Centering Disability Justice

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Centering on Disability Justice
By Catherine Hyde Townsend, Disability Inclusion Advisor & Director, President's Office, Ford Foundation

Two years ago, the President of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, penned a blog entitled, “Ignorance is the enemy within: On the power of our privilege, and the privilege of our power” committing the Ford Foundation to consider the voices and priorities of people with disabilities with an “intersectional view of inequality.”

Since then, we have been on an institution-wide journey—we’ve focused on Ford’s internal learning and changes to its grantmaking practice to catalyze greater funding for disability-inclusive efforts. Incorporating a disability lens into our work means asking ourselves, “How does a specific problem impact people with disabilities and how can the work supported by an existing grant better include and address the right of people with disabilities? To make this real, we’ve set minimums for each programmatic area to ensure our actions align with intention.

From the beginning, however, 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. To that end, Ford has made critical operational changes to promote accessibility and inclusion, including the new Center for Social Justice, which goes beyond compliance to embody meaningful accessibility and inclusion, accessible social media posts using alternative-text descriptions, and changes in our human resources practices. We detail these and other efforts in a November 2017 blog post, “Why disability rights are central to social justice work—and what we’re doing about it.”

These efforts are part of our 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.

While a great deal of our focus has been internal, we are also working with colleagues in philanthropy trying to catalyze change within our sector. Less than 4% of US grantmaking addresses disability issues, and this grantmaking remains a niche area. We began last summer by convening social justice foundation executives, together with the Open Society Foundations, to learn and commit to greater disability inclusion in philanthropy. We’re working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to catalyze learning and action at the executive level through a Presidents’ Council on Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy.

At the staff level, we’ve begun to support learning and resources that enable funder colleagues to engage more deeply. As part of this commitment, we’ve launched the Disability & Philanthropy Forum, an online resource dedicated to peer learning, resource sharing, and funding for disability inclusion that grew out of last summer’s convening.

Members of the network receive monthly emails and access to an online hub with curated resources, such as guidelines to planning accessible meetings, steps foundations can take to be more inclusive, and a suite of videos launched at the convening. We are especially excited about the Disability Justice Video Series. With content informed by disability organizations, the videos feature the voices and perspectives of dynamic and diverse activists working on disability justice to directly address funders.

Using personal stories, the videos highlight the primary issues and concerns within the community today, including the history of the movement, the importance of intersectionality and a call for donor action. They explain why it’s urgent and essential to apply a disability lens to all aspects of social justice work, including internal operations.

We encourage colleagues to screen these videos amongst staff, at team meetings, or meetings with donor colleagues to develop greater awareness of disability justice issues and how they intersect with social justice. We hope that that they begin to shift how funders see disability from a separate area to a critical part of your most pressing work.

To access the videos and other resources on disability inclusion in philanthropy, please join us by joining the Disability & Philanthropy Forum at

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