ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The head of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, was candid when he said in 2016 that Ford had not been considering, quote, "people with disabilities in our broader conversations about inequality." Well, today Ford, along with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, announced that 20 disabled artists, filmmakers and journalists will each receive $50,000 grants. Ford and Mellon, we should mention, are also donors to NPR. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has more on this program, the Disability Futures Fellows.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: One of the fellows is poet Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. This is her poem "Cripstory".
LEAH LAKSHMI PIEPZNA-SAMARASINHA: (Reading) You don't read about the freak show, the ugly laws, the million indigenous words for disability that have nothing bad in them. You just know your brain's weird, and you can't ride a bike. And you fall down in the shower and get sick all the time and see visions, and you're lucky to have bad HMO health insurance - cripstory.
BLAIR: To get this program right, the staff at the Ford and Mellon foundations realized they had a lot to learn, says Margaret Morton, Ford's director of creativity and free expression.
MARGARET MORTON: We really didn't have the language or tools that we needed to engage with this community.
BLAIR: They formed a group of about 60 advisers, including disabled practitioners themselves, and spent about a year listening and doing research. They learned that these days, it's better to say disabled than people with disabilities. And access doesn't just mean building a ramp. They also relied on this group for nominations.
MORTON: We really are indebted to that process, you know, that was not top-down but really came from the community itself.
BLAIR: Filmmaker Rodney Evans is one of the fellows. His documentary "Vision Portraits" is a kind of first-person exploration of what it means to be an artist who is partially blind.
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RODNEY EVANS: I think I'm trying to figure out what it means to work as a filmmaker where vision seems so central, you know, knowing that mine will eventually go away.
BLAIR: Evans says the unrestricted grant will allow him to hone his craft any way he sees fit. A recent study by the organization RespectAbility found that 75% of foundations and nonprofits surveyed said they wanted to include disabled people in what they do but didn't know how. Filmmaker Rodney Evans thinks that could be changing.
EVANS: If anything, it's maybe proof that disability has now, you know, officially entered the diversity and inclusion conversation and that funders kind of understand that and are stepping up to the plate.
BLAIR: As one adviser to the fellowship put it, having big players like Ford and Mellon in the game might inspire others to follow.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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