This interview with Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, is part of a series about disability-inclusive grantmaking.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.
Why did your organization choose to center disability inclusion in your grantmaking initiatives?
The first major grant that the Ruderman Family Foundation made was to support Jewish education in the Boston community. In discussions with the organization to which the grant was made, we realized that children with disabilities were excluded from the school system. So we began to focus on disability because fairness and equal opportunity are core values for our family. I took on the role of President in 2008 and wanted to continue to have more of an impact on the issue of disability, so we expanded our work into the secular community and nationally, across the United States and also in Israel.
I think there’s a preconceived notion that grantmaking involving disability is only about providing care and support, but we saw it as an issue of equal opportunity and civil rights. We had to challenge this pervasive notion that disability inclusion is charity, and so within the last 10 years, disability advocacy has become a priority for our Foundation.
What steps does your organization take to ensure all of your grantmaking is fully disability-inclusive?
Our grantmaking process is a bit different in that we don’t take unsolicited grant applications. We choose the organizations we want to support and then work extensively with them to develop the project before they submit an application for funding. We look for organizations that are having an impact in the communities we’re trying to reach and we bring the issue of disability to them.
For example, we recognized the lack of acting students with disabilities, so we reached out to Yale School of Drama to work with us on this areas by offering to provide a scholarship for a student who has a disability. This work has been successful in filling a need for stronger disability representation in the media.
Ultimately, our grants are partnerships. We bring not only the funding, but also knowledge and ideas to organizations. The partnerships that work best are the ones in which the grantee truly buys into the value of disability inclusion.
As your organization focuses on disability-inclusive grantmaking, how are you also incorporating disability-inclusive principles internally?
First and foremost, it’s important to be very aware of the saying within the disability community: “Nothing about us, without us.” We’re very conscious to ensure that we go out of our way to look for people with disabilities and to focus on all aspects of diversity during our hiring processes. We also have a Foundation International Advisory Council which includes several people with disabilities.
As President of an advocacy and grantmaking organization, I have an obligation to use our funds to make impact without being patronizing or saying we’re doing things ‘for’ people. We can empower, work with, and provide opportunities for people with disabilities, but we cannot speak on behalf of the community.
What recommendations do you have for other grantmaking organizations to get buy-in from all levels of the organization to participate in disability-inclusive grantmaking?
The most important thing is for organizations that care about social justice and bettering the human condition to see disability as part of that. I think what many people don’t understand is how broad disability is. People with disabilities are 20% of the world’s population, the world’s largest and poorest minority. Funders need to be more proactive in recognizing how often the disability community is passed by. Don’t view disability as something separate from all the other work you do. Otherwise, you’re only serving 4/5 of the population you’re seeking to serve.
It’s also very important to understand the history of disability and recognize that much of what we consider to be in the past, like segregation, still exists. I recommend reading the book Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most by Tim Shriver as a great resource to dive deeper into disability history. Disability isn’t a charity issue; it’s a rights issue. Explore disability rights and get to know the disability community.