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Board Diversity Includes Disabilities

Posted by Guy Caruso and Kathy Miller on Oct 25, 2019 1:53:50 PM

diverse board members working including disabled memberDisability is “natural,” has been part of the human experience since the beginning of time, and continues to be a natural part of the human condition, as referred to in the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 2000 (PL 106-402).

In the United States, we have worked hard to remove environmental and attitudinal barriers in order to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities into all aspects of society. The American with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, is groundbreaking civil rights legislation for people with disabilities. Nevertheless, there still exists limited opportunities for the inclusion of people with disabilities, particularly in the area of leadership, policy, and community governance.

Perhaps the real disability is society’s perception of disability, which has led to the reality of segregation, congregation, isolation, dependence, and lack of opportunity for work, education, and participation in community activities that those of us without disabilities take for granted. 

For example, while people with disabilities often serve as board members of human service agencies, they are rarely considered as potential board members for non-disability specific community organization boards. This needs to change, and the Pennsylvania Inclusive Leadership in Action (ILA) project is working to make that happen in our state. We’d like to tell you a bit about this work with the hope that you will be interested in learning more.

Funded by the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council from 2013-2017, the ILA envisions a world where all types of community organizations have qualified individuals with disabilities serving as fully participating members of their decision-making bodies, boards, and committees.

The ILA project was designed to research and then develop and disseminate evidence-based resources, tools, materials, and techniques designed to meet this goal.  And over the course of 4 years, we have been successful in demonstrating to community organizations in Pennsylvania the intrinsic and evidence-based value of including people with disabilities from a wide range of cross disabilities on their decision-making bodies. Specifically, ILA has

  • provided materials and technical support to community organizations to support the value of inclusion on decision-making bodies
  • provided comprehensive support to selected community organizations to enable them to recruit, support, and sustain qualified individuals with disabilities as fully participating, valued committee and board members able to provide a greater range of perspectives and solutions to challenges facing today's community organizations

ILA began its work by developing a 14-question survey to collect information and attitudes on board diversity, including disability, which was disseminated to Pennsylvania community organizations through Survey Monkey. The top three responses about the value of board diversity were

  1. inclusion of many perspectives makes for higher quality decisions
  2. people of all races and genders should be included
  3. diversity is the standard for decision making

Eighty-eight percent of the respondents said that their organization actively seek to recruit members with the goal of increasing diversity. The types of diversity they are seeking are racial diversity (95 percent), gender/age diversity (75 percent), disability diversity (50 percent), and sexual orientation diversity (35 percent).

Then, to support community organizations seeking to recruit, support, and sustain qualified individuals with disabilities as fully participating members of their decision-making bodies, ILA developed a three-part webinar series titled “Diversity Includes Disability.” The webinars focused on (1) considering individuals with disabilities as members of your board of directors, (2) accommodating individuals with disabilities as members of your board, and (3) creating a successful group culture on your board.

ILA also created two forms or documents to assist in the placement of people with disabilities on boards. The first was an ILA “Board Membership Interest Form,” which asks the person who is disabled two questions: (1) What are you most passionate about? and (2) What skills would you bring to the organization as a board member?  A resume is asked for as well.

The second form was the ILA “Gaps Analysis for the Board of Directors,” which enables a governance committee to identify where gaps exist in their organization and then discuss who might best fill those gaps and where to look for those individuals.

All of this work led to ILA assisting in placing three individuals with disabilities on boards in the Pittsburgh area. Three- and six-month evaluations completed by the chairs of these boards and the board members with a disability showed both parties were very satisfied with the board placement. This finding should not surprise anyone.

We must note, however, that ILA learned three major lessons over the course of this work. First, people with disabilities are as busy as everyone else. Many do not have the time or inclination to serve on boards. They will need to be educated about the value and importance of doing so.

Second, boards are specific in the skill sets they are looking for in potential board members, which may make it hard, but not impossible, to match a person with a disability to a board.

Third, matching a person to a board is a time-consuming process, and many boards in the Pittsburgh area look to external board training and matching services for assistance.

These lessons learned are surmountable, however, and we firmly believe that adding persons with disabilities to a wide variety of community boards is well worth the effort, not to mention is key to ensuring that we are hearing and meeting all of our communities’ needs.  

For additional information on Inclusive Leadership in Action, refer to the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University website under Past Programs, Board Inclusion Webinars. The webinars are archived and close-captioned.


Editor’s note: In addition to this blog, BoardSource is honoring National Disability Employment Awareness Month by helping promote a free online training series that begins Nov. 6 on how to be accessible to people with disabilities. Learn more and RSVP for any or all of the sessions.

Topics: Board Diversity & Inclusivity

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