Fundraising has an ableism problem. Note, I did not say an accessibility problem.
Barriers to accessibility is only one part of ableism- and it’s not even the biggest part. The biggest part is people’s words, actions, and attitudes towards disability and disabled people. And these problems are hyper-visible in the fundraising sector, if you’re disabled. If you’re not, I can’t imagine they stand out to you. And this is an issue that needs to be solved.
Often, campaigns written for health and disability charities are the worst examples of ableism. They talk about warriors and winners; about the tragedy of disabled or ill bodies and lives. So, what happens if you live a disabled life in a disabled body? You begin to internalize these messages, and so do the people around you. Then you and everyone else begins to devalue you, which not only hurts you as an individual, but ends up creating systemic barriers to your participation in the world. This, all from the language used in a fundraising campaign? It’s true.
People’s attitudes in the sector are also a problem. Again, disability and health charities provide the example here. They want to “help” disabled people, but not hire or be led by them. They want to do things for us, but not with us—but who does this really help? As a disabled fundraising student, I can tell you this attitude has kept me on the outside of the field for several years, when I know I have contributions to make to the field. It doesn’t help that the same messaging from charities paints me to be weak or in need of help, as opposed to the idea that I can be strong and provide help to others.
So what is the answer? The first thing that needs to be done is a change in the language we use to fundraise. Stop using “victims” and “heroes”. Start referring to disabled and ill people as people, and show the full spectrum of their stories. How many fundraisers have actually tested language that doesn’t stigmatize disability? Will that bring in as much money right away? Maybe not. Is it the right thing to do in the long run? Definitely.
The next thing that needs to be done is hiring more disabled people. This is especially vital in organizations that work within the disability communities. These organizations need to be centring disabled people, and have them in leadership positions. More disabled people working in all levels of charities will challenge our marginalization, while also changing our dismal employment statistics.
Finally, every non-disabled person in the fundraising community needs to take a look at themselves, their biases, and their actions. Reflect on what role they play in reinforcing the ableism present in the field, and how they can fight it on an individual basis. Every single fundraiser has a part to play in making change, and that starts with looking inwards.
Throughout this piece I use the term disabled person. Asking us how we want to be described is an important part of the process in reducing oppressive, ableist language.
Because fundraising may have an ableism problem, but it doesn’t have to be forever.
Liz Chornenki is a Disabled fundraising student at Humber College, with hopes of going into donor relations.
Editor's note on image - I felt that the lock with the heart on it captured the spirit of this piece. While fundraisers have good intent (the heart) when locking out people with disabilities, we are still locking people out.