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Prioritizing Inclusion


About 18 years ago, a dear friend of mine, who had been taking pottery classes for some time, suggested I join her in ceramics classes and even offered to assist me in navigating the studio environment. She thought it would be something I would enjoy and believed that there was no reason that I couldn’t do it. Little did I know, this initial step would lead me to a real experience in inclusion at the Evanston Art Center.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the ceramics classes and wanted to continue, I hesitated to rely solely on my friend's support. I understood the commitment it meant for her and the time away from her own classes, and I did not want to put that responsibility on her, though I had no doubt she would do it and not feel burdened by it. Determined to find a solution, I approached the director of the ceramics studio at the Evanston Art Center to explore options for continued participation.

Expecting to negotiate payment for an aide to assist me during classes, I was surprised and delighted by the center's response. The Art Center proudly proclaimed its commitment to community, diversity, and inclusion. Instead of burdening me with additional costs, they graciously offered to provide an instructor to serve as my aide, ensuring my ability to participate in classes.

For over 15 years, the Evanston Art Center exemplified their dedication to inclusivity by providing me with the support I needed, free of charge. Each week, I attended ceramics classes, knowing that I had the necessary assistance to fully participate in something I enjoyed doing very much. It was a testament to their values and an example of what true inclusion looks like in practice. However, not all organizations uphold such principles, and charge an additional fee for additional support.

Imposing additional charges on individuals with disabilities sends a troubling message that their inclusion is conditional upon their ability to pay. This effectively places a financial barrier in front of some who already face various challenges due to their disabilities, exacerbating existing inequalities. It perpetuates the notion that disability is a burden that should be financially compensated for, rather than embracing diversity and providing equal opportunities for all, and prioritizes profit over principles.

Furthermore, such up charging practices could be seen as discriminatory, as they directly target a specific group based on their disability status. Discrimination, whether overt or implicit, undermines the principles of equality and fairness that are fundamental to any inclusive society. It creates an environment where individuals with disabilities are not only marginalized but also economically disadvantaged, further entrenching systemic barriers to their full participation in society.

From an ethical standpoint, the notion of charging extra fees based on disability raises serious concerns about equity and social justice. It calls into question the moral integrity of organizations that engage in such practices, highlighting a lack of genuine commitment to inclusivity and respect for diversity. In essence, it prioritizes profit over principles, compromising the integrity of the organization and contributing to a culture of exclusion rather than inclusion.

While the legality of up charging individuals with disabilities may be debatable, it undoubtedly raises important questions about discrimination and equal rights. Even if such practices are not explicitly prohibited, they conflict with broader principles of social responsibility.

In contrast, the model demonstrated by the Art Center, where necessary support is provided free of charge, exemplifies a more equitable and inclusive approach. By ensuring that accommodations are readily available to all individuals, regardless of their abilities, organizations can uphold the principles of fairness and respect for diversity. This approach not only fosters a more inclusive environment but also contributes to the overall well-being and participation of individuals with disabilities in society.

By embracing inclusion as a core value and prioritizing the needs of individuals with disabilities, organizations can contribute to building a more equitable and inclusive society where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

True inclusivity demands that organizations prioritize equitable access for all individuals, regardless of their abilities. Rather than penalizing those in need of support, institutions should proactively budget for such accommodations through fundraising efforts, seeking grants, or reallocating resources. By charging everyone, disabled or not, the same fee and ensuring that necessary support is readily available without additional cost, organizations can demonstrate a genuine commitment to inclusion.

It's not enough to simply proclaim inclusivity as a value; it must be actively practiced and upheld in all aspects of an organization's operations. The Evanston Art Center is an example of true inclusion. As we strive for a more equitable society, it's imperative that organizations across all sectors prioritize inclusion and actively work towards dismantling barriers to participation for individuals of all abilities. Only then can we truly create communities where everyone feels valued, respected, and included.

-Michelle Friedman

Michelle Friedman is the board chair of Keshet in Chicago, a member of Disability Lead and has been a disability advocate for 40 years. She has written two children’s books and is a frequent speaker for elementary and high school-age students.

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