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All of Our Futures Depend on Funding Disability

By Emily Harris, Executive Director, Disability & Philanthropy Forum and Amoretta Morris, President, Borealis Philanthropy

For far too long, grantmakers have told disabled leaders that they “don’t fund disability.” Now, we have data that backs up this assertion in a new report, “Foundation Giving for Disability: Priorities and Trends.” The findings are stark: for every $10 in U.S. grantmaking among the 1000 largest foundations, only one penny goes to disability rights and social justice.

The urgent message is clear: funders have an opportunity to support disability-led work, which is currently significantly under-resourced and underrepresented. It’s not only time to meet a present need, but also to help shape a just and equitable future.

Understanding Disability

Today, one in four adults in the United States are disabled, and there are more than one billion disabled people worldwide. This number continues to grow, especially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and long COVID. The disability community experienced disproportionate loss of access to resources and supports, as well as a greater loss of life. Yet society has hastily tried to “return to normal,” perpetuating long-existing and deeply-held ableist attitudes and a broader disregard for disability. As the pandemic continues, we must recognize the lesson in it to challenge our understanding of what’s “normal.” We must heed the calls to action from disabled people who have been continually reminding us that funding disability rights and justice is a necessity for our collective care and survival.

All too often, if disability has even registered as an issue area for funders, they have treated it as a “special project,” rather than integrating it fully across portfolios. But we must remember that disability cuts across all identities. It is a natural part of the human experience. 

And it cuts across all issues. Consider, for example, how deeply disability and the fight for economic justice are intertwined. Disabled people are fighting for the right to earn fair wages and to thrive without the limits the government places on their assets in exchange for essential services and support. Consider that disabled artists are at the forefront of cultural change through creativity and expression. Consider that multi-marginalized disabled activists have labored consistently in the overlapping efforts to achieve climate justice and racial equity. 

Leading By Example

The Disability Inclusion Fund (DIF), housed at Borealis Philanthropy, shines a light on how to center disability justice. Created in 2019, this fund has grown to $20 million and supports U.S. groups run by and for people with disabilities that are leading transformational change. Grantees are responding to climate disasters with mutual aid, offering peer support to change the paradigm of mental health care, and combating disenfranchisement of disabled voters.

All funders have much to learn from the DIF, which approaches its grantmaking with intentionality in three key ways: developing funding strategies in partnership with communities most impacted; building relationships with community leaders to shift power and expand community representation in our grantmaking; and aligning with principles of the disability justice movement.

To move forward, all funders must recognize disability rights and justice as central to all equity and justice work. Remember: disabled people have the lived experience to reimagine our systems and to create new ways of being and doing that better serve us all. One strategy to honor this is using a participatory grantmaking model, like the DIF does, in which funding decisions are made by a representative committee of people with disabilities. Another is to join the growing movement of philanthropic organizations who  empower grantee partners by providing flexible, unrestricted funding that supports overhead costs, capacity building, and room for care and joy to prevent burnout. 

Moving Ahead

Centering disability also requires changing internal practices. We cannot shift toward anti-ableism within philanthropy if we don’t foster just, equitable, inclusive cultures. A vital part of this journey is accountability. By connecting and collaborating in meaningful ways, you can set measures and create feedback loops to hold yourself and your institution accountable to the disability community. One way to start is to join the 75 philanthropic organizations who are committing to inclusion by signing the Disability Inclusion Pledge.

Equity is attainable if we transform our approach. Philanthropy cannot continue to ignore disability rights and justice or relegate disabled people to the sidelines. Instead of allocating just one penny of every $10 of our grantmaking for disability rights and social justice, we must equitably fund sustainable change led by people with disabilities across movements. The time to take action is now. All of our futures depend on it.