The Art of Inclusion: New York Funders Mobilize to Make the Arts More Accessible

Thursday, May 3, 2012
By Laura Cronin, PhilanTopic
(This post originally appeared on PhilanTopic, the Philanthropy News Digest blog, on April 24, 2012 and is reprinted with permission.)
If a person with a serious vision, hearing or mobility impairment came to your office on business or joined your organization as an employee, you would do whatever you needed to to accommodate that person so he or she could do his or her job. Indeed, most people would be embarrassed if their employer failed to create an accessible work space for such a guest, while failure to do so for a new employee is illegal.
But what if everyone at the office gathered around the virtual water cooler on a Monday morning to share their excitement about the latest blockbuster exhibition at the local art museum or the holiday performance at the local concert hall? Would your colleague have been there on Saturday along with everyone else? Would the museum or concert hall have been equipped to accommodate a patron who is blind or hearing impaired? Would any of their foundation grant dollars have been dedicated to figuring out how to make it possible for that potential audience member to enjoy its offerings?
Gains won as a result of the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are now so familiar—curb cuts, kneeling buses, signs in Braille—that it is tempting to assume that issues of concern to people with disabilities have been embraced by the field of philanthropy. Unfortunately, the data tell a different story. According to the Disability Funders Network (DFN), of the $45.7 billion in foundation grants awarded in 2011, only $559 million—less than three percent—was directed to disability issues.
Kim Hutchinson, President/CEO of the Disability Funders Network, and her DFN colleagues are mobilizing to make access to arts and culture a central focus of their education and convening efforts in 2012. In February, after a New York City funders briefing with Hutchinson and colleagues from the MetLife Foundation, The New York Community Trust, American Express, the American Foundation for the Blind, the FISA Foundation, the Kessler Foundation and the Reader’s Digest Partners for Sight Foundation, several New York-based foundations agreed to form a special task force to promote inclusive practical strategies that nonprofit cultural institutions can use to better welcome the disabled audience. To date, the group has identified and generated over $3 million in new philanthropic grant dollars to promote arts access for people with disabilities in New York City.
DFN believes too many funders are stuck thinking about people with disabilities as a group whose needs are addressed through healthcare programs rather than as individuals eager to take part in all aspects of community life. By promoting a more complete picture of people with disabilities as students, workers, athletes, theater goers, music lovers and neighbors, DFN is making the case that disability should be part of any grantmaking program concerned with education, employment, diversity, civic participation and especially arts and culture.
According to Nina Levent, Executive Director of Art Education for the Blind/Art Beyond Sight, by funding accessibility and inclusion, grantmakers not only support audiences that identify themselves as visitors with disabilities, their families and their caregivers, they also support millions of people who have “invisible disabilities” such as gradually diminishing sight, hearing or physical stamina. By helping to make cultural programs more accessible and promoting employment of people with disabilities at cultural institutions across the country, the philanthropic community can broaden its impact. After all, the graying of the U.S. population means that the disability community will only grow in size, with one estimate placing the total number of people in the United States living with a disability at 150 million by 2030.
People with disabilities are natural constituents for every type of grantmaking initiative. And in an era when arts and cultural organizations are looking to develop new audiences, promoting accessibility can be good for the bottom line. The new affinity group within the DFN network invites all arts and culture funders to consider whether they are paying enough attention to disability in their own funding and is eager to collaborate on projects to ensure that people with disabilities have greater access to all that our visual, literary and performing arts have to offer.
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