A young girl engages with Elmo at an informal tented settlement near Mafraq, Jordan, in February 2017. (Photo courtesy of Sesame Workshop / Ryan Heffernan)

Jewish law and tradition teaches us that all people are equal. However, as we are celebrating Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Action Month, it’s important to recognize that some times we are better at “talking the talk” than walking (or rolling) the walk on disability issues. Indeed, many of our best organizations are still excluding people with disabilities in their work. So what can we learn from how non-Jewish groups are addressing this challenge?

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recently joined a small cadre of exceptional champions for inclusion and equality by awarding $145 million in grants to groundbreaking projects that will include people with disabilities equally in their work. MacArthur’s initiative, 100&Change, is a competition for a $100 million grant to fund a single proposal that promises real and measurable progress in solving a critical problem of our time. A part of the MacArthur Foundations’ review was a series of questions and a check list to ensure the inclusion of people with disabilities in multiple aspects of the grant recipients proposed projects.

Historically, major philanthropists both in and outside of the Jewish community, have not asked potential grantees to see and treat people with disabilities equally. Funders who would never imagine funding groups that discriminate due to race or gender sadly discriminate against people with differing abilities. Often, it’s not a question of will, but of skill, as even the best-intended philanthropists often do not know how to include people with disabilities. However, MacArthur has now raised the bar on equality by including the one-in-five people on earth who have a disability.

Never before has a grant anywhere near this size asked grantees to address how they plan to ensure access to benefits for persons with disabilities. Based on the strong ideas from each of the teams, the MacArthur Foundation decided to grant three finalists with $15 million each. Thus, the four winners collectively were awarded $145 million.

The $100 million-dollar grant was awarded to Sesame Workshop and International Rescue Committee (IRC) to educate young children displaced by conflict and persecution in the Middle East. Sesame Workshop and IRC will use the $100 million grant to implement an evidence-based, early childhood development intervention designed to address the “toxic stress” experienced by children in the Syrian conflict region—Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. The project will improve children’s learning outcomes today and their intellectual and emotional development over the long term. Children and adults with disabilities will have equal access to every aspect of the project.
The 100&Change finalists that received $15 million grants are:
 Catholic Relief Services: Changing how society cares for children in orphanages
 HarvestPlus: Eliminating hidden hunger in Africa by fortifying staple crops
 Rice 360° Institute for Global Health (Rice University): Improving newborn survival in Africa

RespectAbility, our nonprofit fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities, has invited all four winners to answer a series of questions about that they did to meet the challenge of including people with disabilities equally. We will share their responses in the coming weeks. The first answers come from the recipients of the $100 million investment, Sesame Workshop and International Rescue Committee (IRC).

RespectAbility: MacArthur sent you the 100&Change accessibility and inclusion checklist, a self-assessment tool developed by Access Living. The 100&Change checklist had a wide range of questions around disability. Many leaders and organizations “don’t know what they don’t know” about disabilities and inclusion. What from that checklist was already familiar to you and your team, and was already a part of your plan and work?

Sesame/IRC: Inclusion has been a guiding principle for our partnership since its inception in May 2016—it’s in our DNA, and respect for people with disabilities is integral to both Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee.

For example, Sesame Workshop has a long track record of celebrating similarities and differences by positively portraying both humans and Muppets with a range of abilities. Sesame Street productions in the U.S. and around the world have featured children with Down’s syndrome, hearing and visual impairments, and, in Israel and France, Muppets Sivan and Griotte use wheelchairs. Sesame Street’s newest character, Julia, has autism—with research showing that Sesame’s autism initiative has resulted in significant increases in acceptance and inclusion of children with autism spectrum disorders.

Since 2012, the IRC has been a global leader for Protection Mainstreaming across the humanitarian sector and has developed comprehensive training packages and innovative tools to ensure that our field staff and our partners are trained and are implementing programs that adhere to our Safe Programming standards, which have a specific emphasis on disability inclusion.

Research suggests that 1 in 5 Syrian refugees suffer acute physical, sensory, or intellectual disability as a result of the war, making it all the more important to account for disability and inclusion at every step of the way.

The characters created for this new initiative will model how to make learning and play more inclusive, and television, multimedia, and print materials will represent persons with disabilities and promote inclusiveness among children and their caregivers. In collaboration with Handicap International, persons with disabilities will participate in our regional needs assessments to shape content, monitor programs, and employ accessible distribution methods such as subtitles and multimedia enhancements.

