WXXI expands initiative focused on disability education with $1.6M grant

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A partnership between WXXI in Rochester, N.Y., and the Golisano Foundation to educate audiences about disabilities will expand over the next five years with a $1.6 million grant from the foundation.

The grant supports the expansion of WXXI’s “Move to Include” initiative to over 40 public media stations. A $645,000 grant from CPB in 2019 backed a one-year pilot program that brought five stations into the project. New participants will receive guidance from a playbook created during the pilot on covering disabilities and generating and executing content ideas.

WXXI and the Golisano Foundation began their partnership in 2014 with the launch of Move to Include. But the station’s commitment to covering disability-related topics goes back further, according to CEO Norm Silverstein.

“This is part of our DNA at the station, because we are always looking for opportunities to expand,” Silverstein said. 

In 2003, WXXI began holding a “Dialogue on Disability” week with the Al Sigl Community of Agencies, which focuses on community awareness and philanthropy for individuals with disabilities. That project focused on including coverage of disabilities in WXXI’s programming and news content. 

“We really never looked back, because every year it just kept growing,” Silverstein said. 

After 10 years of holding the Dialogue on Disability week, WXXI partnered with the Golisano Foundation to cover disability-related issues year-round with an initial $280,000 grant. WXXI expanded its news programming on topics related to disabilities and created a multiplatform Inclusion Desk dedicated to telling stories about people with disabilities. Its podcast Exited, released in 2017 and 2018, followed the experience of eight families and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who were transitioning out of using school resources. 

Move to Include also provides educational resources to PBS LearningMedia, including lesson plans and engagement activities on topics related to disability education such as assistive technologies and sports. 

Far-reaching impact

The Golisano Foundation does not typically work with media organizations, according to Executive Director Ann Costello. Instead, it usually funds programs such as health care that directly support individuals with disabilities. But Costello said that media and community events play an important role in spreading accurate information about disabilities. 

The foundation connects WXXI with experts and other programs it supports, such as an autism center, and helps to ensure that the content is consistent with its mission. It also advises WXXI about which issues in the disability field to focus on. For example, the station’s news department is covering job hurdles that people with disabilities face in the Rochester area and how poverty and racism relate to those challenges.   

In the pilot phase of expanding Move to Include beyond WXXI, the station worked with Iowa PBS; Oregon Public Broadcasting; WFYI in Indianapolis; WCNY in Syracuse, N.Y.; and WGCU in Ft. Myers, Fla. Each station organized community partnerships, created content and promoted the initiative. Lessons learned from the pilot program led to the creation of a station resource guide that outlines best practices for similar disability-focused work for public media organizations across the country. 

“With the pilot program, we really had a chance to test out the core and all of the tent poles of the initiative in five other markets with five other stations that are all completely different,” said Erin McCormack, WXXI’s assistant vice president and EP of television.

With the new grant, Move to Include will hire a full-time project manager who will launch a campaign to promote the initiative to stations and who will oversee the partners. McCormack said WXXI is looking for someone who is skilled at building relationships and is familiar with public media and disability-related issues.

The Golisano Foundation’s funding will also support the continuation of the Inclusion Desk and the creation of documentaries, TV programming and special events. Costello said the foundation will probably consider continuing to fund Move to Include after the five-year grant ends. 

WXXI’s Silverstein said he has seen firsthand the impact of the station’s work. “I realized this really affected and touched a lot more people than we even realized when we started the project,” he said.

Through the initiative, Silverstein said, he has met people who share that they have a family member with a disability and who want to learn more about WXXI’s coverage of disability-related issues. 

Public media’s role is to ensure that topics that are sometimes undercovered are at the forefront of the conversation, McCormack said.

“Our role is to carry the message, the stories, the impact, the data, and the resources to the public as consistently, insistently and carefully as possible,” she said. 

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