Through the Inclusive Lens
The U.S. government estimates that approximately 20 percent of the population has a disability — about 60 million people. Those disabilities affect not only the individuals but also their families, friends, classmates, co-workers and community members. This means that your organization’s target audience of constituents includes people who are affected by the issue of disability.
The Ruderman Family Foundation — where I work as the director of communications — supports innovative programs that foster the full inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community and Israel. We believe that no matter the program, no matter the age of your organization’s constituents, people with disabilities can and should be included. We have seen organizations that have become inclusive and have flourished because they were determined to help everyone in their target audiences.
Our foundation recently ran a conference in New York to teach funders how to make their funding strategies more inclusive. We did not advocate that philanthropists stop funding their current projects and switch to exclusively supporting programs that are fully inclusive of people with disabilities. Just the opposite! Our aim was to show funders how projects they advocate for can become more inclusive and reach out and help more people.
As funders begin to support inclusive programs, nonprofits need to look at their own programming through the disability lens.
Why should you?
There are many reasons why your organization should consider becoming inclusive. Everyone knows someone with a disability, and odds are your current and potential constituents are affected by this. Being inclusive can help your overall effectiveness and impact. Look at your target audience — could a disability be contributing to the problem you’re trying to fix? If yes, becoming more inclusive and looking through the disability lens can improve efficacy.
For example: Organization X, which works with at-risk youths, has had trouble for years helping its members retain jobs long term. Then the staff reads something that says many at-risk youths have learning disabilities, many of which were not diagnosed or treated while they were in school. The organization begins to focus on education — GED classes, hiring teachers with experience teaching students with learning disabilities, etc. By getting to the root of the problem, organization X improves its effectiveness dramatically as more at-risk youths retain their jobs longer.
All age groups of our population are affected, and being inclusive can help change attitudes. For example, an inclusive childcare setting means exposure to different types of children, which can lay the foundation for inclusion later in life. Inclusive programs where typically developing teens interact and learn alongside teens with disabilities can help remove barriers. The goal is to include everyone in your organization’s programming — and thus push society forward. When the third sector is on board, private businesses and the public sector will follow suit.
Finally, people with disabilities face great challenges. But their ability to be resilient and innovative in the face of difficulties could provide a much needed positive influence for your current constituents, who may be confronting problems of their own. Considering the issues together may prove invaluable for your constituents.
Or vice versa: Your expertise as an organization could provide much needed assistance for people with disabilities. For example, only one in five people with a disability participates in the labor market (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, July 2012). They face issues of accessibility, lack of accommodation of flex work times or preconceived notions of this population’s abilities. Yet workers with disabilities are consistently rated among the most committed and dedicated employees in the workforce. If your organization helps with job training and placement, you could be helping many more people in your community. The more people with disabilities who join the workforce, the better for society … and the economy, as well.
How to become inclusive
So you’ve been persuaded to consider the idea of making your organization more inclusive, but you’re not sure how to do it. Here are a few ideas on how to become more inclusive.
1. Examine your mission statement to ensure that it expresses that all constituents/clients/members will be served regardless of ability.
2. Always include an accommodation statement on all marketing, invitations, websites and fundraising events. “XWY welcomes all to participate. If you require an accommodation to participate, please contact (name of person at the agency) by (a particular date) at (phone and/or e-mail).”
3. Conduct an internal analysis of the physical offices and areas where you hold activities. The Americans with Disability Act provides the guidelines. In the U.S., each state has a statute compliance office that provides resources to assist.
4. Make sure every event is held in an accessible location. If, for example, a nonprofit is holding a meeting or a class on the second floor of the building and there is no elevator, move the meeting to the first floor or an alternative location. Even if there aren’t attendees who use mobility devices or cannot use stairs, it sends an important message.
5. Examine your governing board. Are there people with disabilities on the board? They should be represented too.
6. As the self-advocacy movement so eloquently states, “Nothing about us without us!” Do not presume that you know what people with disabilities want or need from your nonprofit. If you’re planning programming, events, etc., make sure you include people with disabilities on the planning committee.
7. Perhaps most important to understand is this: Inclusion of people with disabilities should be woven into every single function of the organization because people with disabilities are part of the fabric of our community.
It can be done!
Making your organization an inclusive one is not as hard or expensive as you might think. The most important factor is the commitment of the board and staff to being more inclusive and helping everyone in the community. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it may open doors to funders who are looking for inclusive programming.
Our foundation recently awarded prizes to five organizations worldwide that have shown innovation in inclusion. The common thread among four of the five winners? They weren’t originally inclusive but understood its importance, changed their organizational cultures and made inclusion a priority. Today, they are seeing greater success than ever before.
Your nonprofit wants to change the lives of its constituents, to push society to become better, to change public perception and possibly laws. Including a greater swath of your community can help propel you forward and create lasting change. Because at the end of the day, change will not happen via exclusion.
Ephraim Gopin is the communications director for the Ruderman Family Foundation, which supports innovative programs that foster inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community and Israel. Connect with him on Twitter at @RudermanFdn