According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every four adults has a disability that impacts their daily lives. This includes, but is not limited to, physical, sensory, cognitive, and mental health disabilities. The biggest obstacle for many such people, myself included as someone who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia, is not our diagnosis. Our barriers are the communities, stigmas, and failed policies that perpetuate ableism—the dangerous and demeaning view that disabled people are inferior to people without disabilities. Ableism limits both people directly impacted by prejudice and creates collateral damage by limiting the potential people with disabilities can contribute to society.
Research shows that implicit bias and barriers even come from people and groups with the best intentions. In the philanthropic sector, people with disabilities are grossly underrepresented within funding institutions. And given that most disability groups were founded by white, two-parent families who have a child with a particular disability, only a narrow band of disability awareness and sensitivity is ingrained within an organization, leaving huge disconnects between the organizations and the communities they pledge to serve. To unlock capacities, philanthropic and nonprofit organizations need to create action plans to welcome, respect and include people of all backgrounds and abilities. How can they do it?
- Overcome your biases and publicly commit to disability inclusion. Major studies have found that people with disabilities are viewed through the lens of what they cannot do, instead of what they can achieve. However, an Accenture study showed that hiring disabled employees actually makes companies more successful. Consequently, the message that all types of people are of equal value must be communicated publicly and repeatedly by an organization’s top leaders and teams, in person and online. It needs to be built into all diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, programming, human resource systems, and communications. Intentionally and mindfully recruit and onboard people with disabilities. (Thanks to a recent MacArthur Foundation grant, RespectAbility can help connect you with talented people with a disability for a virtual apprenticeship at your organization. Click here to learn more.)
- Open hearts and minds to see ableism all around us. When you enter a building that does not have a doorway or bathroom accessible to someone who uses a wheelchair, do you recognize it and take actions to correct it? When a virtual public meeting is happening over Zoom without free instant captioning turned on so that people who are deaf or hard of hearing can participate, do you ask them to stop and click on the button to enable accessibility? When organizations post photos of large groups at events without a single person with a visible disability, do you ask why not? Once you look for ableism, you will realize it is everywhere. Recognizing it is the first step to stopping it.
- Create an inclusion committee and leverage outside expertise. It is critical that disabled people be on your access and inclusion team. At the same time, avoid tokenism. Invite people who have expertise in the area to participate. A point person should ensure that when disability inclusion and access standards are set, they are met. Outside experts should include trainers for lunch-and-learns on Disability 101 and specialists who can conduct an inclusion audit and help you create a go-forward plan to ensure access and inclusion. RespectAbility does that for foundations and nonprofits, and you can reach out to other organizations, such as your regional ADA center and the National Organization on Disability.
- Conduct a formal audit of your disability equity, access, and inclusion practices, including a review of
- employment and volunteer practices, encompassing but not limited to accommodations, talent recruitment, and retention policies;
- facilities and events, using only accessible spaces and practices and promoting universal design;
- online presence, ensuring websites and social media are in accordance with the Web Accessibility Initiative’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines so people with disabilities can benefit and participate in your work and success;
- grantmaking processes and systems, both for external (grantee) and internal (staff) users are fully accessible; and
- whether diverse people with disabilities are centered in decision making around issues that impact them.
- Set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound disability access and inclusion goals. Key goals can include using free accessibility tools and practices to ensure online events are screen reader accessible and have captions. An easy-to-meet goal is ensuring all in-person events are in fully-accessible facilities, while noting that in invitations and inviting participants to request disability accommodations. It is also important to enable virtual work and offer health care and wellness programs.
- Collect demographic data internally, and ask your grant partners to do the same. Invite people to voluntarily identify if they have a disability and allow them to do so anonymously). Track if disabled people are participating in your work. Use feedback loops to gauge how they feel about the experience compared to others without a disability. This will identify any challenges that need solving. For example, a recent major study showed that many employees with disabilities feel micromanaged and are paid significantly less than their nondisabled peers. Also make sure that the organizations you partner with have values and practices that align with your own. Ask them if they employ people with disabilities at all levels, track disability demographics, and have inclusive policies and programs.
- Work with disability groups that are led by diverse people with a range of disabilities. Now we must be much more intersectional, get past the medical model of disability, and move to a social model of eliminating the barriers created by societal choices. These solutions must be led by diverse people with disabilities.
As we live through this pandemic, every group will need people who are experts in resiliency, innovation, and strategic thinking. Disabled people of all backgrounds are used to solving problems creatively and want to contribute to creating a better future for everyone.
For more information about RespectAbility, a diverse disability-led nonprofit that fights stigmas and advances opportunities so that people with disabilities can be included in all aspects of communities, email Jennifer Mizrahi.
Photo: Members of RespectAbility’s Entertainment Professionals with Disabilities Lab training program are placed within major Hollywood and media projects where they demonstrate the benefits of inclusive employment and authentic portrayals of people with disabilities. Photo courtesy of RespectAbility.