A silver lining to the COVID crisis has been observed by many in the disability community. The fact that so many social, civic, educational, and employment activities now must be accessed remotely by everyone should create more opportunity for people with disabilities to participate. Articles like the one in the New York Times tell us that When the World Shut Down, They Saw it Open. Remote conferencing and communication technology can solve an array of logistical problems for disabled people, allowing unprecedented access.

Not so fast, say other researchers.COVID-19 poses unique challenges for people with disabilities, including equitable access to information and online resources. While there are unquestionably many more activities online, most of them remain partially or entirely inaccessible for people with disabilities. You see, millions of people can only navigate the web using assistive technology and/or adaptive strategies. When web sites and applications are not designed with these needs in mind, the result can be disabling and discouraging for the user.

Nowhere is the need for inclusive, accessible design more consistently ignored than in the nonprofit sector and the philanthropies that ostensibly support us. Looking at two major areas of interest – online fundraising platforms and informational webinars – we find that the philanthropic community routinely and consistently ignores the need for access by people with disabilities.

Nonprofit, mission-driven organizations primarily rely for funding on a network of donors, foundations, and government grantmaking institutions that are dedicated to the public good. These philanthropic organizations were quick to respond to the COVID crisis, giving emergency grants and a dazzling array of webinars with guidance and advice to help nonprofits stay afloat in these perilous times. These are great resources – unless you have a disability.

I Live Here But Can’t Give Here

A serious problem for nonprofits like Knowbility who prioritize hiring people with disabilities, is the fact that most of these helpful resources, including web sites and grant application processes, do not meet minimum accessibility requirements. They are not accessible to Anthony Vasquez, Knowbility’s social media and communications specialist, a screen reader user who also teaches Journalism at California State University, Long Beach.

For example, Anthony is entirely unable to set up a campaign on the local Amplify Austin website, currently conducting COVID relief for nonprofits in Austin Texas. We have written for more than three years about the accessibility barriers to the I Live Here I Give Here campaign. Each year they promise to improve. Each year, they fail to actually do so.

When blind staffers try to search foundation websites and subscription services that are meant to point us to funders who may have interest in our work, we are invariably stopped short by unlabeled form fields, images with no alt text, and CAPTCHA functions that cannot be navigated. Organizations like ours that proactively hire people with disabilities are disadvantaged by the exclusive online website and grant application design practices common among a large majority of funders. Grant applications are hard enough, try doing it with a screen reader!

Silent Webinars

Many webinar platforms have improved their accessibility for screen readers and other assistive technologies in the last several years – bravo! But if you should happen to be deaf, never mind signing up to the supportive webinars – they are almost never captioned.

We eagerly attend free presentations by funders and associations with titles like “Webinar series for nonprofits navigating COVID-19,” “COVID-19 and Nonprofit Response,” “How Nonprofits Can Navigate the Coronavirus,” – you get the idea. There have been dozens of them over the past several months. And while we are grateful for the intent, not one of these – not one! – has provided captions to the presentation. A request for captions is invariably met with an excuse about budget. Hard to take that seriously when the foundations publish facts about their millions in assets.

When we’ve asked for captioned recordings, a common answer is “We have that planned for the future.” or something similarly vague and noncommittal. Most recently, a Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society within a very wealthy private University replied to our captioning inquiry. “Live captioning is a major technological upgrade,” they observed which was news to us since the technology is steadily improving and has become quite simple to provide. It was not reassuring to then be told “We always strive to be inclusive and equitable,” when the facts indicate otherwise.

There are many low-cost options for captioned videos. Auto-caption capacity is built into both Microsoft Teams and Google Meet. The popular and screen reader-friendly Zoom platform has a subscription service through Rev.com to allow auto captioning. At $50/month it is hardly cost prohibitive. To contract for live transcription and captioning, as Knowbility does for our presentations, plan to spend around $150 for a one hour webinar. None of these is likely to break the bank of philanthropic organizations. We can only conclude that they do not take seriously the access needs of millions of people who are deaf or hearing impaired. There can be no doubt that publishing video content without captions shows a lack of genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Inclusive Philanthropy Challenge

Disability:IN conducts the CEO Challenge and Caroline Casey seeks the Valuable 500 to pledge accessibility for corporate websites. Knowbility suggests that these efforts be expanded to include philanthropic organizations that serve the nonprofit sector. On our behalf, can you please relay this message?

Thank you for all you do for our communities. Please improve your outreach efforts by using communication tools and processes that do not discriminate and that can allow participation by people of all abilities.

Let’s hold the philanthropic community accountable to all its stakeholders, including those with disabilities.