SCG's Back to the Future blog series is a collection of conversations with philanthropic leaders exploring the key trends that shape the contours of the future. This series aims to expand our thinking on various issue areas and provide funders with the insights necessary to maximize their impact.
Imagine a village where no one has a disability. One day, a villager returns to town with a disability, and instead of being cast aside, they are celebrated. The entire community rejoices in their increased diversity and their newfound opportunity to learn.
Candace Cable, a nine-time Paralympian and Vice-Chair of the Bid Committee for LA 2028, shared this story at our full-day disability conference, “Enabling Foundations, Nonprofits, and Partners to Include People with Disabilities.” Not only did this story serve to reframe disability to our 120 attendees, but it also presented a north star for what our collective spaces could become.
This year, the SoCal Grantmakers team worked diligently to implement universal design and accessibility principles into our events, starting with our disability inclusion conference and, most recently, with our 2019 Annual Conference: Foresight Philanthropy. While we still have a long way to go, the lessons we learned have dramatically changed how we design our programs and have shown us the universal benefits of inclusive design.
Before anything, I want to acknowledge that the ideas and strategies discussed here aren’t new — they’re just new to most foundations and nonprofits. Until this year, SCG had barely scratched the surface on disability inclusion through a staff development workshop and a disability inclusion panel at our 2018 Annual Conference: Our Common Humanity. However, disability organizers and advocates have spent decades pioneering work around access and inclusion. They’ve worked to develop a critical, intersectional framework that interrogates the systems that create exclusionary environments while simultaneously (re)imagining a world that accounts for everyone from the very beginning. And this year, it became clearer that our members were ready to invest in a world without barriers.
Inclusion Begins at Co-Creation
“You can ask the people around you ‘is our community accessible?’ And once you start asking those questions, you'll begin to notice barriers, which hopefully will lead you to remove those barriers. Because if you don't do anything, the barriers will continue to exist until somebody removes them.” - Haben Girma on taking the first steps to universal inclusion.
SCG had never hosted a full-day conference on disability, nor had we ever approached events through a sophisticated accessibility lens. In planning “Enabling Foundations, Nonprofits, and Partners to Include People with Disabilities,” we became aware that our first challenge was knowing where to start. Luckily, we had some incredible partners — including The Ford Foundation, WITH Foundation, Weingart Foundation, Mizrahi Family Charitable Fund, and Craig H. Nielsen Foundation — who supported us from our initial planning phases until the very end. This event was possible because of their unyielding belief that we could create a day that would resonate across the sector.
Listen to People with Lived Experience
Our first (and arguably most important) lesson came early. At all phases of planning a disability learning opportunity, you need to seek out the input of disability leaders to inform and co-create the day. Others have told people with disabilities’ narratives for too long and made decisions regarding the community without consulting them. In staying true to "Nothing Without Us,” we made sure that the voices of those with lived experience had input at all stages, especially when designing the programmatic pieces for the day. It is crucial to seek critical expertise from disability rights organizations to lead these sessions and facilitate dialogue.
Also, throughout the entire process, we needed to be receptive to feedback from our partners, speakers, and guests with disabilities--and be willing to course-correct our approach so that everyone could fully participate.
Broaden Your Event Planning Scope
Organizing a stellar, full-day disability conference will mean little if your event invitation and event space are inaccessible to potential attendees. Designing inclusive communications and event logistics requires you to go beyond general compliance by proactively incorporating accessibility strategies into your event. Planners need to expand their scope and consult with disability advocates to see how they can ensure the most active and inclusive participation for all individuals, whether that means asking speakers how they prefer to speak to a room (sitting, standing, or something else), or providing sign language interpretation.
For example, we believed it sufficient to include a sentence in our email communications indicating that attendees contact us if they needed additional accommodations. However, at no point did we consider that our emails and website might not be accessible to screen readers that many people use. Similarly, while we secured an American Sign Language interpreter for the day, we didn’t have various microphone options to accommodate facilitators with different needs. We didn’t account for these elements because we didn’t realize how limited our scope was. It was essential to collaborate with our partners to produce a day full of rich learnings and ensure that our community could even attend.
Looking Ahead Toward Universal Inclusion
“It’s people that create justice. Communities create justice. All of us face the choice to accept unfairness or advocate for justice.” - Haben Girma
We had the pleasure of interviewing Haben Girma, the first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, after her keynote address at our 2019 Annual Conference. SCG had invited Haben to be a plenary speaker weeks before hosting our full-day disability conference, which proved exceptional timing; Haben shared invaluable sights on deepening our disability inclusion work.
“Inclusion is a choice,” Haben stated, “and we all choose to be more accessible to connect with people that are different than us. When you do that, you role model inclusion for everyone else around you and encourage your colleagues and members in your community to also invest in inclusion with people with disabilities.”
Both of these events required taking risks, but we were driven by the possibility of co-creating a meaningful and powerful day for so many. We started with the fundamental question, “is our community accessible?” and acknowledged that we had a lot to learn and do. “I wasn’t born knowing how to remove barriers,” Haben continued, “but I’ve gone through a journey of learning this process of removing barriers.”
We knew this to be true. We knew that we couldn’t wait until we felt ready-- we would never know everything, but we would learn from doing. By the time our Annual Conference came around, we had collected our insights from our full-day disability inclusion conference and applied them to our largest gathering of grantmakers to date. We’re still far from universal design, but these incremental changes are encouraging. As our partners consistently reminded us, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good when it comes to planning disability-focused learning events.”
But universally inclusive events are not the end-goal. We’ve also begun to explore how to pursue disability inclusion in all facets of our strategy. How can we redesign our digital accounts to be more accessible and inclusive to everyone? How can our members sharpen their grantmaking strategies to be more inclusive of disability issues and justice? How can we move away from one-off “inspirational tokenism” and better incorporate disability programming year-round? As Haben reinforced, “Anything can be accessible if the community makes an effort to remove barriers.”
These events allowed us to reimagine our internal mindsets and strategies and rethink how we live into our diversity, equity, and inclusion values. I continue to carry Candice’s story with me, not just for its aspirational quality but because radical possibilities and solutions start with our imaginations of what’s possible. As Haben declared, “Stories are powerful. Stories influence the organizations we design. The products we build, and the futures we imagine for ourselves.”