“I made mistakes. I am very sorry.” – RespectAbility President Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi
Updated on Sept. 26, 2016:
Dear friends and colleagues,
Recently I made inappropriate comments that suggested that I did not value diversity and inclusion or recognize the harm of racism in our world today. I deeply value every human being regardless of race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age, disability, veteran status or genetic information.
Does that mean that I am free from mistakes? Absolutely not. I made mistakes, and I am very sorry for them. I ask people who were offended to please forgive me. Using language of inclusion and equality is extremely important. So too are actions. Inclusion takes more than just good intentions. It takes a deliberate action plan, education and implementation.
Outside of RespectAbility, I donate to many worthy causes. When I choose to fund a nonprofit organization, I ask them to live up to high standards of diversity and inclusion. I would expect no less of the organization that I co-founded and now lead as a full-time volunteer. While we sometimes come up short as an organization, RespectAbility tries to ensure every person is accepted and respected equally. We always want to learn and to figure out how to improve our work.
To that end, below are the questions that I ask of all the nonprofits that I fund, and the answers to the questions from RespectAbility written by the staff. We are still a start-up organization and truly value opinions and ideas from others. I recognize I have more to learn and have an open door policy to anyone who would like to discuss this more. I am hopeful to have new partners as we move ahead to end stigmas and advance opportunities for all people with disabilities. But again, I made mistakes and am sorry.
Meanwhile, I hope the answers below will give you a larger picture of our very deep and abiding commitment to the equality of all.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi
Q&A with RespectAbility
1) Does RespectAbility have policies that support meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities at all levels? What about people of other backgrounds?
RespectAbility knows that we are stronger and better when we are accepting, welcoming and respectful of all people. Since day one, even before RespectAbility had a single paid staff member, RespectAbility had intentional diversity and equality policies in place, which were approved by our board of directors. These policies are in all our staff handbooks. We are a “Nothing About Us Without Us” organization. Our co-founder & president, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, has a disability and knows what it means to raise a child with multiple disabilities. The first person we hired was female with a disability, and the second person we hired was a person of color who also had disabilities. Indeed, throughout our short history, we have hired four people of color (out of a total of 11 throughout our history) as staff members. In addition, 16 members of our National Leadership Program are people of color and other minority groups, as well as many being people with disabilities. This accounts for 24 percent of our fellowship participants to date.
RespectAbility provides equal employment opportunities (EEO) to all employees and applicants for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetics. In addition to federal law requirements, RespectAbility complies with all applicable state and local laws governing nondiscrimination in employment. This policy applies to all terms and conditions of employment, including recruiting, hiring, placement, promotion, termination, layoff, recall, transfer, leaves of absence, compensation and training.
RespectAbility expressly prohibits any form of workplace harassment based on race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, age, genetic information, disability or veteran status.
RespectAbility also requires a written policy on disability and equal opportunity from its contractors.
Our staff, board and fellows are comprised of people with a wide variety of races, genders, ages, ethnic groups, sexual orientations and religions. Team members have a variety of disabilities including spinal cord injuries, spina bifida, Autism, blindness, deafness and hearing impairments, ADHD, dyslexia, mental health conditions and other disabilities.
2) How does RespectAbility ensure that people with disabilities and other minorities feel included?
As an organization led professionally by a person with a disability, and with a diverse staff and board of people with and without disabilities, we constantly evaluate our progress and actions on inclusion. Indeed, our National Leadership Program asks all of our Fellows to evaluate us in every component – both in person and via a confidential online survey.
Almost every day our staff, from the president to the fellows, eats lunch together. We bring in guest speakers on a very regular basis to learn more about disability issues, public policy, best practices and more. The speakers are diverse in age, religion, race, sexual orientation and more. For example, we have had more than 30 guest speakers in the last few months.
3) Will the program or project include people with disabilities? If not, why not? If so, how do you plan to identify, reach, and welcome them?
Every program at RespectAbility includes people with disabilities. Most of our programs focus on inclusion, education and best practices in employment all geared toward people with disabilities by people with disabilities. For example, consider our work on state-level implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Our WIOA team was composed of an individual with a visual impairment, individuals with learning disabilities, a wheelchair user, someone with mental health issues and someone on the Autism spectrum. Together, their shared insights made our policy recommendations stronger and more impactful.
One key concern is that people with disabilities, according to the U.S. census, are the poorest of the poor. Only 1-in-3 people with a disability has a job. Thus, we offer free conferences and webinars on topics including how to put captions on videos, how to make documents or websites screen reader accessible, and how to make events ADA accessible. Indeed, some of our programs have been televised in their entirety on C-SPAN. These materials also are posted to our website where all of our videos have captions. Our PowerPoints are screen reader accessible and alt text is used to ensure readability. While it is challenging financially to deliver free services, we feel it is vital to ensure that everyone can participate.
We reach out via social media, emails and by word of mouth. We have 100,000 people on our email list, more than 58,000 Facebook fans and more than 5,500 Twitter followers.
RespectAbility’s entire mission is based on making sure inclusion and education happen in the world for people of all abilities. Every project we work on has disability and inclusion at the forefront. Our Fellows program is devoted entirely to helping young leaders with disabilities gain successful, integrated employment and achieve the American Dream.
4) Describe the accessibility of your offices to people with physical disabilities.
