Infiltration is the New Inclusion

Susan speaks to a group of disabled women sitting in a circle
For years, MIUSA CEO Susan Sygall has advocated for infiltration as a strategy to accelerate disability rights. In this blog, she reflects on how the word has taken on significance for other activists and allies.

Let’s face it: inclusion is taking waaay too long!

So what can we do?

I believe now’s the time to adopt a strategy of moving from inclusion to infiltration.

During a session at the recent InterAction Forum in Washington, D.C. (an annual event bringing together leaders from the international development field), I presented the idea of infiltration in the context of people with disabilities not waiting for life-saving programs to include them.

To explain, I borrowed a phrase from Jenny Chinchilla, my Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability (WILD) sister from El Salvador, who defined it best: infiltration means “Going to the party - even if you’re not invited!"

That is to say that we, as disabled activists, must infiltrate programs that have historically not included disabled people – disaster response, education, health programs, livelihoods, recreation, violence prevention, women’s empowerment, and so on - by simply showing up where we’re least expected. These are, after all, our programs. Why wouldn't we insist on participating, with the necessary accommodations such as sign language interpreters, physical access, and more?

By infiltrating these programs, we accelerate inclusion and form partnerships with other organizations and movements so that we all move forward together.

People with disabilities need equal access, but the need goes both ways. People with disabilities are needed as advisors, board members, consultants, employees, founders, funders/grant-makers, interns, partners, volunteers, and others who shape the field of international development. Expanding on Jenny’s party metaphor, my InterAction co-presenter, Jennifer Whatley of World Learning, likened this to “Not just going to the party; it’s serving on the party-planning committee!”

Infiltration was also a hot topic during our first-ever domestic WILD in San Francisco in June. One WILD-SF delegate reflected that although she hadn't heard of "infiltration" as a strategy, she has actually be an infiltrator many times. She is a disabled woman who has applied for and accepted many international exchange opportunities, always the first person with a disability, always the trailblazer.

Infiltration is a win-win for everyone, and many organizations that are not specifically disability-focused (i.e. “mainstream” organizations) are spearheading reverse infiltration by seeking out and finding disability-led groups and disabled women-led groups to be sure that everyone is included in their own programs.

At WILD-SF, organizations such as World Learning, Soroptimist International, Rotary, Global Fund for Women and others practiced reverse infiltration by sharing information about their work with this group of highly-motivated disabled women. In the process, these forward-looking organizations gained insights and strategies for successfully reaching out to and engaging more women (and men) with disabilities in their programs.

Working together, disabled activists and like-minded organizations and movements can accelerate inclusion by moving toward infiltration.


Susan Sygall