Philanthropic transparency is vital. But there’s a major challenge—people with disabilities are being excluded from philanthropy and nonprofits every day.
RespectAbility, a nonprofit disability organization, did a major study of close to 1,000 people in the social sector. The report, “Disability in Philanthropy & Nonprofits: A Study on the Inclusion and Exclusion of the 1-in-5 People Who Live with a Disability and What You Can Do to Make Things Better,” found that while the vast majority of foundations and nonprofits want to include people with disabilities, they don’t know what they don’t know. Hence their practices do not align with their values and they are discriminating against people with disabilities.
For example, only 59 percent of foundations and nonprofits say their events are always held in physically accessible spaces, which means that people who use wheelchairs are shut out from participating. Only 30 percent say they have a process in place to allow people with disabilities to request necessary accommodations (like a sign language interpreter or allergy-free foods) on event registration forms. And only 14 percent say their organizations use captions on web videos to ensure people who are deaf or hard of hearing can access the content (although free rough captions can be automatically generated on YouTube). Thus, people with disabilities do not have the access and accommodations they need to fully participate in the public good these groups are doing.
Take the case study of the Ford Foundation. In a 2014 keynote address at the annual conference of the Council on Foundations, Ford’s president, Darren Walker, announced a major game-changing initiative on equity. He gave a passionate speech about equity and lifting up the most marginalized of people. Yet he did it in a way that was not accessible to people with disabilities. Ford released a tweet about the new initiative that was not screen reader accessible to people who are blind or have low vision. That tweet directed people to a website that also was not accessible to people with vision impairments. Some tweets went to a video that had no captions—so no one who was deaf or hard of hearing could gain the information. And Ford’s grant application software was not even remotely accessible (and still is not fully accessible today).
I, and other disability activists, reached out to Mr. Walker about these barriers. Thankfully, he listened deeply, understood what was at stake, and took concrete action. Indeed, in his annual open letter he wrote: “The Ford Foundation does not have a person with visible disabilities on our leadership team; takes no affirmative effort to hire people with disabilities; does not consider them in our strategy; and does not even provide those with physical disabilities with adequate access to our website, events, social media, or building. Our 50-year-old headquarters is currently not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—landmark legislation that celebrated its 26th> anniversary this summer. It should go without saying: all of this is at odds with our mission.”
In the time since then, Darren Walker, Noorain Khan, and others at the Ford Foundation have taken step after step to ensure that they no longer discriminate against people with disabilities. Their transition, while not yet complete, is nothing short of spectacular. Not only that, Ford, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and other foundations have now recruited a significant number of major foundations to join them in a cohort to move these issues forward.
But here’s the thing—you don’t need to be a big and well-funded foundation to make the changes needed. Most of them can be done for little or no money. If your foundation wants to offer transparency, accessibility, equity, and accountability, there are specific steps you can take. These include:
- Commit publicly to the inclusion of people with disabilities. The message that all people, including those with disabilities, are of equal value must be communicated publicly and repeatedly by top leaders verbally and on your website.
- Ensure people with disabilities are included in decision-making positions, not just for issues related to them but for all issues. Organizations are at their best when they welcome, respect, and include people of all backgrounds. Indeed, problems are best solved by working with people who have experienced them firsthand and know solutions that work. Just like issues that impact people of different racial, ethnic, or other backgrounds, people with disabilities should be involved in solving issues that impact them.
- Foster an inclusive environment with your language and practices. What we say makes a difference. Avoid saying things like “wheelchair-bound,” “confined to a wheelchair,” “wheelchair person,” or “suffers from.” Do say “someone uses a wheelchair.”
- Have an inclusion point person or committee. Add an inclusion statement to your website and event invitations, and train your human resources staff to respond to requests for disability accommodations. Consider including diversity, including disability, as a performance metric for all departments and employees.
- Include people with disabilities in your marketing. For example, photos on your organization’s website and your publications should include individuals with visible disabilities.
- Make your website, online resources, and social media accessible. Set up your website and social media for use by screen readers and for people who need captions. Ensure that all photos have alt text, and that all videos have captions. Ensure that your business cards, documents, and presentations are accessible.
- Ensure the accessibility of your office and events. All of the following must be accessible: invitation/notification of event, facilities, communications, and staff/volunteers.
- Include disability in diversity data and ask your grantees to do the same. Demonstrate that your organization prioritizes diversity, equity, and inclusion by walking the walk (or rolling the roll in the case of wheelchair users) on disability inclusion.
- Promote a disability lens among grantees and partners. Ask your grantees and partners about meaningful and inclusive policies and/or programs; public commitments on website and materials; employing people with disabilities at all levels; inviting people to request accommodations; physical accessibility of office and programs; website accessibility; video captioning; and internal and external educational efforts. Help them to look at intersectional data and impacts.
- Disability impacts people of all races, genders, and backgrounds and making a difference is much easier than you think.
RespectAbility is offering a free online series to train foundation and nonprofit leaders in the nuts and bolts of how to be inclusive of people with disabilities. You can find free resources here: https://www.respectability.org/inclusive-philanthropy/, and sign up for the series here: https://www.respectability.org/accessibility-webinars/.