Celebrating ADA: It’s Time to Add a Disability Lens to Our Philanthropy

This article originally appeared on the D5 coalition blog, on 18 June 2015. The original article can be found here.

Darren Walker, bold leader of the Ford Foundation, just made a dramatic announcement. The Ford Foundation’s work, which is deep and rich with eight decades of positive practices, will now focus even more sharply on inequality. This is fantastic news for those of us who care about social justice philanthropy. At the same time, however, he cited “persistent prejudice and discrimination against women as well as racial, ethnic and caste minorities,” without mentioning people with disabilities.

This is quite common. Many mistakenly believe that people with disabilities, because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, don’t face significant inequalities. Or they pity people with disabilities, not realizing that the majority of people with disabilities want to work and achieve the American dream, just like anyone else.

One in five Americans have a disability. Pre-ADA, fully 70% of people with disabilities were out of the workforce. Today, 25 years later, that number is identical. And because women and minorities have made important progress (not nearly enough, but some), the employment gap between working-age people with and without disabilities has expanded significantly.

People with disabilities are at least twice as likely to live in poverty and be victims of crime than people without disabilities. There are 1.2 million Americans between ages 16 and 20 with disabilities. Only 7% of people born with disabilities in America graduate college. Every year, 300,000 will age into what should be the workforce. Most of them want careers. Few, without significant change, will be enabled them to have them.

Grantmaking is stronger when it is done with a disability lens.

Foundations, even those much smaller than Ford, can dramatically strengthen their anti-poverty work by looking at issues impacting people whose disabilities are undiagnosed and/or unaddressed. Funders can work to increase inclusion and employment of people with disabilities by influencing their grantees, including those that are not disability organizations.

Below is a list of key questions that funders can ask of their grantees. Truth be told, looking inward is often harder than posing these questions to others. Take the first step by asking these same questions of your own organization and learn more how you can make your foundation and philanthropy more inclusive.

  1. Does your organization have policies and/or programs that support meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities at all levels? Are they prominent on your website and materials? Do you invite people to list any accommodations they might need (e.g., sign language interpreters or the ability to bring a service animal) on all your conference registration forms?
  2. Will ALL people with any kind of disability be welcomed to participate? If not, why not? If so, how do you plan to identify, reach, and welcome them?
  3. Do you serve people with disabilities in an inclusive way (welcoming them inside the full community), or are they forced into segregated “special needs programs” which are inherently unequal?
  4. Has someone who uses a wheelchair personally checked the physical accessibility of your offices and programs for people who use wheelchairs?
  5. Has a person who is blind and who uses adaptive computer technology checked your website and facilities for accessibility?
  6. Do the videos you use have captions? Do you have a way to communicate with people who are deaf or use other adaptive supports?
  7. Do you employ individuals who have disabilities? If so, what are their jobs? Do they receive the same compensation and benefits as other employees in like positions?
  8. How do you educate your staff, board of directors, trustees and other key people about serving and partnering with people with disabilities?
  9. Has your organization considered how the language it uses may affect its ability to include and mobilize those people with disabilities whose values it shares?
  10. Once your organization has decided that inclusion is important, how will you know that you have achieved it?

In all that you do, remember to respect individuals with disabilities as people, not projects or people to pity. This starts with the language that we use, in this case “people first language.” Respect human beings and their right to be appreciated for the strengths they have, and not be defined by their disabilities. For example, a person who uses a wheelchair is a person first, and their wheelchair is a tool. They are not “wheelchair bound.” We are “people with disabilities” (PwDs), not “handicapped” or “the disabled.”

Beware organizations that compartmentalize their good deeds.

Similar to how the LGBT community and new immigrants are working to gain acceptance and equality – people with disabilities should be seen as equal human beings and for the talents they have. Over the years, however, we have seen that there is often a big gap between how groups “talk the talk” and how they “walk the walk.”

For example, faith-based organizations have no legal obligations under the Americans with Disability Act to respect the rights of people with disabilities. Sadly, many faith-based groups do not hire people with disabilities, have them on their boards of directors, or accept them in their schools or institutions. When they do work with people with disabilities it is through a lens of pity as opposed to respect and empowerment. The same is true regarding how some treat people from the LGBTQ community.

We all have heard about the bogus cancer organizations that kept 95% of what they raised for themselves. But did you know that Goodwill Industries pays their executives north of $400K a year while paying thousands of people with disabilities sub-minimum wage? Huffington Post and NBC News reported on this deplorable practice in 2013, but the donations to Goodwill keep rolling in. Why do donors fund groups that may be doing great work in one area, but behave so badly in others?

As a philanthropist, you can have a huge impact on social justice, diversity and inclusion without funding any groups that focus on those issues.

Just ask the groups you fund —whether they are in education, healthcare, science, culture, poverty or whatever you fund—to live up to the high values that you know they would set for themselves if they had truly stopped to think about it. You can make a tremendous positive difference in the lives of people who have been marginalized throughout history. You can achieve this in many ways.

I’ve found three excellent places for foundations to start:

  1. Request that grantees explore ways of becoming more inclusive of people with from all backgrounds.
  2. Apply a diversity lens to grants in a variety of areas, such as housing, education, and culture and poverty.
  3. Build a more inclusive environment by learning respectful language.

We are all at our best when we are welcoming and respectful of the talents, experiences and perspectives that diversity can bring to the decision-making table. People who have been historically disadvantaged—due to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or identity, caste, gender or disability status—all comprise the larger society in which we live. Inclusion and equality means promoting justice, impartiality and fairness within the procedures and processes of institutions and systems, and well as their distribution of resources. It’s time to add a disability lens to all our philanthropy so that equality for people with ALL abilities becomes a reality.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is co-founder/director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Trust and is the president of RespectAbilityUSA, a non-profit working to enable people with disabilities to achieve the American dream.

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