Section 8: Intersection of Disability and Diversity

Disability and diversity are two words that CILs know well. One of the basic definitions of a CIL is that it is cross-disability and inclusive. But, disability is only one of the identity groups with which individuals identify. CILs are required to conduct aggressive outreach to unserved or underserved populations, especially minority groups and urban and rural populations.[1] Every three years, the State Plan for Independent Living in each state must identify unserved and underserved populations and set goals and objectives for outreach to those populations.

To reach the full community of persons with disabilities, CILs must address the overlapping or intersecting social identities of the CIL’s stakeholders. Race, disability, gender—all identities—do not and cannot exist separately from each other.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (2018), one in four (25%) Black people experience disability, three in ten (33%) American Indian/Alaskan Natives, one in five (20%) White people, one in six (16.66%) Latinx, one in six (16.66%) Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, and one in ten (10%) Asians.[2] Movement Advancement Project estimates that between three and five million people in the LGBT community have disabilities.[3]

There is a growing body of evidence that people with disabilities who are also members of other marginalized groups experience a multiplier effect on the barriers they face to achieving independence and self-determination. The HHS Advisory Committee on Minority Health reported in 2011 that, “As people with disabilities and people of racial/ethnic minority status face health and healthcare disparities that put them at a disadvantage in their quality of life compared to their counterparts, the health and wellness of these populations are public policy concerns that warrant increased attention and action. It is particularly important to raise awareness about the dual burden of inequities that minorities with disabilities face.”[4]

LGBTQ youth with disabilities report high rates of harassment and are more likely to be bullied or harassed than students without disabilities.[5] Research finds that LGBT[6] people are more likely to have a mental health disorder in their lifetimes, including mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders.[7]

CILs must be intentional in the way they organize themselves and conduct business. The board of directors, administration, staff, and volunteers must be reflective of the CIL’s community. Organizational infrastructure must provide the necessary framework to effectively address disability, diversity, and intersectionality.

Fortunately, CILs have been making progress in their services, programs, and outreach for racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse groups. In the 2017-2019 “Disability, Diversity, and Intersectionality” project, ILRU identified a number of practices that CILs have implemented that have given them more traction with the diverse groups represented in their communities. Some of these practices are listed below.

CIL Practices for Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Humility

  • Educate yourself, your staff, volunteers, and board members. Talk about intersectionality, microaggressions, privilege, power, bias, cultural and linguistic competency, and the demographics of all the people you serve. Invite members of different communities to come to the CIL and speak about their culture, experiences, and issues. As a matter of policy, provide training on how to serve unserved and underserved populations.[8]
  • Create a welcoming and inclusive organizational culture and environment. Send the message that ALL people are safe and belong at your CIL by displaying photos, posters, and signs that convey diversity, inclusion, and acceptance. Capture voluntary LGBTQIA+ data when doing intakes. Provide space for people of color with disabilities, people with psychiatric disabilities, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and other groups with intersecting identities to meet, have peer support, and discuss their unique experiences.
  • Research who lives in your communities, what their key concerns are, and the top inequalities that need to be addressed. Research the local groups and organizations already there that you might partner with. Data can improve community outreach and engagement with local organizations, focus resources to match community needs, and continually improve effectiveness. Data combined with stories is an excellent way to explain discrimination and other issues to legislators, policymakers, and the media. 
  • Recruit diverse board members and staff. Make a point to list available positions as bilingual. Go into different target communities to let them know that you’re hiring individuals with disabilities who are reflective of the community. Advertise statewide so that more people from different populations apply.
  • Develop and maintain relationships and partnerships with social justice, civil rights, cultural, ethnic, and other relevant organizations. Serve on their boards and committees, participate in festivals and community events, and allow groups to hold meetings at your CIL. You can assist them in their efforts to serve people with disabilities, and you can request from them support for intersectional awareness, outreach, and advocacy.
  • Examine all your policies, values, structures, and services through a social justice lens. Develop and/or revise mission and vision statements, policies, and procedures to reflect a commitment to cultural learning, and disability and diversity intersectionality. Address anti‑harassment, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) language, and nondiscrimination in personnel policies. Address microaggressions ( Write policies that demonstrate your commitment to communication/language access.
  • Assess your CIL’s current status in regard to diversity, inclusion and cultural competence. Use the National Center for Cultural Competence’s self-assessment tool for disability organizations listed below. Then create a plan with your staff and board to address areas for improvement.
  • Budget for costs, including translating materials in multiple languages, hiring different language and sign language interpreters, assigning staff to conduct more outreach, and paying for staff and board members to attend diversity-related training and events. You may also consider co-sponsoring cultural events. In addition, there's the extra cost of recruiting and hiring bilingual staff that represent target populations within your communities. For a diversity initiative to be effective, you have to be willing to commit resources.
  • Build a foundation of accountability and personal responsibility. Board members and staff need to be clear about their own values and biases (we all have them) in order to fully commit to creating and maintaining an inclusive organization. See resources below for becoming aware of your unconscious biases. As ED, you can lead by example and support staff and board members. Examine and address your own biases, letting go of assumptions, and committing to continuous learning and personal growth.

Resources for a Deeper Dive

[1] Title VII, Section 725 (c)(10)


[3] Movement Advancement Project. July 2019. LGBT People with Disabilities.


[5] Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Zongrone, A. D., Clark, C. M. & Truong, N. L. (2018). The 2017 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.

[6] The variations in the initials LGBT and LGBTQ reflect the usage in the references cited here. It is recommended that for overall CIL purposes (policies, materials, etc.) that LGBTQIA+ be used to reflect the broad range of individuals to be considered and involved.

[7] See, for example, Medley, G. et al. (2016). Sexual Orientation and Estimates of Adult Substance Use and Mental Health: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. NSDUH Data Review; Russell, S. T. and Fish, J. N. (2016). Mental Health in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Youth. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 12:465-487.

[8] Title VII, Section 725 (c)(11)