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Why disability rights are central to social justice work—and what we’re doing about it

Last fall, Darren Walker wrote an essay urging all of us to acknowledge our personal biases and to understand how those biases can fuel injustice and inequality. Darren’s call grew out of his own awakening: the realization, brought to light by friends and activists, that for all the foundation’s attention to challenging inequality, we hadn’t accounted for the huge community of people living with disabilities. It was a humbling moment, he wrote.

As the past year has shown, it has also proved to be a consequential one. It quickly became clear that our focus on inequality demands that we think seriously about disability issues. It became equally clear that across all our programs, the specific outcomes and goals we’re working to achieve simply cannot be accomplished without addressing the needs, concerns, and priorities of people with disabilities. And so, guided by the disability movement’s mantra, “Nothing about us without us,” we’ve been working to confront ableism and expand participation and inclusion on both the institutional and the individual levels. It turned out we had a lot to learn.

As the program officer in the Office of the President, I steward some of the foundation’s exploratory grant making under Darren’s direction, assessing and investing in new ideas that don’t yet have a home elsewhere in the foundation. Among those efforts, I lead our exploration of how inequality impacts the more than one billion people with disabilities around the world. Over the past year, I’ve met with more than 80 activists, leaders, self-advocates, and funders who focus on people with disabilities. It has been a profound privilege to spend time with and learn from them, and the result has been what I believe is some of the most urgent and meaningful work of my professional life.

We began this effort by asking all Ford Foundation programs to examine their work and create an “inventory” that included any past, current, and potential grantees working on disability issues. Along with surfacing valuable work, the exercise helped illuminate the range of approaches being used across the foundation, which in turn helped us identify areas of strength to build on, along with gaps to address. It also helped us begin to understand the best ways to support learning and exploration as we more formally enter a new area of work—something that can be particularly challenging in a large and diverse foundation and therefore, we think, especially important.

Rethinking what we mean by inclusive

From early on, we were driven by the conviction that disability needs to be everyone’s issue, across the whole foundation. So we determined that for now, we would not establish a stand-alone disability rights program. Instead, we’re working to integrate consciousness about people with disabilities, including physical, sensory, intellectual, or psychosocial impairments, in all our work—much as how we approach gender, race, immigration status, and LGBTQI+ identities. All these issues and identities are intersectional and are best understood and addressed at those intersections, rather than in isolation. That, after all, is how they exist in the world.

For us, “incorporating a disability lens” into our work means asking: How does a specific problem play out for people with disabilities? Does the work supported by an existing grant include solutions aimed specifically at people with disabilities? It means supporting organizations and projects that are directly focused on disability issues—including through grants to the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund; the National Association of the Deaf; and the National Council on Independent Living’s partnership with ADAPT for the National Organizing Project, a new effort to advance direct action in support of disability rights and community living. It also means thinking about the accessibility and inclusivity of the organizations themselves, including at all levels of leadership.

So what exactly does this look like in the foundation’s programs? In Creativity and Free Expression, it means supporting organizations like the National Center on Disability and Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, to pursue social justice storytelling that comprises the stories of people with disabilities. In Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice, it means making a grant to the National Disability Rights Network to help young people with learning and other disabilities avoid criminalization in the justice system.

In Equitable Development, it means making a grant to World Enabled to support a network of diverse urban planners, architects, designers, policy makers, and academics to ensure that global urban development is inclusive of people with disabilities. In Civic Engagement and Government, it means supporting The Arc to strengthen the voices of people with disabilities in debates about public policy and to ensure that priority issues for people with disabilities are included in the policy agenda.

In our West Africa office, a grant to the Voice of People with Disability Ghana (Voice Ghana) helps ensure that the interests of people with disabilities are increasingly reflected and prioritized in government decision making. In our Middle East and North Africa office, a grant to the Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union will promote disability inclusion in refugee contexts by empowering youth with disabilities from both refugee and host communities.

 

 

Making change from within

To jump-start and incentivize this work, we are making competitive internal matching funds available to Ford Foundation programs. These funds encourage staff to explore, develop new relationships, fund efforts by existing grantees, and reexamine disability efforts they might not have previously prioritized. Disability is now included as one of the drivers of inequality within our FordForward framework. Reflecting that, we announced earlier this year that each Ford Foundation program will be responsible for meeting disability-inclusive grant-making targets. In 2017, that has resulted in more than $5 million in grants to organizations and projects focused on or concerned with disability issues. In 2018, we expect that number will be even higher.

