Disability Rights Fund

The Disability Rights Fund is dedicated to building community capacity to achieve the human rights of all persons with physical, sensory, psycho-social and intellectual disabilities. The fund is a unique partnership between funders and the disability community to enlarge the resources available for realization of rights in the Global South and in Eastern Europe/former Soviet Union at country level.

The Disability Rights Fund Amplifies Voices of People with Disabilities

Organizations that promote the rights of people with disabilities have gained a new ally - the Disability Rights Fund (DRF). Founded in 2007 by an anonymous donor, this fund operates as a grantmaking fund of the Tides Foundation and allocates grants to organizations in Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America which work on a multitude of issues concerning individuals with disabilities.

A newcomer to the NonProfit Center, DRF has found the ideal place to call home. “The NPC is very useful for us in terms of keeping administrative costs low, and yet having a central location that is accessible. We have also been able to share information about our work with co-tenants,” Samarasan said.

In 2006, the human rights of individuals with disabilities were officially recognized by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

“It is the first comprehensive human rights treaty of the 21st century and is the first human rights convention to be open for signature by regional integration organizations,” the Convention’s website states.

Diana Samarasan, DRF’s director, explained that the definition of a disabled person is broad according to the Convention: the term encompasses those with physical, mental and emotional disabilities.

“The understanding of disability is evolving and involves the sensory, physical, mental health and psychology,” she said. Not only is the Convention inclusive of a wide variety of disabilities, but it also indicates a transformation in mindset, according to Samarasan.

“The U.N. Convention signals a paradigm shift in the way that people with disabilities are viewed. Most money has been for charity, but not helping people with disabilities promote their rights,” Samarasan noted. “[Before] it was let’s give them a wheelchair or health service, and not, let’s help them to promote their rights. It’s only with the advent of the Convention that states and parties around the world have recognized that people with disabilities are rights holders and not just subjects or objects for pity,” she said.

This framework guides DRF’s work in the Global South and Eastern Europe/former Soviet Union - the locations for its grants awards - since over 80% of people with disabilities reside in the developing world, noted Samarasan. Within that vast geographic region, DRF chooses specific countries to support. Last year, seven different countries received grants. There are two grant cycle rounds, one in mid-February and the other in July. Last year, approximately $800,000 was awarded, and DRF anticipates that amount to double to $1.6 million this coming year.

Despite the current recession, DRF has been able to expand its grant making capacity to three additional countries for 2009 – India, Mexico and the Ukraine. DRF is confidant in its ability to augment its grantmaking capacity because the organization has already secured funding.

Some of DRF’s 2008 grantees include: Legal Action on Persons with Disabilities (LAPD), an organization in Uganda founded by lawyers with disabilities whose work focuses on ensuring that the country’s legal system abides by the U.N. Convention, as well as providing legal aid services to indigent people with disabilities, and the National Council of Disabled Women, an umbrella organization in Bangladesh which promotes the rights of rural women with disabilities.

As part of the grant process, DRF conducts both joint and individual site visits to its grantee organizations. In January, DRF staff met with all of its grantees during a collaborative visit in Bangladesh, and this month (February) site visits are slated for Peru and Uganda.

DRF is fully committed to having individuals with disabilities represented not only within countries’ policies, but also within its own organization. This value is reflected in its leadership. For example, three out of the four staff members have disabilities, and members of the organization’s advisory group (who serve on the steering committee which is responsible for awarding grants) are people with disabilities.

“The fund is truly [comprised] of people with disabilities. Therefore, all of the fund’s decisions are informed by people with disabilities,” Samarasan said.

For Samarasan, the election of President Barack Obama offers hope that DRF will be able to identify new sources of support for its work in the years ahead. “I hope that we will expand our reach and carry out grantmaking in as many places as possible in order to advance the Convention in different regions,” she expressed.

Additionally, Samarasan emphasized the significant step forward if President Obama fulfills his campaign promise to sign and ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. “It would make a big difference not only for Americans with disabilities, but for the rest of world,” she observed.