Why philanthropy needs to reimagine its inclusion and funding of disabled people


In the philanthropic space, conversations and progress around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are rightfully becoming more common. Following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others in the spring of 2020, the philanthropic sector was pressured to reckon with the historical realities of systemic racial oppression, and many organizations redefined their missions and strategies around racial and social justice.

But this work, which often focuses on race, gender, and sexual orientation, leaves out the largest minority group in America: disabled people. Treating race and gender as inherently separate from disability erases the experiences of the millions of women, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ disabled people who experience compounding marginalization.

An intersectional lens is critical in understanding issues including poverty and police violence. Approximately 50 per cent of people murdered by police are disabled, and 25 per cent of people who die in police custody have a disability. Indigenous and Black people in the United States have the highest rates of disability out of all segments of the population (30 per cent and 25 per cent, respectively) and are some of the most likely to experience police violence, disabled or not. In addition, disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed and live in poverty compared to their nondisabled peers.

Beyond the frequent omission of disability from DEI conversations, most disability philanthropy focuses exclusively on children and/or elderly people – a bifurcation that ignores the needs and importance of supporting disabled people in the workforce who have the opportunity to build wealth and contribute to the economy.

Focusing on disabled people in the workforce can provide a massive tailwind: If disabled people were employed at the same rate as those without disabilities, nearly 14 million more people would have been working in 2021, according to the Center for American Progress. This is in part because of the discrimination disabled people frequently face in workplaces, the lack of accessibility in everyday life, and the challenges of constantly being excluded from diversity, equity, and inclusion conversations around hiring and recruiting.

In order to empower the disability community, disability must be explicitly included in every DEI conversation, strategy, mission statement, diversity report, and pledge within the philanthropy space. The sector also needs to expand its mandate on disability funding to serve a much wider group of people and needs, one that goes far beyond where funds have been historically allocated.

Until that happens, the philanthropic sector – which prides itself on turning an abundance of resources into meaningful impact – will continue to artificially constrain the potential of the largest minority group in America.

Richie Siegel and Marisa Torelli-Pedevska are the co-founders of Inevitable Foundation, which works to close the disability representation gap in film and television. The Foundation’s recently launched Disability is Diversity Campaign raises the profile of disability as an essential pillar of diversity, and celebrates the diversity that exists within the disability community itself.

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