Community engagement can be municipal leaders’ most powerful tool. It’s an opportunity to learn what your residents need and want, and then make it happen with their partnership. However, community engagement only works if the togetherthe community is engaged, not just a part of it. And unfortunately, community engagement is often exclusive.
A group that is often excluded from community engagement is people with disabilities. This exclusion, called ableism, may be unintentional since not all disabilities are easily recognizable. Despite the grounds for exclusion, however, the results are always the same: a large part of the community, some of whom are among the most vulnerable, do not have their voices heard.
Below are three strategies to ensure your next community engagement campaign combats ableism and enables everyone an opportunity to weigh in.
Audit your community engagement process
The first step to eliminating ableism is to take a close look at your municipality’s community engagement process. Consider whether there are elements of environmental ableism present, i.e. the use of spaces inaccessible to groups with disabilities. It can be a city hall without a wheelchair ramp or a brightly lit room that confuses people with sensory overload.
Next, consider whether there are elements of language ableism, that is, the use of languages that exclude certain residents. For example, offering only materials in English in a city with a large Spanish-speaking population can exclude many residents.
And finally, consider whether you are separating people with disabilities, rather than inviting them into the community engagement process as equals. Every affected community, no matter how or why they use a space or service, has the right to engage on the issues that affect them. Review your engagement strategies to ensure you’re not creating silos due to accessibility decisions.
Working with those directly affected
Good intentions are not enough. If a municipality is serious about avoiding ableism, it must work alongside those directly affected by it. When auditing and reforming your community engagement process, be sure to work closely with local disability community advocates. Advocates can help identify past and present instances of ableism and plan ahead to ensure these issues do not persist in the future. They can also help avoid a common mistake: using a one-size-fits-all approach to fighting ableism. Every community is different and needs different reforms – a one-size-fits-all approach is bound to fail.
Organizations that can help connect you with partners include: American Association of Persons with Disabilities (AAPD); the National Disability Council; the Consortium for Disabled Citizens; Disability Education and Advocacy Fund; and Disabled in action.
Ableism is not limited to community engagement – it is often embedded in the systems and structures around us. For this reason, municipal leaders should think broadly about ableism during this process. If it is not present in the community engagement process, could it still be in other parts of government or public spaces? Indeed, countering ableism is not just about changing procedures, but actively fighting it within the culture of your community.
The goal of any community engagement process is to learn from the community and respond to its needs. Municipal leaders cannot do this if they exclude part of the population. As your municipality takes on new projects in 2022 and beyond, be sure to listen all members of the community, gaining their trust and eliminating ableism in its many forms.
Celeste Frye, AICP is co-founder and CEO of Public Works Partners LLC, a WBE/DBE/SBE certified planning and consulting firm specializing in multi-stakeholder initiatives and building strong connections between government, non-profit sectors lucrative and private.