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Bridging the Knowledge Gap About Grantmaking for People with Disabilities

October 27, 2010

(Laura Cronin is a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. Her last post was a Q&A with Milton Chen, senior fellow and executive director emeritus of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.)

Ada_diamond_color Every funder can, and should, be a disability funder.

A group of New York grantmakers and advocates gathered last week under the auspices of the Disability Funders Network (DFN) to discuss how to make that statement a reality and to galvanize support for a fuller embrace by organized philanthropy of the twenty-one-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to DFN, an estimated 54 million Americans have at least one disability, making them the largest minority group in the nation. As baby boomers age and more veterans return from war, experts estimate that number could double within twenty years. But less than 3 percent of philanthropic giving is directed to programs serving people with disabilities.

The Kessler Foundation, a DFN member, recently commissioned Harris Interactive to survey the impact of disability on national workforce participation.

Results from the survey reveal that while 70 percent of corporations polled have diversity policies or programs in place, only two-thirds of those with programs include disability as a component. In addition, only 18 percent of companies offer an education program aimed at integrating people with disabilities into the workplace. The findings are notable given that most employers consider the cost of hiring people with disabilities to be the same as hiring employees without a disability (62 percent). The panelists urged funders to design programs to explicitly consider disability.

A few other key themes emerged during the discussion:
  • The basic needs of people with disabilities are not greatly different from those of other groups; you will find people with disabilities in all walks of life.
  • While the disability community has some needs that do not fit neatly into traditional funding areas, it is not necessary to have a designated disability program area to have a positive impact.
  • Foundations can begin to address the funding gap by simply including people with disabilities in their ongoing grant programs.

Several New York funders have already embraced these themes in their grantmaking. Irfan Hasan, DFN board chair and program officer for Health and People with Special Needs at the New York Community Trust, describes how important it is for all funders to be inclusive of people with disabilities:

It doesn't make a difference what issue your foundation supports -- education, health, employment, poverty alleviation, economic development, arts, transportation, social services, and the list can go on and on -- if programs you support are not inclusive of people with disabilities, you miss the mark to improve the situation of some of society's most underserved individuals. Funders that support efforts that are inclusive of people with disabilities are on the right track....

Cheryl Rosario, director of philanthropy at American Express and a DFN board member, has long been an advocate of increased and more inclusive funding. She urges donors not to lock themselves into the mindset that "I'm not a disability funder," but rather to look for ways to make sure the projects they fund are inclusive of all people.

The DFN Web site is a good starting point for funders seeking additional resources as they explore this issue. New York City-based funders looking for recommendations should visit the Center for Independence of the Disabled (CID-NY), a local organization that offers resources and citywide data. (The organization also has created an informative video that gives voice to those who are working actively to realize the promise of the ADA.)

-- Laura Cronin

(Postcript: The briefing was hosted by the America Foundation for the Blind, another DFN member, whose new midtown office features an exhibit of memorabilia related to the career of AFB advocate Helen Keller. The photos in the gallery, which include archival shots of the globe-trotting Keller boarding first-generation jet planes, are a fitting reminder of AFB's long history of advocacy and forward-looking approach to technology. Funders who want to ensure that their Web sites and collateral materials are equally up-to-date with present-day expectations will find an an array of useful resources on the AFB site.)

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