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podcast: overcoming ableism with Liz Chornenki

photo of Liz Chornenki with the title "podcast: overcoming ableism with Liz Chornenki"

When you’re designing for any process, system or event, you’re designing for everyone. In this episode, Liz Chornenki, the annual giving officer at YWCA Toronto, shares some practical steps to internal and external design with accessibility in mind!

ableism - what is it and what does it look like?

Not every disability is visible and chances are, you already work with someone with a disability. So how do we be more inclusive?

The first step is to understand what disabilities are. According to Liz, a disability is anything that affects a person’s physical or mental functioning in society.

When you think of disabilities, it’s common to focus on disabilities we can see, such as individuals who use a wheelchair. What others may not think of are disabilities that aren’t as visible such as hearing loss or mental health conditions like depression or schizophrenia.

It’s common to ignore disabilities if we don’t physically see them, but we should treat each one with respect and be aware of our ableism. Ableism is the presence of attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities. This means that those with disabilities are prevented from being hired, getting services they need or being physically able to access things.

watch your language!

Language is also really important - there are things that non-disabled people may say that is deeply offensive or triggering to those with disabilities.

Wheelchair-bound is commonly used to describe those who use wheelchairs. However, wheelchairs are seen as a source of freedom and mobility - not something that restricts them. Instead, try “wheelchair user.”

You also don’t want to use words like “stupid, crazy, or insane” because they have been used against those with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities. Use words such as “annoying, ridiculous, frustrating or ignorant” instead.

When in doubt, just ask someone within the community and pay attention to the language they use when they speak. Ask them how they refer to themselves - be mindful that everyone may have their own perspective.

Language is something that will continuously change and what is acceptable now may not be in a few years from now, so this is continual work that we all need to be mindful of.

how to build an inclusive environment

We may not realize it, but we can be excluding both existing and potential donors, volunteers and staff. The way you treat them can either make or break your organization’s reputation with not only the individual but with their social circles too.

Let’s say you’re hosting an event - how do you ensure it is accessible?

You need to make sure that your venue has wide door frames and aisles that allow wheelchairs to enter, exit and move around freely. Nothing is worse than being part of a community (or thinking of joining one) and realizing that you can’t participate because you’re automatically blocked from coming inside. It’s also important to ensure that elevators are wheelchair accessible and are in working condition.

Tables are also something that not a lot of organizers think about. Make sure that you refrain from using high cocktail tables or tables that are placed too close together. Otherwise, not everyone can reach the table or comfortably sit at one.

If you’re having speakers, be sure to add sightlines. This means having a sign language interpreter and placing those who need one in a position where they can see them and participate in the discussion. Be careful not to separate them out. You also should look into captioning presentations and videos, and making sure they are accurate.

Speakers should also use microphones, even if it’s a small space so that those who may be hard of hearing can be accommodated. Let them know that any audience questions should be repeated before answering. Liz recommends having a microphone available at each table so that everyone has the opportunity to ask any questions they may have.

Make sure that signs are also available in Braille or large print and high contrast so that those with visual impairments are able to see, read and understand the environment they’re in.


As mentioned earlier, there are a lot of disabilities that aren’t visible. It’s very possible that you have disabled staff in your nonprofit organization right now. You may not be accommodating them to the best level that allows them to do their job. Your organization needs to be a place where people feel open and able to disclose their needs.

Although staff member may not want to necessarily disclose their disabilities, they need to be able to disclose what you can do for them to make the workplace better.

Liz recommends renting workspaces that are accessible - even if you don’t have any disabled staff right now. If you want to have your staff reflect society to better connect with various aspects of the community, you need to be able to invest in a building that is physically accessible.

Your staff should also be able to work from home if needed without being seen as less productive than their able-bodied coworkers. People with disabilities often face stigma around taking breaks or working remotely - and may experience pain from sitting too long. There also other considerations such as learning disabilities that can be accommodated by providing information in different forms and discussing things in a way that people can understand.

In your employee handbook, ensure that employees know that there is a lot of flexibility on how their work gets done. This can be in the form of alternate working hours, using days off to rest and recover and using sick days without question. You don’t need to reference disability - this is something offered for everyone. Be sure to model this behaviour as well as the management level - this reassures people that this is a safe place.

being inclusive in the digital world

When it comes to digital in a small non-profit organization, there is a lot of room for improvement. The first thing to consider is the use of video, especially in social media and digital campaigns. Videos are a great way to engage people, but without captioning, it becomes inaccessible to a lot of people. This includes those who are deaf, hard of hearing, lack the bandwidth to run the video or are in a space where they can turn the sound on. It’s important to have the text at the bottom of your video.

Be sure to provide an option to turn it off as those with learning or neurological disabilities may find it difficult to follow. Don’t rely on automatic closed captioned services from YouTube though, as they aren’t always accurate and can be more confusing. Someone who has a hard time understanding a video without captions isn’t going to understand them any better with bad captions. You can also hire (within budget) or get a volunteer who’s willing to caption your video.

Another thing to consider is image description. Let’s say you’re posting a photo, meme or an infographic on social media or your website, it’s not accessible by itself for those who use screen readers. You need to create a little description of what the image is and either embed it into the image itself or place it above or below the image. If you’re placing an image on your website, you can use alternative text which is what shows up in case an image is unable to load - it’s also what someone using a screen reader would see too!

need help? call a friend!

Above all, Liz’s main takeaway is to know who your audience is and speak to them about how you can improve your donor communications, digital presence and event spaces. Chances are, you have disabled people in your communities and database and they know best on how you can improve.

You can also hire a person with a disability from your community to consult with you on how to make your organization more accessible on a targeted level. They can bring in their expertise from their lived experiences while also understanding your organization and your audience well.

Accessibility should be the baseline for how your organization interacts with everyone.

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You might also find it helpful to review our episode with Rania El Mugammar on design liberation.

The Small Nonprofit podcast is produced by Eloisa Jane Mariano