Moreover, the IRC is on the steering committee of the Washington Group on Disability Statistics, a U.N. subgroup tasked with developing international measures of disability. Through this relationship, the measured impact of our program will guide the use of disability measures in humanitarian response settings for years to come.

Lastly, NYU’s research center, Global TIES for Children, will serve as our independent research partner, conducting rigorous evaluations of the implementation of the program and its impact on children and families. In collaboration with experts from various scientific backgrounds and partners in the region, we will build the scientific evidence base on how best to support young children’s development in humanitarian settings. For example, we will look at the factors involved in a young child’s response to stressful life events, how caregivers’ level of stress and mental health influence a child’s neurobiological functioning, and how strengthening caring and nurturing relationships can buffer a child from events in their environment and protect the developing brain from the harmful effects of prolonged exposure to stress.

RespectAbility: What on that checklist was new to your project and team?

Sesame/IRC: While the issues highlighted by the checklist are also critical concerns that our organizations strive to address in all of our programming, we applaud the Foundation for putting disability and inclusion at the forefront of the proposal process. The guidelines helped us ensure that we were accounting for disability and inclusion throughout each phase of our program, and we are actively engaging with outside advisors to encourage us to think differently and ensure that inclusivity is woven throughout our entire initiative.

RespectAbility: What were some of the things that you added or changed to address the issues on the checklist?

Sesame/IRC: The guidelines helped ensure that we were explicit in our plans to create an inclusive program in our proposal, and they will continue to serve as a guide as we refine plans and begin rolling out this new initiative. Inclusion is top of mind for our organizations, and it’s important to note that we both have a long history of prioritizing disability inclusion. For example, the IRC already adheres to the disability inclusion guidelines that have been designed for humanitarian response.

RespectAbility: How did that impact your staffing, oversight or budget, if at all?

Sesame/IRC: Disability inclusion processes are embedded in multiple components of our proposal and budget, including the needs assessment, program design, implementation, monitoring, and more. For example, we will be conducting a disability inclusion workshop for key stakeholders and staff within the region in the first phase of the project, and we will work with Handicap International and other advisors to help inform our process.

RespectAbility: Did you reach out to experts on disability issues to help you in the process?

Sesame/IRC: Absolutely. Since the partnership’s inception, we’ve worked with disability experts within the region to discuss programming ideas, and we will continue to engage with individuals with disabilities and global and local advisors on disability issues throughout the process. For example, we’ve enlisted Handicap International’s assistance in the mobilization and coordination of key disability actors within the region and globally, as well as technical support as we design, implement, monitor and evaluate the program.

RespectAbility: Did the questions or process add new thinking to your team? If so, in what way?

Sesame/IRC: The MacArthur Foundation’s commitment to prioritizing inclusion in the application process ensured that we were explicit and deliberate in our plans to meaningfully include people with disabilities in our proposal. Moving forward, the guidelines are a useful tool to keep inclusion top of mind, encouraging us to think differently when it comes to inclusion.

RespectAbility: As you move forward, how can people and organizations who care about disability issues be helpful to your success in the future? If people want to support their work, where can they donate?

Sesame/IRC: To learn more about the program and keep up with its progress, visit our joint website, http://refugee.sesameinternational.org/, and follow us on social media at @SesameWorkshop and @theIRC.

RespectAbility: What advice would you give to other leaders and groups who also want to be mindful of including people with disabilities equally in their teams, work and impact?

Sesame/IRC: Inclusion requires meaningful participation and empowerment of people with disabilities throughout the planning and implementation process. True inclusion requires building an inclusive culture within an organization, as well as ensuring that those you serve are at the center of decision-making processes that affect their lives. Both of our organizations have a long history of giving voice to the most vulnerable members of society, and we’re proud to continue that commitment in this historic partnership.

RespectAbility is deeply grateful to The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for its commitment to diversity, equity and equality for the more than 1.2 billion people with disabilities on earth. We hope that all philanthropists will follow their example. RespectAbility offers free guidance to foundations, funders, nonprofits and others on how they too can ensure that their work is accessible to people of all abilities. For more information contact JenniferM@RespectAbility.org