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Putting People With Disabilities Front of Mind, a Small Organization Revamps Operations

Posted: 9/27/2021

Click here to read on The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

By Drew Lindsay

Until recently, the Maryland Philanthropy Network operated out of a century-old Italian Renaissance building in a historic neighborhood in downtown Baltimore. The main entrance was beautiful, with ornate wood-and-glass doors, but it also featured steps — a challenge for anyone with physical disabilities. The elevator to the nonprofit's offices was tiny and hard to navigate because one of its walls was uneven and jutted into the compartment.

A side entrance offered easier access, but it was an unappetizing alternative. The building's dumpster sat by the door, and trash cans occasionally blocked the way.

Charlotte Haase, the organization's communications and data manager, was appalled to think that it was the best entry for visitors with disabilities who couldn't manage the stairs at the front. "How uninviting of us and this building to set up access as an afterthought," she says.

In the past two years, the organization has moved to put people with disabilities front of mind. Its website, programs, and even slide-deck font sizes reflect a new awareness that the network, like much of nonprofit America, often signaled to people with disabilities that it didn't value their contributions enough to invite their participation or even make it possible.

Last year, the network signed the Disability Inclusion Pledge, a commitment by a group of more than 40 foundations, nonprofits, and philanthropy-serving groups to reshape programs, policies, and practices to be more inclusive of people with disabilities. Maryland Philanthropy Network, or MPN, is beginning work on a strategic plan that will make disability an integral part of its diversity, equity, and inclusion work with its members. "It just feels like the right moment to elevate it along with racial equity," says CEO Maggie Gunther Osborn. "You can't elevate one group of people who are often unseen and not others."

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But first, it has focused internally to reimagine its operations. Osborn notes that people with disabilities account for one out of every four Americans yet make up a tiny fraction of the nonprofit workforce — less than 1 percent of grant-maker staffs, according to the Council of Foundation's annual surveys.

"Why is that?" she says. "How inaccessible must we be if that number is so low?"

Haase, who is hard of hearing and has relatives with mobility-related disabilities, has led MPN's efforts. Below, she has provided a few resources that she has used to guide her work. We have added material from the Disability Philanthropy Forum of the Presidents' Council on Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy, a group of 17 grant makers launched by the Ford and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations.

Here are a few tips from MPN, though Haase cautions: "Accessibility is constantly evolving, so our policies and practices need to constantly evolve."

Physical Space

When the sale of MPN's building forced it to relocate, the organization focused on finding office space that would be more welcoming for staff and visitors with disabilities. The downtown commercial inventory offered chiefly historic buildings, which are difficult to retrofit, so MPN moved to gutted space in the former home of an aircraft-engine manufacturer in the Hampden neighborhood. As it designed from this blank slate, it tried to consider people with disabilities at every step.

Among the key features: The offices are on a single floor, with accessible parking next to the entrance. The entry, hallways, doorways, and bathroom all have ample room for wheelchairs. Tables and kitchen countertops and drawers are set at lower heights, and each staff member has an adjustable-height desk. Floors aren't covered with rugs or carpets to ensure smooth rolling surfaces for mobility-assistance devices.

Some lessons from MPN's build-out:

  • Consider ADA requirements as the minimum. MPN followed principles of universal design, aiming to create a space accessible and enjoyable for the widest range of people possible. "How do we get to universal design as the standard rather than a paid add-on?" Haase asks. "Why do you have to pay extra to be thoughtful to all humans?"
  • Hire a designer with universal-design experience. Although Haase did considerable research, the organization chiefly relied on a women-owned design firm that specialized in universal design.
  • It's not as costly as you might think. Osborn believes the organization may have even saved money, in part because it didn't pay for floor coverings.
  • Consider disabilities of all types. The organization's meeting spaces are designed for optimal acoustics. Paint colors and the art in a hallway gallery were selected recognizing that some people with neurodisabilities have difficulty processing multiple sensory experiences.
  • Publicize what you've done so that job candidates and visitors know that you aim to be welcoming to people with disabilities. MPN created a page on its website that outlines its accessibility and what visitors to its events will find. "Service dogs are welcome!" it notes.

Communications

Assistive technology can help people with disabilities navigate the internet, but websites must be built in accordance with web-accessibility standards. MPN conducted an accessibility audit of its website and is now pursuing a redesign.

  • You can take simple steps without a redesign. Haase, for instance, increased font sizes across its website. Some organizations caption their photos to describe the image — text that can be read aloud by assistive technology for individuals with sight impairment.
  • Ensure any website redesign is based on accessibility standards. MPN found many graphic designers are unaware of these standards. "They're very new," Haase says. "They're not the industry standard."
  • It's not just the website. There are lots of resources to help create accessible versions of digital downloads such as forms and PDFs.

Events and Programs

The group, which organizes about 100 events a year (and organized nearly double that during the pandemic), decided it had to do more to welcome those with disabilities.

  • Send materials ahead of time. The organization tries to send slide decks and other presentation materials well in advance so that participants can adapt the format to best suit them.
  • Provide guidelines to invited speakers. In its standard contract, MPN shares with speakers its diversity, equity, and inclusion statement and outlines its expectations for presentations. Speakers are asked, among other things, to tell guests what they look like and describe their setting (e.g., "I am a white female with auburn hair, and I am sitting in a leather chair with photos of my family on the wall behind me"). Slide decks should use simple fonts that are at least 18 points in size, have uncluttered backgrounds, and have ample contrast between the text and background. Also, speakers should describe charts or other visual elements.
  • Ask in advance what guests need. MPN hires an American Sign Language interpreter and provides captioning at its major events. For other programs and meetings, it provides such services as well as other supports if requested. It hopes to soon integrate this request option into its event registration, with language that emphasizes the organization's goal to make everyone feel welcome. "It used to be that people asked, 'Do you have any special needs?' and that makes the request seem like a burden," Osborn says.

Resources

Haase says these guidelines and recommendations have been helpful to MPN:

  • Access Is Love Reading List: Compiled by disability advocates Sandy Ho, Mia Mingus, and Alice Wong, this Google Docs collection includes dozens of discussions of disability accessibility and events, activism, and more.
  • Best Business Practices for Disability Inclusion: From the nonprofit Disability:IN, which provides resources focused chiefly on businesses.
  • Guidelines From Rooted in Rights: A nonprofit based in Washington State, the group helps individuals with disabilities tell their stories through video, writing, and other media forms. Its resources includes a primer on video captions, audio descriptions, transcripts, and more.

The Disability Philanthropy Forum, which is part of the Presidents' Council on Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy, is a digital warehouse of information about how to make organizations more inclusive for people with disabilities. See all its how-to resources related to accessibility here. Material related to topics discussed above include:

Website Accessibility: Includes an introduction, tips, and guides to creating accessible videos and social media.

Document Accessibility: Tips for how to design digital downloads, including forms and PDFs.

ADA Compliance Guide for Nonprofits: The Chicago Community Trust offers guidelines for increasing accessibility for those with disabilities. The guidelines include information related to facilities, communications, and events.

Planning Meetings and Events: A comprehensive collection of guidelines from a range of organizations.

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