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Improving Accessibility in Nonprofits
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Improving Accessibility in Nonprofits

Nonprofit organizations that are open to the public fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against people who have disabilities and ensures equal opportunity.

Improving accessibility in both the communities they serve and the people they employ is an ongoing process of intersectionality. Being able to offer services to people who need them and hire a diverse group of employees are opportunities not to be missed.

What is the ADA?

Now in the 28th year of the American with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities account for more than 19 percent of the people living in the United States. Under the ADA, a disability is defined as a “physical or mental limitation that substantially impairs a major life activity, such as seeing, hearing, walking, breathing, doing manual tasks, standing, lifting, working or thinking. Amendments to the ADA, which took effect in 2009, expanded the definition of disability to include epilepsy, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, major depression and bipolar disorder.”

There are certain requirements that must be met under federal disability laws, but state laws may have stricter requirements. Here are a few considerations to ensure not only compliance with the ADA but going beyond that to ensure you aren’t unintentionally putting up barriers within your nonprofit:

Physical Access

Are the entrances to the building and the actual work spaces accessible and accommodating to the various needs of employees and clients? Desks may need to be modified depending on whether a person uses a wheelchair, for example. Or if someone has PTSD and there’s construction going on right outside their work space, maybe they need to work in a different location temporarily. For an employee who requires weekly medical treatments, maybe they need a modified work schedule that includes 10-hour shifts, 4 days a week.

The overall design should be well integrated to show that the organization isn’t doing just the bare minimum but going above and beyond what’s required. It improves morale among employees and the people they serve.

New construction must meet federal accessibility standards and “grandfathered” provisions in an existing structure do not exempt a nonprofit from complying with the ADA. At a basic level, someone using your services needs to be able to find your front door easily with good signage, be able to open the door, and fit through the space. Staff and volunteers should be able to effectively explain to clients or visitors about the accessible features of your building. Also, consider what else your organization can do to provide a better overall experience.

Beyond the Physical

What about the barriers that aren’t visible or physical in nature?

“By neglecting to make changes to their normal way of doing business, businesses and nonprofits have placed barriers — even though they’re not visible ‘architectural barriers’— in the way of people with disabilities,” explains Irene Bowen in this ADA compliance guide for nonprofits.

The documents or paperwork clients need to fill out to receive services can often be too complicated, or the font is too small, or the environment is too distracting to focus, or there aren’t alternate formats available. It can frustrating and deter people from using your services.

Employees are often trained on other equity issues, but disability is often overlooked because it sometimes appears “invisible.” We assume that if we can’t see it, maybe there isn’t a disability. Your nonprofit might need to develop tighter communication strategies and auxiliary services to help people with speech, hearing or sight disabilities. Interactions with individuals with disabilities are also important. Dignity and respect should always be at the forefront. Someone with cognitive delays can still understand someone’s tone of voice, for example.

Performance Management

Performance management can be defined in many different ways. It’s a term used describe the systematic processes of helping businesses, government agencies and nonprofit organizations meet their goals effectively and efficiently. The data collected is designed to improve performance in nonprofits to ensure high quality of service is being provided to clients. Key items of data collection include gathering feedback, goal setting, incentive rewards for employees, periodic reviews and coaching.

According to Harry Hertz, director of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, organizations should be able to answer these “deceptively simple questions” to determine if their programs are in line with their mission statement, whether services are producing benefits for the community, and so the stakeholders understand the reasons for the organization’s existence:

- Is your organization any good? - Is it getting better? - How do you know?

Performance management typically includes written plans/goals, identifies outcomes of service delivery, collects data, and uses that data to inform management decisions.

“This process has helped us realize that we can’t be all things to all people and that we should focus on what has the biggest impact,” a Boston Boys and Girls Club said in a Root Cause research report.

As you work on complying with the ADA and as you develop new programs and activities, it’s important to think about how to be inclusive to your employees and the people you serve. Many accommodations are relatively inexpensive or free. For more information about the ADA or for questions, call the ADA information line at (800) 514-0301 (voice) or (800) 514-0383 (TTY).

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