Building Back Better

Bridging the Gap: Promoting Disability Inclusion in European Associations

6th July 2023

Milan Šveřepa, director of Inclusion Europe, addresses the pressing issue of disability inclusion in European associations. Discover the benefits, challenges, and potential solutions as we explore the path towards a more equitable and effective future.

Inclusion of people with disabilities in European associations would benefit the sector greatly, and help to restore one of the great injustices in our societies. Yet, it’s not something most associations and organisations are even contemplating.

During my participation in the panel discussion on “Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion” at the European Associations Summit in Brussels in April, a noticeable absence caught my attention: the lack of representation for people with disabilities. It was evident that their voices were missing from the conversation.

There are over 100 million people with disabilities in Europe. That’s a population larger than the largest of EU member states. 

How many people with disabilities do you know who sit on the boards of associations, who are in the decision-making roles in these organisations?

You may be able to come up with some names. But overall, the situation is quite dire, especially if you consider how many people with disabilities there are. It must take some effort to ensure a population this big gets ignored so systematically.

What are organisations doing to address this gaping hole in their recruitment and representation? How aware are they, and what attention do people with disabilities get in their diversity and inclusion strategies?

Multiple barriers

People with disabilities face multiple barriers to participation and inclusion in organisations: physical, attitudinal, communication, and institutional. These barriers prevent them from contributing their perspectives, skills, and experiences to the governance and decision-making of these organisations. This, in turn, affects the organisations’ ability to reach relevant populations, to provide access to their benefits and opportunities.

To address this, associations need to adopt a disability-inclusive approach to their board composition and practice. People with disabilities must be present, and actively involved. This requires determined action:

  • Identify and reach out to potential candidates with disabilities. 
  • Use accessible communication.
  • Provide support during the application process.
  • Avoid stereotypes that may discriminate against candidates with disabilities.
  • Ensure that the selection panel is representative and trained on disability issues.
  • Provide accessible orientation for new board members with disabilities that covers the roles, responsibilities, expectations, and code of conduct of the board. 
  • Ensure that board meetings and activities are accessible and inclusive for board members with disabilities. Provide reasonable accommodations and support such as easy-to-read, sign language, assistive devices, accessible documents, etc.
  • Maintain regular communication and engagement with board members with disabilities. Provide them with opportunities for learning, development, networking, mentoring, etc. 

Inclusion of people with disabilities at boards of associations is a matter of justice as well as of strategic advantage and excellence. By embracing their experience and know-how, associations improve their governance, performance, and reputation.

  • Improved credibility as representative and accountable organisations that respect the principles of diversity and inclusion.
  • Better effectiveness and impact drawing on the diverse knowledge, experience that people with disabilities bring to the table.
  • Leading by example and influencing others for more inclusive policies and practices.

Learning from others

Associations can learn from various disability organisations how to make governance accessible and inclusive.

European Disability Forum, for instance, brings together people with all kinds of disabilities. Their meetings, events, and policy work facilitate their contribution. EDF ensures people with disabilities have active and visible role at relevant EU events and in policy-shaping spaces.

Similarly, International Disability Alliance is a global network of organisations of persons with disabilities, while European Union of the Deaf works towards empowerment through communication, their website alone is a good example of what this can mean.

Businesses and organizations can greatly benefit from resolute leadership and a strong dedication to disability inclusion. In this regard, associations have much to gain by observing and learning from the business community. Take, for instance, the remarkable strides made by Microsoft under the guidance of Satya Nadella, who, as the father of a child with disabilities, championed significant advancements. Similarly, the Valuable 500 showcases numerous disability leaders and companies actively engaged in the initiative, providing inspiring examples to follow.

Intellectual disabilities

And then, of course, there are people with intellectual disabilities.

People who are very often denied proper education, who are segregated in “care” institutions, and who are prevented from deciding about their own lives.

In many countries, people with intellectual disabilities can’t even form an association. They are denied legal capacity, and cannot form legal persons.

Being painted as “incompetent” or as “vulnerable”, they are most often treated as those who “need help” of NGOs. Not as someone who could manage and run them. This view could not be further from reality. 

People with intellectual disabilities (and their families) are extremely resilient. They must be, given what societies put in their way on daily basis. Just one example: A woman who spent over 20 years in institutions herself now leads an NGO helping others get out of segregated “care” and set up a good life of their own.

Including people with intellectual disabilities in governance structures brings otherwise unavailable insights and experiences. And, as with many other inclusive practices, it benefits everyone.

I could hardly count the occasions when one of the self-advocate members of Inclusion Europe board asked a question during a meeting, apologising for possibly asking something obvious. Immediately, another board member goes: Oh no, thank you for asking. I didn’t know that either but was afraid to ask.

As I type this, I’m pleased to realise it has been some time since this interaction happened. One reason for this may be how Inclusion Europe tries and includes people with intellectual disabilities in our governance and decision-making bodies:

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  • Board meeting papers, general assembly documents are in plain language. Not everything we do is in easy-to-read, but we apply its principles and design to the governance documents to make them accessible. This means every-day words and expressions, short sentences, clear, spacious design.
  • Meeting agendas are clear, based on shorter sessions (usually 1 hour) and breaks in between. Everyone needs to be able to follow, and this means the chance to recuperate. 
  • One more thing about meeting agendas: It is important to stick to them. The agenda gives people an idea what the plan for the meeting is (what kind of input is expected, on what times etc.) and it is important to keep to it.
  • Everyone needs to speak clearly and respect the designated time (is there a bigger challenge for NGO people?).

The same principle holds true not only for board meetings but also for all pertinent gatherings, including conferences, working groups, and more. If you’re seeking specific recommendations and ideas on how to organize inclusive events and proceedings, the “Listen Include Respect” pack can be a valuable resource.

Let’s see if associations can learn and improve to address exclusion of people with disabilities. It would benefit them, as much as it would benefit people with disabilities in their fight for equality. Who doesn’t like a win-win!

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