Our office is located on the ground floor and has accessible restrooms for both male and female staff and fellows. Our building entrance is accessible as well as the under-building parking area. We worked with our landlord to install automatic doors to improve access for wheelchair users. All office doors are up-to-date with ADA rules and we purposefully keep wide aisles in all open areas. Our office is 98 percent accessible. Only one area that houses our computer systems is not accessible to users with wheelchairs. We have private offices for people with sensory issues and/or service animals. We provide appropriate software and other programs needed for people with visual impairments. When needed, we pay for personal care assistants for members of our team.
5) Describe the accessibility of your website to people with hearing and vision impairments.
Screen reader accessibility and captions are very important to us. All our webinars have live captions and our videos have them imbedded. We try to maintain a website that all users can have equal access to information and functionality. We provide text equivalents for images and with links named meaningfully to help blind users using text-to-speech software.
We are in the process of redesigning our website and incorporating accessibility features from the beginning. This includes using easy-to-read fonts, background coloring and easy to understand language without pop-ups and flashing comments to make sure people with seizure issues are still able to connect with our site.
When doing programs off-site, we hire transcriptionists and ASL interpreters if needed. We use open captioning on our webinars and also provide written transcripts. Our PowerPoints are screen reader accessible. We also offer free webinars on these topics, which can be found on our YouTube channel
As a startup organization, we do not yet have an in-house full time communications person to work on these issues so there are still some imperfections on the site. However, accessibility remains a high priority.
6) Do you employ individuals who have disabilities? If so, what are their jobs? Do they receive the same compensation and benefits as all other employees in like positions? If not, please describe all remedial efforts underway.
We currently employ individuals with physical, learning and mental health disabilities. Sadly, due to the fact we are a startup organization and we are still working on fundraising, our salaries are not as high as other local nonprofit agencies. However, salaries are consistent among staff members with and without disabilities. In addition, all paid full-time employees have access to paid health insurance, paid time off and paid sick leave. We also have a generous floating holiday policy to allow people of all religions or non-religions to take off special days during the year.
From our president/CEO down, we have team members with differing abilities. While we currently have just four full-time paid staff members, we have had a total of 11 different staff members throughout our history. Of the 11, six self-identified as being a person with a disability and four were people of color. Three of these individuals were both a person of color and a person with a disability. We also have people who are members of the LBGTQ community on staff.
We work closely with each person who is paid / on stipend / a volunteer to assure that they have all technology, assistive devices, special furniture, etc. that is required to complete their job and make their office life enjoyable.
We have a fantastic National Leadership Program. Sadly, we do not have the funds yet to pay the participants an hourly wage in this program. They receive a $250 monthly transportation stipend and free lunch daily. We are working to raise money to have paid fellowships so that people from all economic backgrounds can fully participate.
7) Please describe how you educate your Board of Directors or Trustees about serving and partnering with people with disabilities.
Every person on both our Board of Directors and Board of Advisors either self-identify as having a disability, or have someone in their immediate family or a loved one with a disability. We send out Board packets to members and continually send out all our communications through emails with links to articles RespectAbility is mentioned in or op-eds we have placed. We have conference calls and in-person meetings often to keep the Board up-to-date on everything from finances to partnering with other groups.
8) What are your plans going forward on inclusion?
You can never know or do too much when to comes to inclusion and diversity. Our president has made some mistakes in public/online statements and has apologized for those mistakes. As a startup organization committed to having an impact, we often are on an aggressive timetable that creates challenges in terms of building partnerships and collaborations. However, for example with our political work, our #PwDsVote candidate questionnaires were developed out of extensive dialogues with more than a dozen diverse disability organizations and our question are inclusive of many differing points of view.
A reality TV show starring individuals with Down syndrome, of which we have been proud to consult on, has just been renewed for a third season. We are proud of Born This Way for not only busting stigmas of people with disabilities, specifically in terms of employment, independent living and relationships, but also for its diverse portrayal. John is African American, Cristina is a Hispanic woman, and Elena’s mother is from Japan, portraying the immigrant experience. When disability is depicted in pop culture, it tends to be all white. Real storytelling requires exploring people with multiple minority status (i.e. African American + disability). We are looking forward to an even more inclusive third season.
We also are very proud of the work we did on Criminal Justice Reform: Keys to Success. The content of our report was structured around the organizational experience of Janie Jeffers and her experiences as a corrections professional as well as Eddie Ellis’ experiences as someone who spent years in incarceration. In addition to these two authors, who are people of color, we reached out to dozens of organizations and individuals of diverse stakeholder populations.
In doing that work, we were disappointed that many excellent groups working on disability issues, including our own, lacked diverse leadership within their national staff and board with expertise on these issues. Thus, it is our goal going forward to significantly expand the number of people of color and other minorities in our National Leadership Program, so we can help seed the field with diverse talent. We have been shifting our recruitment strategy to target historically black colleges in the Washington, D.C., metro area. In order to attract the best talent, we are focusing our fundraising efforts to offer paid fellowships.
In addition, we are seeking to grow the number of people from diverse minority backgrounds on our boards and, when funding permits, in hiring additional staff members. Our goal is to be intentional about having a diverse organization, not only in terms of disability, but all other backgrounds as well.
RespectAbility has been recognized by Slingshot as an organization at the highest level. Guide Star has us at the Platinum level for our inclusion, transparency and excellence.