We also want to ensure that people with disabilities are represented in social justice organizations—this is essential not only to overall inclusiveness but also to the centrality of disability rights in social justice work. That’s why, beginning in 2018, we will ask all prospective grantees to include in their proposals any current efforts to advance the inclusion of people with disabilities in their policies, staffing, and boards. In proposal budgets, our guidance now encourages a line item for accommodations so that organizations don’t treat costs associated with inclusion as individual piecemeal expenses but instead address them as an expected part of the ordinary course of business.

From the beginning, we’ve understood that disability inclusion can’t manifest in our grant making alone—that to make true progress, we need to transform as an institution and as an employer. Today, teams across the foundation are making headway: Our Office of Communications is assessing the accessibility and inclusivity of a range of our communications, working on captioning for videos and a set of inclusive practices for our website and events. That team is also assessing the language and images on our online platforms and thinking about who is represented on stage at our events—regardless of whether the event is explicitly about disability.

Our facilities management team is working with experts to ensure that the renovations to our 50-year-old headquarters at 320 East 43rd Street go beyond compliance and embody meaningful accessibility and inclusion, from hearing loops to a “touch and smell” garden in our new atrium—so that all visitors have the same quality of experience. Our talent and human resources team is working with a consultant to assess every aspect of our hiring process—from how we draft job descriptions and advertise our jobs to how managers are trained. We recognize that we will not be able to make progress as an organization if we don’t have more people with disabilities on staff.

In all this, we’ve benefited from the advice and partnership of many incredible people. But we knew our work would benefit even more from in-house guidance. And so we’ve named disability and civil rights advocate Judith Heumann as a senior fellow. While at Ford, Judy will work on an independent research project focused on advancing the inclusion of people with disabilities in both traditional and new media platforms. We look forward to the results of that work, and are also grateful for her expertise as we undergo our own transformation. To further develop capacity and tools for disability-inclusive grant making, we’re also working closely with Catherine Townsend, an independent consultant with deep expertise in philanthropy and disability rights. Working together, Judy and Catherine are combining their knowledge and expertise to help us advance the inclusion of disability across the foundation’s grant making.

While these specific efforts might be new, the ethic behind them is not. They are part of our broad and ongoing work to further diversity, equity, and inclusion in all we do. Inclusion is everyone’s responsibility, at all levels of the foundation. It benefits everyone, and it makes us more effective and impactful. We’re always looking for ways to strengthen it.

Learning as we go

There have been more than a few bumps and learning moments along the way. It was only after inviting a disability rights grantee who was a wheelchair user to be onstage at an upcoming event that we realized (embarrassingly) that we didn’t have an accessible ramp. With the event approaching, we proceeded to secure the ramp as quickly as possible. But it made us think: How consistently had we been asking our event speakers and attendees about their accommodation needs? Whether we were aware of it or not, that is what exclusion looks like. That learning moment led us to other changes; we are now working with a vendor for sign interpretation, for example. We realized it’s up to all of us to anticipate inclusion, to plan for it, and to work it into our budgets. And at Ford, we know it’s important for us to use our own practices as a model.

With this shift in our thinking, we’re aware of urgent issues in this space—and the work can seem overwhelming. Alice Wong’s Disability Visibility Project, for example, aims to create disabled media that is intersectional, multi-modal, and accessible. It’s crucial to foster the leadership of young and diverse voices and activists in this field who are pushing efforts to advance disability justice.

We have a lot of work ahead of us. We are excited to integrate a disability lens into our BUILD program and to convene funders and grantees that put people with disabilities at the center of their work. We’re looking forward to continuing to learn, share, and build community and to think about what else we can do to bust stigmas about people with disabilities.

Lately, I’m meeting more people who are starting their own forays into this area. They often ask us for advice. When I look back on my own early questions and expectations, I know I was eager for tools to help me navigate the diverse, broad, and amazing disability community in the US and abroad. And I was focused on getting the language right. None of that is wrong, but it’s also not sufficient. Spending time with people with disabilities—listening to their experiences, their criticisms, their ideas—has been the single most important part of our journey so far. Everything I’ve described here was done based on conversations with people who have been doing this work for far longer than we have. For anyone wanting to join us in this effort, that’s the place to start.

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