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More than one in 10 Illinois residents has some kind of disability, and as baby boomers age, this number is likely to rise. Nevertheless, the disability community is still underrepresented in leadership positions. Seeking to remedy this missing dimension of diversity, many nonprofit organizations are embracing disability accessibility and inclusion and, as a result, are gaining new sources of leadership and innovation.

Opportunities for nonprofits to become more inclusive are the topic of a panel discussion at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business’s On Board conference on April 7. The session, “Missing dimensions of diversity: How disability inclusion strengths organizations,” will feature three experts: Andrés J. Gallegos, an attorney at Robbins, Salomon and Patt, Ltd whose practice focuses on disability rights law; Terry Mazany, president and CEO of Chicago Community Trust (CCT); and Karen Tamley, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. The session is being spearheaded by CCT and ADA 25 Advancing Leadership, organizations which also are sponsors of this year’s conference.

Hosted by Chicago Booth’s Social Enterprise Initiative (SEI), the fourth annual On Board conference brings together Booth students and alumni, community members, and nonprofit professionals to network and discuss best practices in nonprofit board service. In a recent interview with SEI, Gallegos, Mazany, and Commissioner Tamley shared some of what they hope to cover in their session at the conference.

Despite the boons of being accessible and inclusive, nonprofits on tight budgets may relate to the concern that once they begin taking steps to improve accessibility, they’ll be required to fund upgrades they can’t afford, Mazany said. “There are many ways to make accommodations without investing $1 million,” he said.

Fundraisers and other events may present a challenge for nonprofits because they often are held at restaurants and hotels that don’t always have ramps at entrances to the front door, ballrooms, or conference spaces. “Attendees may be directed to use the service entrance in the kitchen and that feels dehumanizing,” Mazany said.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. CCT made a point of highlighting accessibility at its annual State of the Trust in November 2016, which had wide aisles for wheelchairs in the room and included live captioning and sign language.

Transportation can be another obstacle, according to Gallegos, who notes that only a small percentage of the city’s taxi fleet is accessible. “A better option is to order a minivan where a middle seat can be removed. With a ramp, the chair goes right up into the van,” he said.

Though they are important to consider, barriers to accessibility are not just physical. Websites, registration materials, or online publications may pose difficulties.

There are a number of simple fixes and best practices that can promote accessibility and inclusion, Commissioner Tamley said. Online event registration forms, for example, can be made more accessible by removing the time constraints (most forms will reset if the user doesn’t complete them within a given amount of time.). Marketing materials can be updated to depict people with disabilities, which will send the message “I’m welcome here,” Tamley added.

Nonprofits also should develop and promote an affirmative non-discrimination policy. They must make sure their workspace accommodates employees and that public meetings are accessible not just to people with mobility limitations, but to the deaf and blind. Finally, nonprofits can look to partner organizations for recommendations on potential board members or job candidates.

One such organization is ADA 25 Advancing Leadership, a signature initiative of CCT, which in 2015 launched a training program for emerging leaders. A class of 16 fellows were competitively selected in the first year, followed by an additional class in 2016. In addition to its leadership development program, ADA 25 Advancing Leadership also is fostering a robust member network. Today, the program has more than sixty members, 25 of whom have been connected to civic leadership positions, and others who have experienced career growth.

“We wanted to develop a deep bench of people who could serve the community,” said Tamley, whose original vision led to the program.

This talent pool is an excellent place to start for Chicago-area nonprofits looking to diversify their boards, Tamley said. Newer board members can help open the eyes of the staff and fellow directors—they may observe problems that others wouldn’t notice such as an inaccessible front door or bathroom. A board member attuned to these roadblocks could help the nonprofit avoid client complaints or even legal action, Gallegos said.

CCT is an example of a large nonprofit that has embraced an inclusive staff and board policy going back 20 years. Eight percent of the trust’s staff and two of 17 board members have a disability, Mazany said.

CCT’s promotion of disability inclusion is attracting attention beyond its walls. Forefront—the membership association for Illinois nonprofits, grant makers, public agencies, and advisors—has made strides this year in educating the state’s social sector through events and workshops. A recent Forefront breakfast, at which Tamley spoke, was held in partnership with ADA 25 Advancing Leadership and Exelon and provided tips on building a disability-friendly workplace.

“Disabilities are often addressed as medical issues,” Mazany said. “But there is a change in the paradigm. This is a human rights issue.” Fortunately for nonprofits, embracing this human rights issue also can lead to an infusion of fresh talent and new ideas into their boardrooms.

To learn more about ways your organization can foster a culture of disability accessibility and inclusion, register to attend the 2017 On Board conference on nonprofit board service.