This article is the fourth in a series of articles that NPQ, in partnership with Hispanics in Philanthropy, will publish in the coming weeks. (You can read the prior installments here, here, and here). The series brings forward the voices of Latinx leaders within the nonprofit and philanthropy sectors to share their experiences on a range of economic justice issues that affect Latinx communities.
Two years ago, I remember sitting at the 2019 Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP) conference, grappling with sobering Council on Foundations data that indicated that less than four percent of leaders in philanthropy identify as Latinx. That same report noted that less than one percent of staff in philanthropy identify as disabled and, as often is the case, data on Afro-Latinxs was absent. In the nonprofit sector more broadly, the data tell a similar story, with only four percent of nonprofit and philanthropic leaders identifying as Hispanic or Latinx as well. As for staff, we lack recent data on the presence of disabled individuals in non-leadership nonprofit roles.1
As a researcher, grantmaker, and educator living and working within these specific intersections, most recently at the NBA Foundation, Ford Foundation, and Open Society, I center my work on race and disability. These statistics, while disappointing, are not surprising given the limited opportunities available for Latinx and Afro-Latinx people more broadly. In many ways, the present composition of both is a microcosm of a wider issue of economic justice and inclusion in our society that has historically excluded Latinxs and Afro-Latinxs with disabilities from earning living wages.
In this article, I will briefly discuss the economic inequities that Latinxs and Afro-Latinxs with disabilities face, with the goal of providing recommendations on ways philanthropy and nonprofits can meaningfully and intentionally begin to address those very inequities and move toward actualizing the urgently needed economic justice for our communities.
It is critical to ground this discussion in data, so what do we know? Latinxs currently make up 18.5 percent of the US population. People with disabilities make up 26 percent of the US population. Among those who identify as disabled, 8.9 percent also identify as Latinx and 13.6 percent identify as Black. Additionally, 26.1 percent of disabled working-age people live in poverty, more than double the rate for non-disabled people.
While the data indicate that our communities are out there, this representation is not heavily present in the nonprofit sector—and is especially absent from its leadership. Understanding that representation alone does not equal presence, it is hard to ideate a path toward economic justice where those most affected by inequality (many of whom are disabled Latinx and Afro-Latinx) are not present at decision-making tables or in the room at all. While the disability community centers the philosophy of “Nothing About Us Without Us/Nada Sobre Nosotros Sin Nosotros,” this is not the standard in nonprofit leadership.
Access to Meaningful Employment
The lack of representation in leadership is not the only barrier for disabled Latinxs and disabled Afro-Latinxs, as inequity works within a broader context of denied opportunities and limited access. For many disabled Latinxs and Afro-Latinxs who receive disability benefits, obtaining full-time employment places those benefits at risk, which often include access to healthcare and housing, among other things. The result is to force many disabled people into the impossible choice of participating in full-time work or losing critical support.
Disabled Latinxs often balance this through part-time work (often tied to the exact number of hours that allow them to maintain their benefits) or more flexible working arrangements like consultancies and per-diem work. As the old saying goes, “it takes a job to get a job.” So, if you are living in a system where it’s hard to not only obtain meaningful employment but work full time, by default it’s challenging to build the same experiences and obtain the same credentials as able-bodied people who do not have to navigate these challenges daily.
Disability community leader, abolitionist community lawyer, educator, and organizer Talila Lewis has crafted one of the most compelling definitions of ableism, defining it as: “A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normality, intelligence, excellence, desirability, and productivity. These constructed ideas are highly rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism.” Lewis adds that this specific form of systemic oppression leads people and society to determine value and worth based on “a person’s language, appearance, religion and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel, and behave. You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.”
When the pandemic hit, many workplaces efficiently transitioned to remote work, offering staff supplies and tools needed to make the transition. While many learned the challenges and benefits of working from home, many disabled people had been begging for these accommodations for years and were often denied employment due to workplaces being unwilling to provide them. When obtained, they (the accommodations or supports) often energized resentments among colleagues, framing the needs of colleagues with disabilities as special privileges, or the accommodations were blatantly denied in defense of “an in-person culture” predominantly tailored to the needs of able-bodied white men.
I remember leading a major agenda item at a meeting where I needed to dial in due to a remote accommodation and ultimately not being able to participate after weeks of preparation because the organizers couldn’t be bothered to dial me from another line because “in-person was just best,” according to the meeting’s leader. Not only was it professionally demoralizing, but because my needs were framed as a privilege in the eyes of some able-bodied colleagues, my presence was dismissed and became nonessential. Many disabled professionals navigate similar day-to-day aggressions, which range from subtle uses of ableist language like “insane,” “lame,” “stupid,” or “idiot” to physical barriers like a lack of ramp access to spaces, among many others. While disabled people have been fighting for workplace inclusion and key supports with mixed success for decades, when able-bodied people needed the same accommodations due to COVID, nothing was questioned, and support was given right away, further indicating the dissonance between the perception of needs between disabled and able-bodied people.
