How philanthropy can better integrate disability rights in its COVID-19 response


Myroslava Tataryn


As philanthropy considers its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, integrating a disability rights perspective can help us move toward a more equitable future, rather than return to the same systems that have pushed so many communities to precarity.

Disabled people find themselves in increasingly precarious and vulnerable situations in the current global health crisis. Everything from pre-existing medical conditions that affect the respiratory or immune systems to socio-economic conditions to living arrangements has led to deep inequalities in who is suffering currently.

For those who rely on support from medical care workers, family members, or other such personal support, disabled people – who are already more vulnerable to this virus and its socio-economic effects – face impossible choices when it comes to social distancing: either disabled people place themselves and their staff at greater risk because they cannot do without personal support, or they are deprived of their right to access primary health care, rehabilitation services, and the like, because it has been deemed a non-essential service.

Much media attention has been directed toward the crisis in institutional settings such as long-term care homes for the elderly. Yet, organisations of – and allied with – disabled people have been sounding the alarm about the dangers of institutional care for decades. Many people with disabilities are denied their rights to decision making and life in community, being institutionalised – and even incarcerated – for lack of investment in community-based models of care and support of persons who require assistance with activities of daily living.

An international network of donors investing in disability rights published this statement underlining that, ‘Failure to address the exclusion of persons with disabilities and their families from the full cycle of prevention, treatment and recovery of COVID-19 will have a significant impact on the overall fight against the pandemic.’ They called on ‘all actors, including governments, international financial institutions, international cooperation agencies and private donors to be inclusive of persons with disabilities in their response to COVID-19.’

It’s worth a closer look at what this call could mean for private philanthropy.

Five steps foundations can take now

COVID-19 presents an opportunity for us to reboot our work in a way that addresses some of the root causes of the vulnerabilities persons with disabilities face. There are some important steps philanthropic institutions can take now to not only strengthen our responses to the pandemic, but pave the way for a re-opening and re-building that is more inclusive, reducing the risks of reproducing the same patterns of inequality that caused such acute in the first place.

1. It’s not just about what we fund, but how we embody our values.

Build inclusion into your policies and practices across your philanthropic institution in terms of human resources, requests for proposals, leave policies, etc. For example:

  • Flexible working hour policies that enable staff to work part-time, to job-share, to take paid sick leave to accommodate episodic disabilities and/or caregiving responsibilities.
  • Working from home policies and support: our experience with ‘working from home’ has lessons to teach us in regard to making our workplaces more accessible to disabled people, care-givers, and other who may benefit from alternate modes and hours of work.
  • Current restrictions in working together in a single physical environment may provide opportunities to update offices in terms of the accessibility of the physical environment.
  • Organisational budgets that include policies and budget lines for Reasonable Accommodations; as well as facilitating grantees’ budgeting for Reasonable Accommodations.

2. Intersectionality: Disability Rights is a Human Rights Issue

  • Persons with disabilities have a diversity of identities. Funding to support disability rights should be integrated across all rights and social justice funding schemes. Ensure that persons with a diversity of identities are supported by your grantmaking and involved in decision making – if you’re a women’s rights donor and receive an application from a disabled women’s group, don’t  send them to look for a disability rights donor, they are women too and eligible for your funding! The same goes for a group of queer disabled folk applying to an LGBTI-focused donor, or a collective of refugee families of children with disabilities connecting to a community organisation supporting refugees, and so on.
  • Participation is critical. Support communications and learning tools that portray people with diverse identities, no matter or explicit area or community of focus.

3. Drive systems change by funding community-based supports and services:

  • Invest in networks and services that support disabled people to realise their rights.
  • Social, legal, health and education services need to be inclusive and accessible – do the community advocates and networks include disability advocates and allies?
  • This is a multi-disciplinary issue and can include investing in more inclusive technology to enable more learners to benefit from online education, developing and promoting community-based peer support models, funding accessible, supportive, community-based housing, and more.

4. Funding service provision? Make sure they are accessible to persons with disabilities.

  • If you’re supporting service delivery, whether health services, food security assistance, legal and financial advice; work with disabled people in your area to examine what physical, institutional and attitudinal barriers there may be to the services you support.
  • In addition to ensuring that your own organisation budgets for reasonable accommodation and accessibility in its own budgets (as per item no. 1) ensure that you’re able to cover accessibility costs in grantee budgets.
    • Ensure that the service providers you support have a budget line for overcoming barriers that may prevent access for disabled persons whether it be through staff training, physical modification, translating communications into alternate formats, making sign language interpretation available, or other forms of accessibility measures.

5. Collect disability-disaggregated data:

  • Include questions about disability amongst other demographic data you ask within your organisation and your grantees.
  • Use this data to find out if and how the work that you fund is inclusive of disabled people.
  • Refer to established sets of questions like the Washington Group Short Set of questions on disability if you’d like to make sure that the questions you’re asking have been tested and result in comparable data.

By integrating disability rights into policy, planning, and programming – as well as taking concrete steps towards greater accessibility of communications, procedures, physical and virtual spaces – responses to COVID-19 pandemic will be more equitable and sustainable.

Myroslava Tataryn is works for Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, as their Disability Rights Program Officer.

Tagged in: Covid-19

Comments (1)

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