Those of us who can tell our stories openly about disability, chronic illness, and aging in philanthropy and fundraising are the tip of the iceberg. Our numbers are small compared to those who feel compelled to keep that aspect of who they are hidden under the water-line. Photo credit: Ales Utovko
I’m not sure when I started to notice the pattern.
I’d raise some disability access issue at work and, not long after, a colleague would tell me privately that they had a disability and/or a chronic illness. They didn’t feel safe disclosing it and, therefore, couldn’t ask for any accommodations for it.
These kind of workplace stories are a big part of what’s behind the Disabled in Development Project and how, when viewed collectively, they add up to system failures and structural ableism that is well beyond any individual’s ability to “overcome.” While DiD’s also about sharing stories of the significant progress toward inclusion being made in philanthropy and fundraising, giving space to testify openly about ableism in our own sector is essential for context.
The situation would be making doing their job harder and they appreciated being able to vent to me. Would I please keep it a secret? Of course I would. And I did. Even when having more numbers on my side would have helped me argue that this-or-that barrier solution should be a priority, despite time and money limitations.
I remember this happening as far back as the late 90s and the confiding confessions continue to this day, socially and at meetings and conferences, though not in my current workplace, DREDF.
I’ll describe one particular situation but keep identifying details out as best I can. This whole episode still bothers me:
I worked with a fundraising teammate who had a different but complementary skill-set from mine. They were very good at what they did, from the outset.
We had a superior, also newish, who was a toucher. As in, a touch on your arm for emphasis, that kind of thing. My teammate told them early on that they did not like to be touched and please don’t ever do it, it was very upsetting to them. (I witnessed this.)
Our superior kept right on touchin’.
Part of any system is access to the system. If access is blocked by stigma, that is itself a system problem.
Ingrid Tischer on the day of her kindergarten graduation in Greece, New York, circa 1970. She is wearing a rainbow vest and skirt sewn by her mom. Note the clutching of the diploma and school-bestowed book-bag, and anxious expression — all indicate a future in literary fiction writing and nonprofit fundraising.
If the grand success of the 20th century was the rise of disability as an accepted political identity, we intend for the 21st century to be the time when disability is recognized as the constant but hidden variable in nearly all formulas for global human rights. Including disability as a given factor in most people’s lives is essential to successfully advancing the rights of people who are members of minority communities, survivors of violence and/conflict zones, and veterans; people who live with chronic ailments and have survived catastrophic illness, people who are young and old; male, female, and anywhere on the gender spectrum. While disability has been understood as “different and divided” I believe it can come to be seen as “unique and united.”
As you sit sweating under an increasingly sweltering sun this day, feeling the inevitable effects of a wasteful attitude toward natural resources, you may not be thinking of another type of catastrophic loss caused by another type of massive denial. I speak of almost no one’s favorite topic: Disability. How denying disability’s central role in just about every human life relegates significant chunks of our lives — and worse still, people-sized chunks — to the rubbish heap. It may be that “disabled” doesn’t feel like a word that fits who you are. Fine. Have you ever felt vulnerable? Think of “vulnerable” as a gateway word to a chronic case of disability-speak.