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Executive Summary

Despite the fact that one-in-five people in America has a disability and the Americans with Disabilities Act (prohibiting discrimination based on disability) has been law of the land for nearly 30 years, people with disabilities are not fully welcomed, respected, accepted or included in our work and communities. This is true even in the places where you think they would be – at foundations and nonprofits.

Nonprofits and foundations are full of good work and good will. Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of people who work in the social sector say their organizations have a made a public commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and have policies that prohibit the group from denying people with disabilities equal opportunity to participate in services and activities. This new study, “Disability in Philanthropy & Nonprofits: A Study on the Inclusion and Exclusion of the 1-in-5 People Who Live with a Disability and What You Can Do to Make Things Better,” examines the current landscape of disability inclusion in nonprofits and foundations, as well as what is working, what helps, and how we can all do better.

RespectAbility, who conducted this study, is a nonpartisan group working on inclusion efforts for people with disabilities. In creating this study, RespectAbility first conducted five focus groups with the Council on Foundations of philanthropists on how they do or not include people with disabilities. Then RespectAbility spoke one-on-one with 14 executives at philanthropy-serving organizations and foundations and did an analysis of online accessibility of the 25 largest foundations and nonprofits. Using all of this qualitative research, RespectAbility developed a questionnaire, which was shared with several thought and practice leaders who helped refine it. Then RespectAbility surveyed 969 people who work at nonprofits and foundations. Most of the respondents were subscribers either to The Chronicle of Philanthropyor The Nonprofit Times, each of which helped with this study.

RespectAbility looked not only at the current landscape, but also for clues as to what is working, what helps, and how we can all do better. What follows is an analysis of those findings, some of them disappointing and some that point to solutions.

Even among this very well-intentioned group, most are not doing enough – or anything – to provide people with disabilities the access and accommodations they need so they can participate, just like anyone else. Many do not know what they do not know and often have not even thought about ensuring the inclusion of people with disabilities. Even among well-meaning groups who are doing a lot on DEI overall, disability is missing. For example:

  • Only 14 percent say their organizations use video captions to ensure people who are deaf or hard of hearing can use the content. Captioning services are easy to use and often are free and yet 86 percent are not even attempting to take advantage of such tools.
  • Similarly, just 30 percent of respondents say their organizations enable people with disabilities to request accommodations like sign language interpreters on event registration forms. Asking about accommodations sends a clear signal that people with disabilities are welcome and that inclusion is a consideration
  • In addition, only 59 percent say their events always are held in physically accessible spaces.

What keeps these seemingly supportive and innovative organizations from doing even the bare minimum? According to the survey, bias is the top reason, cited by more than one-third (36 percent) of respondents. Whether overt or implicit, prejudice against people with disabilities is a significant barrier to meaningful inclusion efforts. Hence, people with disabilities – whose talents are considerable and can help strengthen organizations – routinely are turned away. Indeed, only 24 percent of our survey respondents said their boards include even one person with a disability. This is despite the fact that the CDC says that 1-in-4 adults has a disability, and that 66 percent of our social sector respondents say their organizations serve people with disabilities. Additionally, few in positions of power specifically are asking that organizations make including people with disabilities a priority. This means funders and others in leadership positions are not requiring or even suggesting that attention be paid to disability inclusion.

This study also sheds light on what is working in the social sector. Specifically, having a DEI policy that calls out disability as an area of focus, and including people with disabilities in board, leadership and/or staff positions, makes a big difference. Whether the policies come before the practice or vice versa is not clear from the data, but the correlation is unmistakable. By every measure, groups that are explicit about disability inclusion as a priority and groups with disability representation within their ranks are more likely to be taking action.

Orgs With No DEI Policy Orgs With a DEI Policy Orgs With a DEI Policy That Includes Disability Orgs With People With Disabilities Among Board, Staff or Leadership
Board includes people with disabilities 17% 26% 34% 45%
Professional leadership includes people with disabilities 11% 22% 28% 38%
Staff overall includes people with disabilities 27% 47% 57% 81%
Organization has made intentional efforts to recruit people with disabilities for employment, internships, volunteer or board positions 15% 26% 34% 38%
Organization asks members or grantees to intentionally include people with disabilities in their work 10% 23% 28% 25%
Organization depicts people with visible disabilities in marketing materials 28% 41% 50% 53%
Organization has an explicit public policy that people with disabilities cannot be denied an equal opportunity to participate in services and activities 58% 77% 82% 81%
Events always are held in physically accessible spaces 49% 63% 67% 71%
Website is set up properly for screen readers for people with low vision 9% 19% 24% 24%
All video content has captions for people who are deaf or hard of hearing 5% 17% 21% 20%
Public events enable people with disabilities to request accommodations such as sign language interpreters, live captioning, or food allergy alternatives 21% 34% 38% 40%
There is a process for employees, board, or trustees to request and receive accommodations if needed 20% 49% 56% 58%
Learning opportunities for staff include disability as an area of focus 23% 39% 51% 48%

This study includes actionable steps nonprofits and foundations can take to improve. There are tips for people in all facets of social sector work – leadership, communications staff, event planners, program managers, HR, and front-line direct service providers. Many steps are quite easy to take and come without cost. All that is required is the intention to do better. Learn more at

RespectAbility is committed to inclusion for all people with disabilities. We have taken this work to all corners of the country, to Capitol Hill, to boardrooms and classrooms and greenrooms and living rooms. Now we are bringing it home. Fighting for inclusion in Hollywood or on Wall Street is challenging but having to do it in your own social sector community is demanding in a whole different way. We are looking for partners in this journey to acceptance, access, equity and a better future for people with and without disabilities alike. We hope you are with us.

For more information or to join us in these efforts, contact:

Franklin Anderson, [email protected]

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