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National Service and Inclusion Project

Inclusion: The active engagement of people with disabilities as service members in all levels of national and community service

Visit NSIP's sister site The National Service to Employment Project (NextSTEP)

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Field Essay

by Emily E. Miller


  1. Introduction: Project and Methodology
  2. Service & Inclusion: How Do These Concepts Relate?
  3. Disability Awareness: Identifying Barriers to Inclusion
  4. Reasonable Accommodation: Examples and Recommendations
  5. Advice to Service Programs: For Successful Inclusion
  6. Appendix


Introduction: project and methodology


My introduction to national service resulted from a graduate assistantship at the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University. I completed the coursework for a Masters degree while working as Service Facilitator with the ADD Corps / AmeriCorps program.  As an oral historian and sound documentarian, I document the stories of individuals through conversation and connect those stories to larger institutional narratives. For example, I might interview a foster grandparent and examine how the story he or she tells relates to the mission and history of the National Senior Service Corps. This process produces a record and an interpretation of history. It can also be a part of community building and institutional change; the perspectives of people who are serving in programs might influence program policies and strategies. I had both of these goals in mind when I applied for a fellowship with the Corporation for National Service.

The National Service Fellowship Program annually supports a group of individual researchers who "develop and promote models of quality service responsive to the needs of communities." My project was designed to support the Corporation's goal of increasing the participation of people with disabilities in national service programs. After two years as Service Facilitator with the ADD Corps/AmeriCorps program in Philadelphia, I knew that people with disabilities were getting things done in communities: supporting people in their transitions out of institutions into communities and workplaces; building low income housing; visiting and assisting elders in their homes; and helping people prepare to take the GED. I sensed that service programs, with little or no experience working with people with disabilities, needed more than expert advice on disability law and proper procedures. The voices of past and present participants with personal experience of both national service and living with a disability were a yet untapped resource.

During my tenure as a fellow, I documented the exchange of talents and opportunities between national service programs and individuals with disabilities. I invited past and present national service participants with disabilities to support and influence efforts to maximize inclusion. Thirty-two participants served as consultants and trainers by discussing their service experience as individuals with disabilities. My intent was to create a product, part-documentary and part-training tool, that would introduce service program staff to the benefits and challenges of inclusion from the perspective of service program participants in their own words.

The interviews are the foundation and heart of this project, so I emphatically encourage readers to visit the Participants section and to listen to and/or read the words of the individuals who participated. In this essay I offer an overview and interpretation of the project for staff members of service programs who are concerned about accessibility.


I began this project by identifying a pool of potential interviewees. The criteria were participation in any one of the national service programs supported by the Corporation for National Service and identification as a person with a disability. Outreach efforts produced a pool of over 80 potential interviewees from AmeriCorps and National Senior Service Corps programs in 23 states. I selected participants who would represent a variety of disabilities, ages, backgrounds, and life experiences. The programs represented include AmeriCorps*State and National, AmeriCorps*Vista, AmeriCorps*National Civilian Community Corps, Americas Promise Fellows, Retired and Senior Volunteers, and Foster Grandparents.

While my focus was the perspective of participants with disabilities, I also spoke with students and teachers involved in an inclusive service-learning project, as well as several program coordinators and beneficiaries of service. I conducted qualitative interviews in person and by phone, from 20 minutes to three hours in length. Each interview varied according to the interest of the interviewee, but in all cases I asked the participants to discuss:

  1. What they had contributed and gained by serving;
  2. What if any reasonable accommodations supported their service; and
  3. How they would advise service programs to increase the participation of people with disabilities.

How Participants with Disabilities Have Been Serving:

All of the participants I interviewed valued the experience they had in national service. The purpose of the discussions was not to evaluate programs but to support them in their efforts to provide service opportunities for all and to address the unmet needs of communities. In the process of transcribing and determining which portions of the interviews I would include, I considered each conversation in relation to the others. No single participant can speak for all people with disabilities, but as a group they communicated some common themes. Both the edited interviews and my field essay reflect my interpretation of the information. These choices were made according to my own subjective notion of what would be most useful and effective to remove barriers. My ideas are informed by my own experiences working in an inclusive national service program and my imaginings of the world in which I want to live.

The remainder of this essay is intended to serve as a primer on inclusion as it relates to national service. I cover philosophical and practical concerns and identify resources available to support service programs' efforts.

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Go to another chapter in the Field Essay:

  1. Introduction: Project and Methodology
  2. Service & Inclusion: How Do These Concepts Relate?
  3. Disability Awareness: Identifying Barriers to Inclusion
  4. Reasonable Accommodation: Examples and Recommendations
  5. Advice to Service Programs: For Successful Inclusion
  6. Appendix

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©The National Service Inclusion Project (NSIP) is a training and technical assistance provider on disability inclusion. NSIP partners with the Association on University Centers on Disability, National Council on Independent Living, Association on Higher Education and Disability and National Down Syndrome Congress to build connections between disability organizations and all CNCS grantees, including national directs, to increase the participation of people with disabilities in national service.