Advancing Philanthropy

Equity in Development: Breaking Down Barriers—Ableism in Fundraising

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As nonprofits begin to focus more of its efforts on inclusion, diversity, equity and access, the topic of disability and accessibility are rarely part of the conversation. In this article, Alison Hughes, a disabled fundraising professional from Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation, explains why disability and accessibility must be part of organizational IDEA initiatives if they are truly committed to fostering an equitable and inclusive environment.

Many disabled folks will tell you that it is not our disabilities that are the most significant barriers or source of discomfort we face. We are not unhappy or depressed about how our bodies exist. What causes us the greatest pain points are lack of access. Lack of ramps, lack of elevators, lack of captions, lack of interpreters—and the list goes on. The environment around us is unwelcoming and makes everyday living an adventure; more often than not, an exhausting one. A lot of solutions exist related to accessibility but what many of us also experience on a regular basis is something called ableism. We have to talk about ableism before we can tackle accessibility in any meaningful way.

Merriam-Webster defines ableism as a “prejudice against disabled people.” Ableism shows up in a preference and bias around how non-disabled bodies function or how neurotypical brains process. It is all around us. Just like other forms of oppression, ableism shows up as microaggressions and overt discrimination.

What About Ableism in the Fundraising Sector?

Society has a long history of being ableist, particularly around how we stereotype those who are considered the helpers and those who are the receivers of their “generosity.” For instance, let’s take a look at Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol.” Tiny Tim represents the impoverished—a disabled child who needs money to seek treatment—and the hero of the story is Mr. Scrooge, who pays for this treatment and becomes like another father figure. Scrooge is praised for coming to the rescue and celebrated in the story for filling the gap in access. While “A Christmas Carol” is an old, fictional book, modern society still burdens disabled people with ridiculous costs and positions us as helpless, needy and “othered.” Often, necessary medical equipment and supplies aren’t covered under medical insurance or there are substantial hoops to go through for access.

Inequities exist globally. I know I have privilege, but I too pay out of pocket for certain things that I feel are life-changing and necessary but are labeled “extra.” In many marginalized communities, fundraising has become a stop-gap for holes in our system that don’t adequately protect and care for the disabled community.

Telethons, poster kids, inspiration porn and sad narratives continue to contribute to systemic ableism and this notion that disabled folks are “in need” of charity. Growing up with this stereotype weighed heavily on me. I was a child ambassador for an organization I love and cherish with every fiber of my being. I believe fully in their mission and have a lot of pride and happy memories from that time. Though, as I get older and continue to reflect, I question how others viewed me and if my participation as an ambassador made the kind of difference that I hoped for.

As a disabled fundraiser at Holland Bloorview Foundation, with more than a decade of experience, I have always tried to ensure the principles of inclusion, diversity, equity and access (IDEA) are top of mind. I sit on committees, speak up when I see an injustice (at work and in our sector), and ensure we approach everything on our team from a disability and accessibility lens.

There is a growing commitment from fundraisers and their organizations to make the principles of IDEA a priority, but upon closer inspection, disability and accessibility are often left out of the conversation. Why is this? Accessibility is not usually included as a topic at conferences, in webinars or in articles. I believe it is time to sit with the discomfort, acknowledge ableism in fundraising, and start talking about how we can be a more inclusive sector for people with disabilities.

How Do We Make This Shift?

The very first step is to start talking. Talk about ableism with your board, your team, your donors and volunteers. Talk about the things you do well and the ways you can improve. Learn and unlearn. Let’s do this work together.

I am constantly learning and unlearning. Being disabled did not inherently give me the tools to speak about ableism or become an advocate. I was always an advocate for my own care and needs, but that is where my work ended. For many years, I wasn’t supporting the rest of the disabled community I proudly belong to. In 2019, I participated in AFP’s Fellowship in Inclusion and Philanthropy in Canada. In a blog post I wrote while in the program, I shared my early reflections of my awakening and how I became a better disability advocate. I thought that by virtue of my own existence, I would help lead by example. After more than a decade in this sector, sometimes I think we are regressing when it comes to supporting our disabled peers.

Part of my learning and unlearning began with my friend and mentor, Liz Chornenki. Liz has been doing this work for a long time and has helped me grow in ways I cannot explain. An op-ed she wrote for Hilborn News back in 2018 says the same thing I said—we must start with talking about ableism in fundraising. Liz’s op-ed was three years ago, and we have not talked about ableism enough since then.

While accessibility matters, we must look beyond simply creating accessible web pages and barrier-free events. We must examine how we talk about disabilities, assess how it’s incorporated into our storytelling and ensure accessibility is an integral part of our conversations around diversity and inclusion.

Where Do We go From Here?

To start, you can hire individuals with disabilities, like Liz. You can do an audit of your communications materials. You can commit to barrier-free events. And you can make a commitment to combat ableism in our sector.

While I could provide a checklist for what nonprofits should do about accessibility and ableism in the fundraising sector, I’d be doing myself and my community a disservice if I didn’t first encourage everyone to talk about these issues. The most critical first step to resolving these issues is talking—ensuring those with disabilities have a seat at the table—and genuinely listening.

Put the kettle on, because everything is better with tea, and start having meaningful conversations at all levels of your organization.

Alison Hughes Alison Hughes (she/her) is a disabled fundraising professional and senior officer, stewardship at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation. Alison sits on the hospital’s Accessibility Committee and was part of a group that developed Holland Bloorview’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committee many years ago. Alison graduated from the 2018–2019 AFP Fellowship in Inclusion and Philanthropy and her contributions and project focused on ableism and language, specifically in the fundraising sector.

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