Partnering with OPDs: What can we learn? 

Interview with Kimber Bialik

What are your responsibilities with Inclusion International?

I am the Director of Programmes and Network Development at Inclusion International, which means my work is split across two areas. On the Programmes side, I oversee our project work, which is always done in partnership with our OPD member organizations in-country, and our programme methodologies – which include our self-advocacy training methodology and our inclusive education systems change work. On the network development side, I am also responsible for boosting the engagement of our member OPDs around the world, which includes learning and sharing initiatives like our network’s working and discussion groups and building connections between our members across and within regions.

As an underrepresented group, people with intellectual disabilities and their families are among the most likely to be left behind.

Inclusion International can play a support role to anyone trying to better include people with intellectual disabilities in their work

How would you sum up the goals and work of Inclusion International, for people who have never heard about your organization?

Inclusion International is a global OPD network representing people with intellectual disabilities and their families, bringing together over 200-member organizations across more than 115 countries. Working across global advocacy, programming, and network building, Inclusion International works on any issue that is important to people with intellectual disabilities and their families – from inclusive education and employment to political participation and access to justice to deinstitutionalisation.  

Why is your work important? What drives your organization?

As an underrepresented group, people with intellectual disabilities and their families are among the most likely to be left behind. Around the world, people with intellectual disabilities and their families are facing the same issues – being excluded from schools, denied access to employment, being segregated in institutions, and not being valued as full members of their communities. Inclusion International came together as a global network in the 1960s to change this, and there is still a lot of work to be done. We are working towards a vision that people with an intellectual disability and their families can participate on an equal basis with others and be valued in all aspects of community life. As an organization led by people with intellectual disabilities and their families themselves, our work is about fighting for our own rights – and the vision our network has for a world made up of fully inclusive societies drives our work. 

And on a personal note, like many others who work in the intellectual disability field, I’m a family member myself! I have a sibling with an intellectual disability, which influenced my choice to work in this space and drives my work day-to-day. 

How do you work with partners? What makes your partnerships successful?

Inclusion International works with partners at different levels. As a global network, all the work we are part of at the national level is done in partnership with one or more of our OPD members. You will never see Inclusion International delivering activities directly in-country – our members are in the lead at the national level, and we support in the background as their resource and advisory partners with capacity building to support their work. 

We often also work in partnership with international NGOs. We take part in larger consortium projects and are also engaged in bilateral project partnerships on areas of shared interest. We are also often asked to come on board a project as an advisory partner to support partners with inclusive practices and including people with intellectual disabilities in their projects. We work in partnership with both organizations with a focus on disability-inclusive development and mainstream organizations that might be new to disability inclusion in their work. 

For us, the key ingredient for a good partnership is being willing to listen and consider new ways of working. We want our projects to fully include people with intellectual disabilities at all stages, which means that we often work in ways that are slightly different than our partners are used to. For example, having a person with an intellectual disability on our project staff means that partners might need to communicate in a more accessible way than they are used to. Or the steps that we take to plan a project activity might look slightly different to make sure it is fully accessible. Our most successful partnerships are with organizations that have a genuine desire to include people with intellectual disabilities and are willing to try working in a different way to make sure we can be fully inclusive. And usually, by the end of the partnership, they realize that things like easier to understand project documents and clearer instructions are better for everyone, not only people with intellectual disabilities! 

For us, the key ingredient for a good partnership is being willing to listen and consider new ways of working.

What are your recommendations on how to make activities inclusive for persons with intellectual and learning disabilities?

Put simply, the best way to make sure that activities are inclusive for people with intellectual disabilities is to engage them directly in planning those activities. Whether that looks like partnering with OPDs representing people with intellectual disabilities and their families to deliver the activities, running consultations, working directly with self-advocacy groups, following the advice of OPDs, or other ways of engaging, ultimately people with intellectual disabilities themselves and their families know best what they need to fully take part.  

Over the last few years, Inclusion International has been working with partners to collect inputs from people with intellectual disabilities about what needs to change to fully include them in activities. We developed the “Listen Include Respect Guidelines on Inclusive Participation” based on their recommendations. The guidelines are a great tool for anyone looking for quick tips on how to make sure elements of their event, meeting, project, communications, and more are fully inclusive of people with intellectual disabilities. The website is full of recommendations and How-to-Guides across a variety of areas, and organizations are always welcome to reach out to Inclusion International for more support on how to put those inclusive ways of working into practice. 

Which challenges do you face in your work in international development? And how do you respond to them?

 As an organization that aims to work in a fully inclusive way, we can encounter challenges working with larger organizations or funders that are very set in their ways of working – even when those ways of working might be excluding people with intellectual disabilities. Whether this is partner organizations that are used to jargon-filled project templates or funders that expect project reports to be written in complicated forms: We challenge organizations to consider how their ways of working might be excluding people. We know that no organization is ever intentionally creating barriers, but there can still be growing pains working with a partner to move towards a more inclusive way of working. In these cases, the challenge is really an opportunity to provide resources to our partners and support them in becoming more inclusive. 

When addressing political stakeholders, our biggest challenge is often that the solution we are calling for isn’t an easy fix. In our advocacy work ultimately the transition to more inclusive societies that we are talking about is systems change work – easier said than done! While this can seem intimidating, we respond to this challenge by drawing on our vast network of organizations around the world to point to concrete examples and success stories from different countries and use the experts in our network to point to clear actions and recommendations for steps to take towards genuine inclusion in different areas in our communities. 

Complete the sentence: "In an ideal world, persons with disabilities..."

“In an ideal world, persons with disabilitie are taking part in their communities and being valued equally in all areas of their lives – including people with intellectual disabilities and other groups most likely to be left behind”. 

What are your wishes and expectations towards the Living Inclusion network? What can you offer to its members?

A network linking both OPDs, and development practitioners has so much potential as a learning space, and I would love to see us use the space to share good practice for ensuring that projects fully engage OPDs and fully include underrepresented groups. Often the conversation about inclusion in projects is limited just thinking about underrepresented groups as end users – e.g. how to make sure different target groups are part of a pool of beneficiaries. I would like to see a bigger conversation about the shifts in project design and ways of working.  

I would also like to see this group thinking about how we can turn what we’re learning about good practice into shared advocacy messages. We all know that there are some things that need to change in the international development space, and with so many voices from strong organizations around this table some shared advocacy messages on how to make disability-inclusive development truly inclusive could have a real impact. 

Beyond taking part in these important conversations, Inclusion International can play a support role to anyone trying to better include people with intellectual disabilities in their work. We often play an advisory role on projects in mainstream and disability-specific projects, and we also have resources and advice to support more inclusive project work. We also have a broad base of member organizations around the world that are made up of people with intellectual disabilities and families themselves for organizations that are looking to connect with partners in-country. 

Contact information:

Kimber Bialik

To learn more about how to avoid unintednded descrimination and include persons with intellectual disabilities, check out the resources below by Inclusion International.

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