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Disability Inclusion: A Radical Departure from Philanthropy’s Past

by Emily Harris, Executive Director, Disability & Philanthropy Forum
April 10, 2024

To move meaningfully toward equity, philanthropy must reckon with both its past and its present. Currently, grantmakers in the United States contribute a mere 1/10 of 1% of their funding to disability rights and social justice. But when we consider philanthropy’s origins, this dishearteningly low statistic comes as no surprise. Just as foundations are increasingly committing to truth and reconciliation as part of their racial equity focus, it is time to acknowledge the historic truths of philanthropy’s assumptions about disability.

Philanthropy assumed that disabled people were problems in need of charity and fixing.

Philanthropy as we know it emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when business leaders sought to take a more “scientific” approach to reinvesting a portion of their wealth.  They committed to create programs and institutions that would lift individuals out of poverty to pursue the great American dream by “helping people to help themselves.”  They were influenced by social Darwinism, and examined ways to remove from society “defective classes” that in their view included both disabled people and people of color. In 1889, Andrew Carnegie argued in The Gospel of Wealth that “While the law of competition may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, for it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department.”

The ideas behind “scientific charity” align with two pervasive frameworks of thinking about disability, known as the charity and medical models. Through the lens of the charity model, disabled people are perceived as tragic victims who should be pitied.  Through the lens of the medical model, disabled people are perceived as broken and of less value than nondisabled people. The emphasis on curing or even eradicating disability, was consistent with philanthropy’s well-documented ties to eugenics. They included  foundation support for early 20th century movements for forced sterilization, institutionalization, and efforts to eradicate disabled people “for the betterment of humankind.”

Philanthropy’s fundamental understanding of the root causes of inequity was incomplete.

Even as they supported eugenics, philanthropic leaders had more benevolent ideas. They wanted to “cure evils at their source.” They funded education, parks, libraries, housing, urban planning, and sanitation as tools to improve people’s health and well being, believing that better environments would free people up to access opportunity.

This perception that social barriers prevent people from thriving is in part similar to a framework known as the social model of disability, which holds that environments, attitudes, and systems create disabling barriers to full participation in society. This model largely underlies the disability rights and disability justice movements.

However, there is a key distinction to recognize. While the social model considers disability to be a natural part of the human experience, philanthropy’s history is deeply rooted in the ableist view that all human beings should aspire to a standard thought of as “normal.”  Instead of digging deeper to remove socially-constructed barriers to access, philanthropy often funded asylums, nursing homes, segregated workplaces (known as sheltered workshops), and other institutions designed to remove disabled people from society. 

Philanthropy must move forward.

It is time to positively reclaim philanthropy’s early commitment to changing environments, policies, and norms in order to advance equity.  We must start by grappling with philanthropy’s history, and abandoning ableist assumptions that disabled people have less value than nondisabled people.  

Doing the hard work to advance a new vision of equity for disabled people means we must ask hard questions. What did our founders think of disabled people and how do their ideas persist in our programs and culture today? Which of our philanthropic programs are rooted in pitying, segregating, or fixing disabled people? Which programs actually prioritize the leadership of disabled people? When we undertake truth and reconciliation efforts to examine the intersections of our history with racism and other forms of oppression, are disability and ableism part of the investigation?

Uncovering our history, challenging our assumptions, and asking these hard questions are essential to shifting disability inclusion in philanthropy from a radical act to a required element of equity and social justice. 

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