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Creating a More Inclusive Environment at Your Nonprofit: Barriers and Interventions for Ability Status

In March, The Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia gathered alumni of its Emerging Nonprofit Leaders Program (ENLP) and current members of its 10th class at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.   Jonathan Zur, President and CEO of Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities led the group through a robust discussion and brainstorming session on ways local organizations and leaders can take action to create a culture of diversity and inclusion (D&I) in their nonprofit organizations and across the sector.

In a recent blog post, we shared that diversity is the presence of difference generally related to one’s identity and might include ability status, age, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or other factors that make a person unique.  Inclusion is the accepting, respecting, and valuing of this diversity.  Working to achieve diversity and inclusion in the workplace should be a fundamental part of fulfilling the mission of any nonprofit. It creates an environment of involvement and connection and allows for the richness of ideas, backgrounds and perspectives to be harnessed to create value for the organization, clients and the community.

To begin moving towards active inclusion in the workplace, nonprofit leaders must 1) examine their own lens to have a deeper understanding of their perspectives and perceptions to create a framework for approaching and addressing their own bias – whether that be conscious or unconscious.  Nonprofit leaders must 2) ask and encourage tough questions to create deeper dialogue within their organization, especially with staff who come from different backgrounds than them.  This will allow the leader to develop a clearer understanding of how experiences affect work styles, behavior, communications, and relationships and eventually form an atmosphere of greater trust.  Nonprofit leaders must 3) acknowledge institutional bias, which are the practices, policies, structures and traditions that push some people up and others down based solely on identity. It’s important leaders realize that institutional bias may exist in their own organization causing barriers towards inclusion and ultimately, equity and justice.


Local Barriers and Suggestions for Interventions

What are some of the barriers that organizations, leaders and staff create in local nonprofit organizations that prevent diversity and inclusion (in both the workplace itself and with clients and the community)? What are actions steps that they can take to intervene and overcome these barriers, leading to a more inclusive nonprofit environment?  The Emerging Nonprofit Leaders group analyzed several different “Identities” in relation to their own organization and below are the findings.  This week we focus on one of nine identities – Ability Status.  In later posts, we will focus in on the others – age, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or other factors that make a person unique.  

Ability Status

Individuals with disabilities are often stigmatized, encountering attitudinal and physical barriers both in work and in daily life. Although federal legislation (i.e. The Americans With Disabilities Act) protects the inherent rights of individuals with disabilities, that legislation can’t always protect them from subtle forms of discrimination and prejudice. Some disabilities are more obvious but some may be hidden, known as invisible disability. There are many types of disabilities, including those that affect a person’s vision, hearing, thinking, learning, movement, mental health, communicating etc.

During the D&I session, participants reported a lack of physical accessibility in their workplace where there are no elevators, ramps or accessible restrooms.  They also mentioned the importance of considering the building and space accessibility when choosing an office location – for both staff and clients.  If you’re wondering if your older building is ADA Compliant, read this helpful article.   The nonprofit leaders also mentioned how physically demanding their roles often are, and they imagine that this could hinder someone with restrictions.  A common thread throughout the discussion was related to funding and support from grant makers.  To make physical organization changes, funding might be required, so grant makers need to be included in this conversation as well.

The participants reiterated that hiring practices within their organizations need to be adapted to accommodate individuals of all abilities, and policies must be established to address situations that might arise.  In general, there is a need for the organization and human resources to be more aware of legislation, as well as resources and assistance available to nonprofits to move them towards being proactive in this regard.  Furthermore, nonprofit leaders must cultivate an environment where staff feel comfortable asking for what they need or for help, particularly when it comes to mental health concerns.

The Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) is a valuable resource that offers services to employers to help with recruiting, screening, training and retention efforts. Additionally, Virginia Business Leadership Network is a business-to-business (B2B) association focused on increasing workforce and marketplace diversity through the inclusion of individuals with disabilities.  They offer training and toolkits that include information like the Job Accommodation Network that provides free, expert, and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues.

This summer, the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities (VCIC) is a hosting a session on “Including People with Disabilities” during their Workplace Inclusion Network (WIN).  WIN is a convening of professionals who support or lead diversity and inclusion efforts within their organizations. These gatherings provide a unique opportunity for D&I leaders to hear from experts in the field and share best practices with one another while networking with professionals from across the region.

Stay tuned for more findings on D&I in local nonprofits in the upcoming weeks!

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