‘You Get Proud by Practicing’: The Path to Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy

Tuesday, September 7, 2021 - 11:27 am
Darren Walker
Rebecca Cokley

Workplaces across the globe are in flux—and many are changing for the better. With more remote offerings, flexibility, and accommodations, we face a generational opportunity to codify accessibility and inclusion in institutions that have been exclusive for far too long.

Despite these changes, our workplaces are still not safe for workers with disabilities—far from it. A recent Accenture survey found that more than three-quarters of employees with disabilities have not fully disclosed their disabilities to their colleagues. In the C-Suite, that number rises to 80%. 

When workers with disabilities don’t feel safe and valued, our entire society suffers. And with millions of Americans now diagnosed with long COVID, the number of people overlooked by ableist work policies is poised to grow. Outside our organizations, we in philanthropy must advocate for wide-scale, broad-based change: There can be no justice without disability inclusion, and disability demands justice. 

As is so often the case, this change must begin with a look inward. It’s time to rethink how philanthropy operates — something we are excited to see is a cornerstone of the Council’s new strategic direction.  A critical element of embracing better ways of operating is centering disability inclusion to make our organizations safer and better for employees, grantees, and community members.

To be sure, the work of disability inclusion is not merely tangential to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts based on race, gender identity, or sexual orientation; in fact, if anything, it’s a prerequisite. People with disabilities belong to every identity group— ableism compounds with racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other oppressive systems to magnify their impact. But when we expand disability inclusion and integrate accommodations throughout our workplaces, we make them more inclusive for all marginalized people, creating policies that benefit everyone. 

In our time working together at the Ford Foundation, we have seen this play out. When people with disabilities lead the way—and those with power actively listen and learn—our organizations can move beyond basic compliance and toward justice. Though we are still reckoning with forms of ableism across the Ford Foundation, thanks to our Disability Futures Fellows, bold grantees, and the disability leaders holding us accountable, we have become a more inclusive workplace today than we were five years ago. Here are five lessons we’ve learned along the way.

1. Make Jobs Accessible

One of the first imperatives: hire more people with disabilities. 

In part due to inaccessible hiring practices and exclusive recruitment strategies, Americans with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as their nondisabled peers. Philanthropy can do more to welcome workers with disabilities into the workforce—namely, by changing our hiring policies to adopt inclusive verbiage and imagery, accessible advertising, and reasonable accommodations.  

And it’s not just the hiring process that must change. We also need to ensure people with disabilities are promoted, retained, and considered for roles outside of disability-related work, so we can all benefit from the range of their talents and expertise. 

2. Create a Truly Inclusive Culture

In addition, philanthropy must create environments where employees with disabilities are valued, welcome, and included. 

The practice of inclusion has roots in the disability movement. And yet, today, too many people advocate for a false “inclusion” that ignores the very community that helped popularize the term. The reality is that when we don’t center people with disabilities in our inclusion practices, we erase folks across our organizations.  

Instead, we must work towards a culture of true inclusion. At the Ford Foundation, this has meant revamping our internal culture by supporting inclusive infrastructure like employee resource groups and enterprise-wide disability trainings. That culture extends to our grantees, as we’ve restructured our grantmaking processes and increased funding for disability justice organizations. 

3. Consult People with Disabilities, Often

True inclusion requires constant conversation with the people most affected by the problems we’re trying to solve. Every policy meant to repair the harms of ableism must beinformed by the lived experiences of people with disabilities—and not just one or two. Consulting with disability leaders and their families can guide better practices at every level.

For example, at the Ford Foundation, these conversations have led to major changes in our physical space: a restroom that is fully accessible to little people, service animal toileting areas at events, braille signage throughout our building. By creating spaces where employees with disabilities feel comfortable raising issues, philanthropic organizations can receive direct feedback, respond intentionally, and create an ongoing dialogue. 

4. Dedicate Space to Hard Conversations

This work is full of hard conversations, as the two of us can attest. As leaders of large foundations, we must reckon with the difficult truth that philanthropy has been a force for structural ableism. 

For instance, rather than shy away from the Ford Foundation’s own history, we’ve hosted discussions on race, disability, and eugenics, grappling with the role our forebearers played. We know our organization has caused irreparable harm to the disability community, and we know we are far from fully addressing it. But by holding space for these conversations and centering the most impacted, we can begin the healing process and write a more just chapter of our history.

5. Sign the Pledge

Finally, funders can join us in taking bold, collective action to dismantle structural ableism. This summer, the President’s Council on Disability Inclusion released a pledge to embark on a disability inclusion learning journey, challenging philanthropy to reimagine our organizations with disability at the center. Already, the pledge has attracted 49 signatories—and by signing on here, you and your organization can fortify this movement.

When it comes to disability inclusion, philanthropy has a unique opportunity—and obligation. We have both the agility to change our own course, and the resources to scale change. In leaning into those hard conversations and building a culture of gracious learning, we can be a model for our grantees and partners in the private sector, public sector, and civil society. 

Of course, change does not happen overnight. As disability movement elder, the late Laura Hershey, reminds us: “You get proud by practicing.” Let us all heed her guidance and commit to practicing more inclusive strategies that will make the disability community proud.

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