Op Ed: Ableism | Moving past opportunistic fundraising to inclusion

publication date: Jan 9, 2018
author/source: Jim Martin

CN: Ableism, ableist language

When my son was diagnosed as autistic, I did what almost all parents do and hit up Google to learn more. I wasn’t ready for running across some charities that made my skin crawl at the messages they peddled. It was only seeking out actually autistic adults that made me realize the depth of misery some of these charities were creating. Words like “abuse” and “eugenics” popped up a lot. A new word entered my vocabulary: ableism.

Just over a year ago, I saw an ad from Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto that screamed ableism and opportunism. I dreaded watching the VS ad other fundraisers were raving about because I heard that autism was referenced in it. When I finally did watch it, there was nothing positive about autistic people. In fact, it struck me that the mention of it was just thrown in to attract attention. There were other elements that were deeply troubling about the campaign like the rubbish heap of mobility devices and the idea of winning. Does it mean that children who don’t throw wheelchairs away are losers?

Since then the VS campaign messaging has become even more appalling to me. I had only negative things to say whenever the Sick Kids campaign popped up and that wasn’t what I wanted to share, but it was often on my mind. Unspoken, trying to get out.

But then a couple of things happened in quick succession to tell me that I needed to say something.

First, I saw some fundraisers promoting an event presented by their company which had the word “savant” in it. For some autistic people and their allies, savant is a slur. It speaks to a greater value that the mere existence of an autistic person doesn’t have. If one is a savant, then one overcomes being autistic, or having no value.

Second, I ran across Twitter polls by Sick Kids asking folks what team they are on. It took the whole competitive angle to a new and disgusting level. What happens if Team Autism doesn’t get the most votes? Will they get to stay on the island? 

Fundraisers, we need to look at the language we often use, the ways we exclude people from events and giving, and examples of appeals that reinforce stigma and ableism.  

The issues of accessibility are the easiest to fix. We can use a bigger font in appeals, change seating plans at events, among other solutions. That will help our donors and volunteers and is the bare minimum of what we can do.  

Improving accessibility is not nothing. Donors and volunteers will notice. 

More importantly, disabled people will notice. According to StatsCan, that’s about 3.8 million people over the age of 15 in Canada.

Going beyond accessibility to confront ableism in our profession will lead to more disabled people becoming fundraisers. That is going to lead to even more discussions about ending stigma.

Will it take more Boycott Autism Speaks movements or protests against subminimum wages to get us to have those conversations?

Jim Martin is a fundraising professional with more than 20 years experience in the nonprofit sector, who has led and managed campaigns with great impact in the communities he has served, primarily in the health and social service sectors. His blog is Gingerheaddad and he is @Gingerheaddad on Twitter

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