn to improve my training to enable more equal access. And Wesley was a great teacher. He was very approachable when I admitted I was not adequately prepared to accommodate his needs but wanted to know how I could make it work so he had an enjoyable, empowering and equal experience on our team. Although we could definitely still improve, some of the measures that helped make our onsite waste program more accessible included:

  • Seeing with your fingers. While Wesley may not be able to discern a non-compostable white plate from a beige compostable one by sight, he is great at thinking by 'feel', or in textures. Coated paper that might be recycled feels different than rough napkins and eco-plates that can be composted. This was a great tip Wesley taught us to help sighted volunteers learn, too.
  • Focusing on a method of enquiry, not a method of visual identification. Hour after hour Wesley would have people walk up to him and hold up a plastic up and they would ask: "Where does this go?". Wesley would smile and ask back "Where did you buy it?" which would allow him to know if it was recyclable or may be acceptable as compost. Giving people a series of questions to ask rather than instructions based on what they see can help. It also makes people aware of how where they buy can impact how they dispose, which can lead to different and better choices in future.
  • Ensuring consistency. Wesley did a great job on his first shift. There was hardly any contamination in his bins. The next day, however, was not as good, and many compostable cups were mis-filed in the recycling stream. I gently asked Wes if he might need a refresher as we picked through them together. He was surprised there was a problem as he'd been putting the same cups in the same bin as the day previous. And indeed he had been, but our service crew had switched the position of the bins on him overnight when they had been emptied. The order of his sorting was disrupted as he'd been using the sequence of bins to help him sort, rather than the signs. Our fault!
  • Being bold and distinct. In addition to texture, Wesley taught us about things like using bright colours and distinct shapes. Bright coloured signs were a better way to colour-code bins than white signs with coloured letters. Long necked bottles could be recycled. Some non-neck bottles couldn't be. Clean square plates were recyclable. Round ones were compost. Touch and feel boards at stations became a great reference and education point for all attendees. 
 Wes (pictured above) was a great volunteer, as were of all of our green angels. In fact, together they helped UUA's General Assembly reach an all-time record 87% diversion from landfill (see 2012 post-event report for more information). But he gets a special set of wings for improving our training and program in ways that not only made it more accessible to him, but for everyone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was indeed an excellent article. I came across it by chance. So often we neglect the hearing and visually impaired as participants of a volunteer program. But this makes absolute sense and the experience itself serves as a valuable template for "physically challenged recycle volunteers". This article has truly touched me and I hope to see more on this. Great job!!!!! And to Wes well