This is ableism in action: workplaces that center and prioritize the desires of able-bodied people over the legitimate needs of disabled people serve as major barriers to economic justice. How can disabled Latinxs and Afro-Latinxs thrive if their needs are framed as privileges and critical accommodations and support are often denied or heavily stigmatized?
The Path Forward and Recommendations
While there are many more significant barriers to actualizing justice for many disabled Latinx and Afro-Latinx people, my hope through this article is to begin a broader conversation about concrete initial steps that could be taken by nonprofits that care about equity.
- Make your media and systems accessible and ask about accommodations upfront. Steps like including an offer to request accommodations in your event invitations, choosing accessible venues, and making your websites accessible can go a long way.
- “Count” lived experience as leadership. Because of structural inequality and our reluctance as a sector to hire, many of the most brilliant leaders within the disability justice and disability rights community work as consultants. If job opportunities (especially in leadership roles) default to those with the most elite networks, education, and training alone, many disabled Latinxs and Afro-Latinxs, as well as other people of color, will continue to be left out. While allies and knowledge experts are assets to advancing disability inclusion, they are not a substitute or replacement for lived experiences, especially disabled people and disabled QTBIPOC, immigrants, and women.
- Check your definitions of leadership. Much of what the nonprofit sector values in its definitions of leadership are rooted in ableism and white supremacy, with only a few examples being “executive presence,” “gravitas,” “elite,” and “senior-level.” While many nonprofits seek to reach marginalized groups, many people from those very communities are shut out of formal opportunities to lead the work. Relegating disabled Latinxs and disabled Afro-Latinxs to occasional advisory/consultant roles alone, the sector sends a clear message that their ideas are useful, but those ideas will not be heard or effective if led by them. In doing this, we risk reproducing the same exclusion, trauma, and inequity our sector’s work intends to disrupt.
- Value representation at all levels of your organization, especially in its leadership. Disabled Latinx and Afro-Latinx staff must be hired beyond administrative roles and into leadership, nonprofit boards, and executive leadership teams. While genuine allyship, knowledge, relationships with historically excluded communities can be important steps forward, they are not a substitute for lived experience.
- Cultivate within. If your organization already has talented disabled Latinx and Afro-Latinx colleagues who are deeply committed to the mission and core values, ensure that they are given adequate tools and resources to thrive. This can look like professional development, Disability Inclusion training, and opportunities to be in non-extractive dialogue with leadership.
- Collaborate and compensate. Invite disabled Latinx and Afro-Latinx to the table and compensate advisors and collaborators for their time. If these advisors are internal staff, ensure their time is incorporated into their current role, eligible for overtime pay, and/or acknowledged in a tangible way that contributes to their leadership, as an addition to or modification of their title, promotion, salary, etc.
As you look toward making your organization more inclusive of the leadership of disabled Latinxs, disabled Afro-Latinxs, as well as QTBIPOC, the disability justice framework could be invaluable. A full disability justice framework description can be found here by Sins Invalid; at its core, disability justice acknowledges:
- All bodies are unique and essential.
- All bodies have strengths and needs that must be met.
- We are powerful, not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them.
- All bodies are confined by ability, race, gender, sexuality, class, nation, state, religion, and more, and we cannot separate them.
We have an opportunity to reimagine and rethink our practices and approaches to do better for disabled Latinx and Afro-Latinx communities. The recommendations here can offer a starting point for organizations interested in improving their practices and build better relationships with disabled Latinx and Afro-Latinx community leaders. Moving toward actualizing economic justice and equity for disabled Latinx and Afro-Latinx is possible and attainable. But it requires more than just awareness. It requires the work of dismantling ableism, intention, and—most importantly—concrete action.
- “Latinx and Afro-Latinx with disabilities” and “Disabled Latinx and Afro-Latinx” will be used interchangeably in this article. More information on people-first vs. identity-first language can be found here.
Adela Ruiz is a professor, activist scholar, and program and grants manager based in New York City. Throughout her time in philanthropy (most recently at the NBA Foundation and Ford Foundation), she has worked with hundreds of grantees, co-founded the Latinx/Blatinx, Disability, and Healing for Justice staff groups, and led institutional/philanthropy-wide efforts to advance disability inclusion, diversity, and equity. Adela is a 2018 Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP) Líderes Fellow and a 2021 Wellspring and Rockwood Equity in Philanthropy Fellow.