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The coronavirus crisis: an unprecedented opportunity to advance authentic disability inclusion in our sector and beyond

By Robyn Deutsch, Nicolette Cappiello, & Sara Minkara
April 3, 2020

International disability icon of a stick figure in a wheelchair
Photo by marianne bos on Unsplash

The coronavirus pandemic is not only a global health and economic crisis. As we know, it is devastating to many nonprofits and our sector as a whole. We know your staff, your boards, and the people who depend on your services are scared, and we stand in solidarity with you. Although the operational and funding hardships nonprofits are already facing in the short term are undeniable, we also believe that even the most dire situations contain seeds of opportunity and hope.

The world’s 1 billion people with disabilities are often the most vulnerable in times of crisis. They tend to be forgotten in crisis response on any level—national, community, and company. For the most part, solutions and discussions surrounding COVID-19 have offered us a microcosm of how disability is viewed in society as a whole: as an afterthought at best or largely invisible and missed entirely at worst. There is so much that needs to be done to break down barriers to being seen and heard, and to ensure that the solutions we’re developing and policies we’re implementing are accessible and accommodate people with disabilities.

This is where our sector comes in—we need to lead in creating the spaces to hear everyone’s voices and perspectives as we work to find solutions that will bring the greatest benefit to all of society in the long run.

“As the CEO of an international nonprofit who herself is blind, and as the leader of a team of women with disabilities, I know that navigating this crisis is no easy feat,” noted Sara Minkara, CEO of Empowerment Through Integration. “But I also know that we are stronger together, and that if we don’t seize this opportunity to advance authentic disability inclusion now, we’ll all lose out.”

If you are a leader or decision maker in the nonprofit and philanthropy space, we urge you not to miss out on these opportunities:

  1. People with disabilities have been navigating seemingly intractable problems of access, accommodation, operation, and innovation out of necessity our entire lives. Use us as your greatest resource! We’re CEOs, employees, and constituents of our organizations. As Representative Ayanna Pressly tweeted on March 17: ‘“Nothing about us without us’ isn’t just a mantra, it’s how cooperative governing works. Members of the disability community need to be engaged as advisors and experts as every level of government works on #COVIDー19 rapid response.” It would do us all well to take her advice to our own spaces!Have an executive team or task force designing your organization’s internal or external coronavirus action plans? Look around—is there a person (or people) with a disability at the table? If not, take steps to correct that so you can benefit from the great value not only of our lived experience but our expertise. Don’t waste precious time trying to reinvent the wheel. But let’s be clear about one thing: we’re not asking for a seat at the table because it’s the right thing to do or to look out for our own interest in these discussions, but because this is a crisis and we’re equipped to help. Our perspectives will lead to solutions that have value for everyone. And, importantly, when this crisis is over—keep us in positions of influence and power.
  1. Many in the disability community have been sharing a combination of validation and frustration that many of the accommodations we have been requesting or demanding from our employers (remote work options, paid sick leave, and other flexible policies designed around our health) have suddenly been enacted after being denied to us for so long. Let’s look at this as an opportunity and explore the ways that we can leverage the policies, tools, and norms developed during this crisis to create a more authentically inclusive workplace for all permanently. Beyond your employees, perhaps smarter use of accessible digital and remote engagement can make your organization’s community services or even your fundraising more inclusive and improve your collaboration across sectors or geographies. Let’s resist looking at these accommodations as temporary concessions or disruptions—great value and opportunity for the future of our organizations reside within this moment if we are willing to recognize it.
  1. This is also a time where all of us are starting to focus on our personal health and safety above all else and making decisions that are affecting (and often disrupting) our daily lives from this lens every single day. This is tough. And inconvenient. And scary. But is there a lesson here for us? Will we be more in tune with our own needs and the needs of others and feel more empowered to honor them moving forward? People with disabilities and chronically ill folks have faced these decisions, sometimes our whole lives. Inclusion efforts have oftentimes looked more like minimum compliance to basic standards than to truly authentic accommodation and understanding. Might this shared experience allow us to put a disability lens on how our world works and commit to doing everything in our power to make it authentically inclusive for all? With health, safety, and accommodation replacing profit, efficiency, and best practice as an organization’s most sacred responsibilities … might this experience create a new generation of authentically inclusive leaders? Or even better, will it create an environment where people with disabilities are more able to access leadership positions themselves? We know it’s possible! 

Sara Minkara and Empowerment Through Integration (ETI) are available to advise, contribute, and assist moving forward as organizations address authentic inclusion for people with disabilities in these unprecedented times. Please reach out to [email protected] to get in touch, and follow them on social media: Instagram, @sara.s.minkara, @ETIntegration; Twitter: @MinkaraSara, @ETIntegration.

Tags: Novel coronavirus (COVID-19); Equity