10/05/2022 Virtual Buddying – Social Prescribing Stories from Thriving Communities

A mother and daughter make ice cream desserts with a friend on a laptop

Virtual buddying connects volunteers to disabled people

The charity Sense matches disabled and non-disabled volunteers based on their interests for fun via a weekly Zoom call

We know isolation disproportionately affects disabled people, and this is the problem we’re trying to solve at Sense. Our research prior to the pandemic shows that 53% of disabled adults and 77% of disabled young people feel lonely every day, and nearly a third of non-disabled people avoid talking to a disabled person. 

More recent research by Sense has shown the impact the pandemic has had on loneliness levels for many groups in society, including disabled people, with many struggling without access to their usual support networks. Now, 61% of disabled people experience chronic loneliness and 70% feel that social isolation is affecting their mental health. 

Traditional befriending schemes have been targeted at older people rather than young people and adults, and disabled people who often struggle to make friends in the first place. However the success of evaluated befriending models can be applied to all age groups 

Virtual Buddying 

Our Virtual Buddying programme connects disabled and non-disabled volunteers based on mutual interests. We aim to reach 5000 buddies in the next five years. 

We support a wide range of disabled people with many different needs and communication styles. To support this, technology inclusion is embedded at the start. We take time to understand preferred communication methods and access requirements, including BSL, captions and audio description and respond to individual needs. 

We spend time with buddies to get to know them and their needs. Each participant is carefully matched with a volunteer that can support their outcomes. They are also assigned a Sense staff member as a point of contact to support the success and safety of the match. 

Virtual sessions last for one hour, one day a week and take place on Zoom. Bespoke programmes of activity are developed around activities of mutual interest including art and crafts, music, dance, cooking, sports and writing. These programmes are co-designed with participants. 

A reciprocal enterprise 

Volunteer-based approaches offer a different kind of a relationship than with family members or simply paid professionals.  It offers a supportive relationship with someone who has volunteered their time, and is not a relative or paid worker. It is a reciprocal enterprise: buddy volunteers gain new experiences and transferable skills, in addition to developing a close friendship with a disabled person. For example, disabled people can peer-mentor volunteers in the use of BSL language, sharing their experiences of accessing services. This can break down barriers and help equip volunteers with the necessary skills to communicate with disabled people.Virtual buddying offers structured, safe and enjoyable social interaction for disabled people, who are experiencing social isolation or negative psychological wellbeing. This includes:  

  • Greater friendship possibilities, increases in self-confidence, a sense of belonging, collaborative working environments 
  • Regular, focussed activities of choice 
  • Building social capital 
  • Improved mental wellbeing. 

Volunteers also report an increased understanding of the lives of disabled people, increased awareness of communication needs and feel an increased sense of social connectedness. 

Genuine friendships 

Volunteers are at the heart of this service. Not because they are cheaper but because they can form genuine friendships, as opposed to someone who is in a professional role. As well as being sincere, relationships are characterised by being equal. Volunteers, like the young people they support, show the same nerves on first meeting and same elation as their connection grows deeper. 

Digital inclusion is not only about access to wifi, equipment and skills. We need to be mindful of accessibility. We are sharing a range of resources, including inclusive online sessions tailored sports and arts activities with audio description and subtitles to make sure families can access them. It’s been a steep learning curve for all charities in terms of skilling up staff digitally as well as disabled people and families. 

For further information about Sense Virtual Buddying, please go to: 


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