As a reader of this blog, you probably have one or more philanthropic focus areas about which you are most passionate — education, healthcare, the arts, human trafficking, or another pressing social or environmental issue. You may not realize, though, that disability intersects with virtually every issue we care about as people and as funders.
People with disabilities are disproportionately likely to live in poverty, and the unemployment rate in the United States for people with disabilities is a shocking 64 percent. People with disabilities lack access to quality health care, for reasons including inaccessible medical equipment. (Inaccessible scales, for example, leave doctors to guess at the weight of their patients, which can misleadingly inform the dosage of medication they prescribe.) Furthermore, people with disabilities come in contact with the criminal justice system in unfair and often tragic ways. The majority of people killed by police officers have invisible disabilities. Children with invisible disabilities like trauma-evoked mental illness often find themselves funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline, which has resulted in individuals with a mental illness making up more than half of the incarcerated population in the U.S.
Twenty percent of people have a disability. This figure includes both disabilities that are physical and those that are invisible, such as learning disabilities and mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Applying this statistic broadly can be illustrative. Approximately 20 percent of Americans have a disability, 20 percent of the world’s population has a disability, 20 percent of students in most schools have a disability, and 20 percent of patrons in a museum at a given time have a disability. As others have said before me, we will all be personally touched by disability if we are lucky to live long enough. If we live to old age, disability will almost inevitably become a part of our lives.
I point out these intersections and statistics because funders need not change their agenda to focus on disability and inclusion — it is almost a certainty that their work already touches people with disabilities. Funders can, however, intentionally acknowledge these complex realities through their grantmaking practices.
First, though, it’s important that funders prioritize disability inclusion within their own walls. At the Ruderman Family Foundation, where I work as a program officer, we promote a holistic approach to inclusion, recognizing that inclusion need not be an isolated program or physical development within a building. Rather, we believe inclusion can permeate all aspects of an organization — including our own — and we do our best to model that holistic approach by hiring employees with disabilities and prioritizing accessibility at all of our events (even events that are outside of the disability focus area of our grantmaking).
Beyond making changes within our own organizations, we as funders can take such a view of inclusion and disseminate it to grantees by working with them creatively and holistically. Funders are in the unique position to push grantee organizations “outside the box” of the explicitly stated purpose of a grant. For example, a funder might focus on promoting the availability of safe and enriching after-school opportunities for adolescents living in poverty. This funder could encourage (or require) grantees to ensure the physical accessibility of that activity space. The funder might also ask the grantee organization to hire staff members who have disabilities, or make sure that the composition of the organization’s board reflects the 20 percent disability prevalence rate.
It is important to acknowledge that accessibility and inclusion sound expensive. Grantees might point out that if their funder isn’t explicitly funding an elevator or a ramp, their organization won’t be able to afford to build one. This is, of course, a valid concern, but it is not a reason to avoid the journey of disability inclusion. We believe that the mindset of inclusion is more impactful than most physical accommodations — and it is also free.
The mindset of inclusion refers to the idea that being welcoming is a priority, and small changes can make a big difference. For example, organizations can include pictures of people with disabilities in their marketing materials. They can send job announcements to organizations that serve people with disabilities. They can provide fidget toys to clients who might want them, and they can provide quiet spaces for people who just need a break. Program leaders can smile when someone is making noises that other people might assume are intentional and/or disruptive.
We also encourage all of our grantees to include language about accommodations when they are promoting events, so that people know who to contact if they need an accommodation in order to participate. While a grantee might not be able to provide everything that people request, they are communicating that they care and that they are trying. Another way to communicate the prioritization of inclusion is by listing accommodations that are available for clients or users, in a newsletter or on a bulletin board. While this list might not be as long as it eventually will be, and while it might not include expensive items like elevators and ASL interpreters, it is positioning the organization as a welcoming and inclusive space.
In all these actions, the mindset of inclusion comes across as part of the organization’s culture.
Disability is a key facet of diversity, and once people with disabilities are welcomed into a community, they can make meaningful contributions. In our work, we have seen that once grantees adopt a mindset of inclusion, they witness a growth in vitality across their organizations. After all, inclusion is not charity work, but it is central to civil rights and social justice. For example, we work with synagogues who have told us that their disability inclusion work has boosted their credibility as places that are welcoming to all facets of diversity, including interfaith and LGBTQ couples. This has led to growing membership rates and communities that are more vibrant — and that reflect the composition of the real world.
Once the mindset of inclusion takes hold, excitement builds. Then it won’t be long before folks find a way to tackle the big stuff, like elevators and ramps.
Miriam Heyman is a program officer at the Ruderman Family Foundation, where she is responsible for the oversight of programs related to disability inclusion. Follow the foundation on Twitter at @RudermanFdn.