To the Editor:
While I am heartened by the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s commitment to spotlighting equitable grant-making practices, Bob Atkins’s article this week on advancing equity in “invisible” communities unfortunately perpetuates the very invisibility it pushes against.
As a disabled woman working in philanthropy, I know all too well the feeling of being overlooked by even those foundations that are most committed to furthering diversity, equity, and inclusion. Disability cuts across every identity and life circumstance, comprising 15 percent of the global population, and yet it remains on the margins when it comes to addressing the needs of marginalized communities. To truly build stronger relationships with and better serve people with the greatest need, individuals with disabilities must not be left behind.
Atkins’s article extensively addresses issues that disproportionately affect disabled people without ever explicitly using the word “disability.” Further, he repeatedly uses a distinctly ableist term — “blind spot” — to illustrate his central point about communities that frequently go unsupported by philanthropy. His primary example of mitigating inequitable access to the Covid-19 vaccine is, at its core, a disability rights issue. Not acknowledging this is indeed overlooking a vulnerable community.
According to a 2021 report from the National Council on Disability, “Covid-19 exacted a steep toll on certain populations of people with disabilities.” Specifically, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently stated that “disabled adults … are more likely to report difficulties in getting vaccinated.” This is the result of a multitude of barriers, compounded by intersecting forms of oppression.
In addressing poverty’s huge role in vaccine inequity, the economic disparities experienced by disabled people cannot be ignored — especially disabled people of color. A 2017 study by the National Disability Institute found that the poverty rate for disabled adults is more than double that of non-disabled people and that the socioeconomic divide is significantly higher for disabled people of color.
But these populations are far from “invisible.” The word itself implies that we are the ones who have kept ourselves hidden. To the contrary, disabled people have been sounding the alarm about severe inequities and risks since the early days of the pandemic. These advocacy efforts didn’t simply materialize as Covid-19 took hold. Disabled advocates have long pushed for justice. The fight for disability rights is deeply embedded in history and intertwined with other social-justice movements.
There are certainly strong models for philanthropic engagement in this area. The Disability Inclusion Fund at Borealis Philanthropy is an excellent example of how to meet the needs and lift up the work of long-overlooked communities through participatory grant making. The organization where I work, the Disability & Philanthropy Forum, created by the Presidents’ Council on Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy, offers resources for grant makers to shift toward true equity and inclusion. Centering the perspectives of disabled people is a focus of our work, as is building recognition in the philanthropic community of the role disability rights plays in advancing social justice.
It’s long past time for philanthropy to listen to and learn from the disability community. We will not be made to feel invisible any longer.
Digital Content and Community Manager
Disability & Philanthropy Forum
Author, Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally