Including People with Disabilities Starts with Setting a Policy

By Sheela Nimishakavi

Sheela Nimishakavi
Many nonprofit organizations wish to create programs that are inclusive of people with disabilities, but are unsure how to begin.

Disability inclusion goes beyond following the legal guidelines set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which provides basic civil rights protections for individuals with disabilities. It involves creating programs where people with disabilities feel accepted and are fully able to participate.

There are four basic tenets to inclusion which, when fully incorporated, can achieve these goals: organizational policy accessibility, social skill building, and communication.

To be successful, inclusion efforts need to be embedded into the overall organizational policy. Staff and volunteers should be on board with these changes and able to implement them into their programs.

Accessibility involves holding programs and activities in physically accessible locations, but also entails providing program material that is accommodating for individuals with a wide range of communication and learning styles.

Social skill building entails providing leadership opportunities for participants with disabilities which enables them to respect themselves, have greater self confidence, and reduces stigmatization among other program participants.

Effective communication involves using proper etiquette and clear language which is important not only to relay information and instruction, but also to help create a welcoming environment for people with disabilities.

Below are some of the questions to consider when seeking to be more inclusive.

Organizational Policies
  • Does your organization have a written policy on inclusion of people with disabilities?
  • Do staff meetings incorporate discussions of inclusion efforts?
  • Are evaluation methods in place to monitor success of inclusion efforts?
  • Are people with disabilities involved in program proposal and implementation or evaluation efforts?
  • Does the building have ramps and automatic doors?
  • Is sufficient space provided for mobility devices?
  • Are program materials offered in multiple formats (i.e., large print, multimedia material)?
  • Can the organization be reached via multiple communication methods (i.e., teletypewriter or TTY, email)?
  • Are sign language interpreters available for events held by the organization?
  • Are multiple learning styles taken into consideration when designing program activities and presentations?
Social Skill Building
  • Do staff and volunteers engage participants in leadership, peer support, or peer mentoring opportunities?
  • Are staff and volunteers careful not to single out people with disabilities?
  • Do staff and volunteers role-model respect for diversity and take advantage of opportunities to normalize individuals’ differences?
  • Do staff and volunteers use appropriate disability etiquette and avoid stereotypes (i.e., say “person with a disability” as opposed to “disabled person;” “uses a wheelchair” as opposed to “wheelchair-bound”)?
  • Are directions stated clearly and positively (i.e., “please walk” as opposed to “no running)?
  • Are multiple representations used for program directions (i.e., speaking, using pictures and gestures)?
By incorporating even a few of these suggestions into daily protocol, organizations can make great strides towards creating inclusive programs. While some of these considerations are more difficult to implement, the majority of these suggestions are simple and inexpensive to integrate into existing programs. A few simple changes will not only allow individuals with disabilities to participate in empowering programs but will also enhance programs’ diversity.

Sheela Nimishakavi, Mentoring and National Center VISTA, is doing her year of service at Partners for Youth with Disabilities, which has been providing inclusion training since 2005 through its National Center for Mentoring Youth with Disabilities. Email her at or call 617-556-4075, ext. 19.
January 2012