How to Center Disability Inclusion in Your Organization

Various symbols of disability

By Sofiya Cheyenne

More than 1.3 billion people today live with a disability. This is 17 percent of the global population, making disabled people the largest minority group in the world. Yet when we think of underrepresented minorities, people living with disabilities rarely enter the picture. We’re getting better at being allies for People of Color, advocating for the rights of our LGBTQ+ peers, and addressing systemic racism within our organizational structures and culture. But when it comes to diversity, equity, inclusion, and access (DEIA), disability often is left out.

Staff members of PCS have intersecting identities that include disability. We are grateful and honored to have the perspective of disability in our staff meetings and thus our work with our clients. However, we notice that when we approach clients about the importance of  disability inclusion in the larger DEIA work that everyone is striving for these days there still seems to be a block in understanding. What some people neglect to understand is that by centering access and disability inclusion in your organizations you actually support everyone. As I always say, “Disability is the group that everyone is invited to at any point of time in their life. It is also the group that includes people of all races, gender identities, ages, shapes and sizes” At PCS we believe that disability inclusion supports the work of DEIA in insurmountable ways. Centering the needs of disabled people and including them in every aspect of your organization will only bring more value to your mission and your communities.  . In this article, we highlight some of the most important disability considerations for nonprofit leaders who are championing DEIA in their organizations.

Disability in the United States

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four adults in the United States are living with some kind of disability. The CDC identifies six types of functional disabilities that these 61 million Americans experience daily.

When it comes to specific communities, disability is more common for certain groups of people. For example, 2 in 5 adults aged 65, 1 in 4 women, and 2 in 5 Non-Hispanic American Indians/Alaska Natives have a disability.

The impact of disability on employment

Several organizations in recent years have successfully mobilized leaders from some of the country’s biggest corporations to close the disability inclusion gap. The Valuable 500 is the largest global network of CEOs committed to disability inclusion, partnering with the World Economic Forum and International Disability Alliance. Members include Apple, Deloitte, Google, Microsoft, and Verizon.

Disability:IN, the leading nonprofit driving disability inclusion and equality in business, continues to secure CEO commitments to benchmarking their disability inclusion journey through its “CEOS are ‘IN’” campaign. Since January of this year more than 100 CEOs, including those from Boeing, Hilton, and TripAdvisor have committed to evaluate their progress by taking the Disability Inclusion Index.  

These companies recognize that disability inclusion is now a major environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issue in the United States with 10.7 million disabled people unemployed or underemployed in the country. And across the globe, disabled people are employed at half the rate of their non-disabled peers. Furthermore, people with disabilities who are employed often experience unequal hiring and promotion standards, unequal pay, and occupational segregation.

Practical ways to improve disability inclusion

The Disability & Philanthropy Forum provides excellent resources for organizations seeking to close the disability inclusion gap in their workforce. According to the Forum: “Disability intersects with all identities, and structural forms of marginalization, including racism and gender bias, exacerbate the stigma and discrimination experienced by people with disabilities. Despite this reality, philanthropy is only now starting to recognize disability as a key element of its commitment to social justice, equity, and inclusion.”

The Forum’s mission is to center the perspectives of disabled people while engaging philanthropy on a collective journey to understand disability inclusion as key to advancing social justice. The Disability Inclusion Pledge provides a structure for practical change. It is also a vehicle for foundations to commit to and model disability inclusion in philanthropy.

Organizations committed to transforming their policies and procedures in support of DEIA can adopt the pledge’s best practices for greater inclusion and accessibility.

  • Disability community engagement: Ask the disabled community what you could be doing better, and write policies that engage them in activities, advisory roles, and resource groups. 
  • Disability-inclusive language: Understand that some people prefer person-first language and others identity first, and incorporate both in communications. Avoid words like “wheelchair-bound” or “handicapped” ; these are now considered out-dated and inappropriate. But this is all with the understanding that Disability is not a monolith, every single person has their own preferences of how they would like to be referred to or described. Always go by what the individual prefers and respect their choices in that. 
  • Accessible events: Design all hosted and sponsored events with accommodations language. That might mean CART Services, ASL interpreters, Closed Captioning or even multiple language interpretations.Make documents available in different formats such as Braille or large print.  Ask people if they have any ”access needs” and create experiences that are inclusive.
  • Inclusion audits and plans: Ensure employment systems, organizational facilities, and websites implement accessibility best practices. Involve employees with disabilities in the designing and piloting of new technologies. 
  • Staff and Board training: Incorporate disability awareness as part of DEIA training for employees and Board members. Educate people through case studies, webinars, formal trainings, and storytelling to build a culture of inclusivity.
  • Staff and Board participation: Intentionally hire and promote disabled people within the workforce and Board of Directors. Audit talent recruitment, hiring, and onboarding processes to ensure a level playing field for disability job seekers.
  • Disability grantmaking: Analyze and improve grantmaking processes for greater disability inclusion. Partner with funders who advocate for disabled people.
  • Measuring and reporting: Measure and report all of the above, including employee and Board demographics and disability inclusion practices and processes. 

The goal in all of these practices is to put into action the disability rights principle “nothing about us without us.”

Next steps toward greater disability inclusion

PENN Creative Strategy blends our passion to build a better world with consulting expertise and lived experience to form an uncommon company that understands the issues today’s organizations face. We are ready to support you as they navigate these issues, like disability inclusion and access.

We partner with dozens of clients to uniquely design and improve disability inclusion for their organizations. Our small, highly qualified team of diverse professionals supports our clients as they increase their social impact, social justice, and mission effectiveness.  Contact us for help with ensuring your organization is adapting to an inclusive world.

Drop in for Office Hours and talk with our experts!

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