People with disabilities have always had a voice. We’re just teaching the world different ways to listen.
A disability victim services agency

Deaf woman with short hair signing

The Need for More Disability Leadership: Tokenism

July 20, 2022 / Representation

A Black woman with long braided hair takes notes in a meeting with several white people.

By AACs Guest Writer Shari Cooper

This is the second blog in a series about disability leadership. Read Part 1.

As I continue to explore the topic of disability leadership, let’s tackle the issue of tokenism.

The definition of tokenism is “the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to be inclusive to members of minority groups, especially by recruiting people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of equality in a workforce.”

Often, when a person with a disability is recruited to a position of leadership, tokenism comes into play. Those organizations are fully aware if they have a person or people with unique differences sitting around their table, it’ll make them look good to the public. However, they often do not give that person any authority to make changes within the organization.

For some reason when people see people with disabilities in leadership roles, it warms their hearts. We often hear, “You’re such an inspiration,” or, “God bless you.” Most people with disabilities find these remarks condescending.

When I’m approached by an organization to lead or sit on their council or board, I sometimes wonder, “Am I being chosen because I’m qualified (which I am)? Or is it because they need a person who can check off many boxes?” After all, I am Black, a woman and a person with a disability. By picking me, you’re getting all three for one.

To be tokenized is a waste of my time because I'm a person with much to say regarding how to make changes for the betterment of all people. If tokenization is what you’re looking for, you better not choose me, because I have a voice, and know how to use it.

One question I ask every council or board that I sit on is, “Why aren't there other qualified people with disabilities sitting around this table?”

With this, I'm always asked to assist in the recruiting process, which I have no problem doing, but if you found me, you can find others. If not, perhaps a better outreach strategy should be in your strategic plan. There are many people like me who are ready to lead.

I have a problem with this issue of tokenizing, particularly when it comes to organizations and agencies that are aimed at assisting people with disabilities. You would think they would know better.

No one wants to be tokenized. As a person with a disability, I would rather sit on the sidelines than be brought into the game as a pawn. If you can't bring us to the table to lead or share in the decision-making to make your organization or agency great, leave us alone.

People with disabilities would rather start our own organizations than sit on one that doesn't value what we have to offer.

Shari Cooper is a strong advocate for everyone who lives with a disability. In her position as Public Relations Assistant for Goodwill Easter Seals Miami Valley, Shari is the “blogger-in-chief.” She’s also a columnist for the Dayton Daily News Editorial pages and an award-winning speaker. This year, she served as the official emcee for DD Statehouse Advocacy Day, introducing advocates as well as the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, the Director of the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities and other speakers. She even gave a TED talk at TEDx Dayton in 2014 called “Are you OK with yourself?” But the role she cherishes most is that of disability awareness advocate.

Shari’s impact as an advocate is far-reaching. She has served on the Governor’s Council on People with Disabilities and on the Ohio Secretary of State’s Americans with Disabilities Council. In 2008, she was elected to the Board of Directors for the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities. She’s served on the Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of The Disability Foundation.