In this post, two recent graduates from the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds discuss their applied research. Their reflection is prefaced with an introduction by Professor Sarah Irwin, lead for the MSc Inequalities and Social Science.
This year two of our 2022 Masters graduates write about their Applied Research Projects, dissertations developed with partner organisations and offered to students on both our MSc Inequalities and Social Science and MA Social Research. They enable our students to undertake research with direct policy and practice relevancies. Presentations to the partner and other invited stakeholders are valued by all, enabling students to disseminate their research insights and receive feedback which they can draw on in their write-up up.
In partnership with Voluntary Action Leeds, Katie Grant focused on third sector organisations’ disabled volunteering policies and practices and disabled volunteer experiences and made several valuable recommendations. Chenika Desch Bailey worked in partnership with Leeds City Council, evaluating different models of sustainable social welfare designed to ensure that public needs are met without damaging the environment, and informing LCC’s thinking in this important area.
Exploring inclusion, barriers, and benefits of volunteering for people with physical disabilities, by Katie Grant.
Volunteering can be highly important and rewarding for those with a disability. Although commonly seen as a gateway into paid employment, it is critical to see volunteering as both valuable in itself as well as linked to an array of social outcomes. With reference to literature on how third sector organisations and their volunteers create social value, my project focused on how to enable more volunteering by disabled individuals and the personal and social value gained from this. People with a physical disability can lack confidence and face social isolation and volunteering can be a powerful way to counteract this. Although current evidence suggests that volunteering presents a powerful opportunity for those with a physical disability, they are not routinely included in mainstream volunteering.
Working with Voluntary Action Leeds (VAL), this applied research focused on the value and benefits of volunteering for people with a physical disability as well as barriers to volunteering – from the perspectives of disabled people and third sector organisations. The three overarching research questions were:
1) What barriers do voluntary organisations face when trying to create an inclusive and diverse organisation for disabled people?
2) What are the barriers for disabled people who wish to volunteer, from the perception of those who are disabled?
3) What social value can come from overcoming these barriers?
The research was conducted in two stages. The first stage comprised in-depth interviews with staff members at volunteer organisations in Leeds. These organisations identified themselves as already inclusive of disabled volunteers or were interested in developing their inclusivity (around 6 different organisations took part). The second stage comprised interviews with volunteers who had a physical disability. Using these two stages was important as it allowed for the combination of voices that emerged from the different sets of interviews, creating a rich and interesting picture. It was important to make sure that the volunteers were given the lead and allowed to be the experts in their own experiences (Ashby, 2011). Exploring inclusion and diversity from their perspective was critical in order to understand disabled people’s lived experiences. Being a non-disabled researcher, it was important that this did not significantly impact the research and that the volunteers felt at ease speaking. The research project sought to explore and identify barriers and create insight and recommendations for VAL and their network.
The three main barriers identified were knowledge/attitudes, physical space and funding. In respect of the first, volunteers did not always feel welcomed to volunteering organisations that did not focus on disability. It is important to counteract this and make sure that people with a disability can go to any organisation and feel welcomed. In order to make this happen it is important to adopt targeted and progressive recruitment approaches, including stating that everyone, regardless of disability, is welcome to apply. A significant problem within volunteering was the normalisation of non-disabled expectations, and staff making assumptions about people’s abilities or what they might want. Therefore, it is important not to assume what someone with a disability can do, and not be afraid to ask and have an honest conversation. This can help create personalised volunteering experiences in partnership with the individual.
Overall, this project was a hugely positive experience and I valued the knowledge that was shared with me. I discussed my early findings with the Volunteer Managers Network and received valuable feedback on my ongoing project. It was a rewarding experience to be able to not just conduct research but try to create actionable insight and change.
The future of sustainable welfare in Leeds: Could universal basic income or universal basic services provide the answer? – by Chenika Desch Bailey
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted extreme financial insecurity across the UK and the current cost of living crisis is continuing to exacerbate existing poverty. At the same time, growing awareness of the increasing frequency of extreme weather events further emphasises the need for radical action to tackle the climate crisis. Crucially, these social and environmental issues are intertwined. Low-income groups are the least able to cope with the financial costs associated with climate change and there is evidence that countries with higher levels of social inequality also produce higher greenhouse gas emissions. At both the national and local level, this has led to calls for more sustainable welfare systems designed to ensure that public needs are met without damaging the environment.
Over the past two years, interest in alternative welfare models such as Universal Basic Income (UBI) and Universal Basic Services (UBS) has grown significantly, including in Leeds. UBI describes an unconditional payment made to everyone regardless of income which would be sufficient to cover their basic needs. In contrast, UBS refers to the collective provision of public services such as healthcare, household utilities and public transport that would be free at the point of use. In 2020, a cross-party motion was passed by Leeds City Council in support of a UBI pilot scheme subject to external funding.
Working on an applied project in collaboration with Leeds City Council’s financial inclusion team, my research explores the merits of UBI and UBS approaches. The objective was to contribute towards ongoing policy debates and strategic thinking within Leeds City Council on the development and implementation of alternative welfare models across Leeds. I did this by analysing six examples of UBI and UBS interventions from different countries. Based on an initial literature review, I identified four key criteria for sustainable welfare which focused primarily on the extent to which public needs would be met, along with the potential environmental benefits of the interventions.
The UBI trials reported improvements in living standards along with physical and mental health. Similarly, the UBS interventions offered positive predictions for the impact of free access to services. Crucially, the value of the payments and range of services offered by the different interventions was key to determining the extent to which basic needs would be met. In contrast, despite growing awareness of climate change, there was often little consideration of the environmental impact of many of the interventions. Discussion of the potential environmental benefits was more common within the UBS interventions which argued that public services are more cost-effective and environmentally friendly than private provision. Arguably there is also a greater potential to encourage eco-friendly behaviours, for example, by providing free access to public transport.
Although sometimes presented as ideologically opposed, a key finding of my research was the potential compatibility of UBI and UBS. None of the UBI or UBS interventions sought to eliminate other types of provision and one UBS model even included service provision alongside a small UBI payment. This suggests that the benefits of both approaches could be combined, acknowledging that some needs may be better met through services while others require cash payments.
The research findings from this applied project were presented to Leeds City Council to support their ongoing work. Given the current economic climate and financial situation of the UK central government, external funding for a UBI pilot scheme in Leeds is not likely to materialise any time soon. However, there is growing interest in what UBI and UBS have to offer at the local level in terms of sustainable welfare. For example, Leeds City Council recently supported a pilot programme to provide people in financial crisis with cash instead of emergency food. This applied project contributed towards ongoing efforts to explore alternative models of welfare provision across the city with more to come.