Accessibility Takes a Community

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Accessibility Takes a Community
By Rachel Pardoe, Program Officer for Older Adults and People with Disabilities, The New York Community Trust

New York is home to about 1 million people with disabilities, a community that reflects the rich diversity of the City itself. 

Disabled New Yorkers are students, parents, employees, and retirees; they visit museums, seek healthcare, use immigrant services, participate in afterschool and workforce training programs, attend rallies, and lead nonprofits. 

So, while only a handful of foundations explicitly fund “disability services”, most grantmakers already do support disabled people through their regular programming. As such, all funders across the philanthropic spectrum should work to ensure that the projects we fund are made accessible to people with disabilities. 

The word “accessible” may immediately conjure up images of physical accommodations such as ramps or sidewalk curb cuts. But, full access to services and programs requires much more. 

Here are some questions funders should consider as they pursue grantmaking in key program areas:

Education—Do your grantees provide information and program components in accessible formats so that students with learning disabilities or with vision or hearing impairments can participate?

Civic engagement—Did you know that less than 20% of polling places were fully accessible to people with disabilities in the 2016 election and less than half of disabled New Yorkers are registered to vote, despite being eligible?   

Prison reform—Are you aware that almost 40 percent of the U.S. incarcerated population has some form of disability? Do your grantees design their programs with this in mind?

Capital improvements to physical spaces—Do you encourage your grantees to make sure that new designs incorporate, and even go beyond, the basic ADA requirements? Will lighting and signage be designed such that people with impaired vision can navigate the space?

When accessibility is built into an initiative from the beginning, it requires relatively little in terms of additional funding.  While some physical adaptations (such as ramps and curb cuts) can be expensive, the majority of adaptions are not. Technology offers a number of tools to make videos, webinars, and meetings accessible to people with visual and hearing disabilities; lowered lighting and quiet break rooms are helpful for people with sensitivity to overstimulation, and asking for accommodation needs on event invites can make it possible for everyone to attend.  

Start the conversation. The New York Community Trust supports nonprofits in their journeys to become accessible; most didn’t know where to start, or what was appropriate to ask, and many had concerns about budget and level of effort. 
We didn’t expect the groups to have clearly defined accessibility plans at the outset. Instead, we encouraged them to put disability on the agenda, ask questions, and identify feasible goals. In fact, many started by speaking with disability experts and making one program or piece of their organization accessible.

I urge grantmakers new to this work to take a similar approach. Although accessibility is critical, it does not happen overnight and it is often a work in progress.

Talk to your community, find allies, and learn what simple steps you can take to make your grantmaking, and even your own organizations, more inclusive.  Remember—it’s not about diverting funds, but rather, expanding the reach and impact of what you already do.

To help you get started, please consider joining us on November 12th at Philanthropy NY. I will moderate a panel on inclusive and equitable grantmaking, with disability advocates and allies from the nonprofit, philanthropic, and legal sectors. We will discuss key challenges facing the disability community, what funders can do to help, and how we can change our practices to ensure more equitable and inclusive grantmaking.  The session will offer attendees an opportunity to ask questions, have an open dialogue with experts, and learn about resources to improve their own practices.

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