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Celebrating International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State, Judith Heumann reflects on the progress we've made to advance disability rights.
“The changes achieved in the last two decades speak to what people can accomplish when they refuse to accept the world as it is. Today let us once again reach for the world that should be -- one where all people, regardless of country or disability, enjoy equal access, equal opportunity, and the freedom to realize their limitless potential.”
An interpreter signs in the foreground while President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden, delivers remarks during a reception for the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the East Room of the White House, July 20, 2015.
An interpreter signs in the foreground while President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden, delivers remarks during a recetion for the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the East Room of the White House, July 20, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities -- a day to unify around ensuring a better, more equitable world. An annual celebration promoted by the United Nations since 1992, the day is dedicated to helping spread awareness and understanding of disability issues while championing the extraordinary achievements and contributions of persons with disabilities across the globe. 

This year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities theme is dedicated to assessing the current status of Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, which lay foundation to create a more inclusive and diverse future.

Currently, around 1 billion people live with a disability, making up around 15 percent of the world's total population. Since taking office, President Obama has been committed to nurturing a society that values the contributions of all citizens, at home and abroad -- from expanding educational and employment opportunities for people with disabilities, to enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act, to increasing accessibility to innovation and technology, to signing the CRPD. Read more on our progress here.

While we have come a long way as a society since the first International Day of Persons with Disabilities 24 years ago -- but we still have more work to do in combating discrimination and removing the barriers that remain.

A lifelong advocate for disability rights, Judith Heumann is internationally recognized leader in the disability community and a lifelong civil rights advocate for disadvantaged people. Heumann currently serves as Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State, a position that President Obama created and appointed her to in 2010.

We had the chance to ask Heumann some important questions about the progress we’ve made under the Obama administration, how you can get involved, and where we can go from here. Check out her answers below: 

How did you first become involved with the disability rights movement?

"When I applied for my first job as a teacher, I was initially denied my certification simply because I could not walk."

As a child, I, like more than 1 million other American children with disabilities, did not have the benefit of attending inclusive schools. Although access to quality education is critical to an individual’s future employment prospects, we were not allowed to attend school. I was nine years old before I went to school and even then I was placed in classes only for disabled children. 

Although I later attended university and earned my Bachelor’s degree, levels of inaccessibility prevalent at that time made it clear that employment was not something our government anticipated we would have. When I applied for my first job as a teacher, I was initially denied my certification simply because I could not walk. I went to court and sued the Board of Education to obtain my certificate to teach, and finally did get a job teaching elementary school children.

As a person with a significant disability who uses a motorized wheelchair and is able to travel extensively, I have been able to set an example to others in the U.S. and around the world about what it is possible to achieve. I learned from my parents early on that I have to have high expectations, and as a result I don't take no for an answer.  By sharing those high expectations with other people, together we've been able to really make dramatic changes here and around the world.

What are some ways you have worked to improve rights, equality, and inclusion for persons with disabilities as the Special Advisor for International Disability Rights and why is this role so important?

The Department of State conducts our nation's foreign relations, engaging not only with foreign governments, but also with media, universities, business, and civil society. We address a broad range of global issues, including human rights, and I have used my time as Special Advisor to expand disability rights-related work across the Department of State and integrate that into our human rights diplomacy. 

We secured policy guidance on the importance of promoting disability inclusive diplomacy as a key part of U.S. foreign policy from Secretaries Clinton and Kerry. Our Foreign Service, Civil Service, and Locally Employed Staff are more active than ever in addressing the breadth of disabilities and identifying human rights violations toward people with disabilities, including trafficking of and violence against people with disabilities.

I have engaged Chiefs of Mission about using disability rights to reach important audiences, and secured support for marking the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and related recognition events. As a result, we have more comprehensive reporting on human rights abuses faced by persons with disabilities in the congressionally mandated Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.  We have worked with likeminded states to elevate disability rights work within APEC and OSCE. We also participated in securing critical references to persons with disabilities in the revised World Bank Safeguards, Sustainable Development Goals, and numerous UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council resolutions.  

Was there a particular moment made you realize you wanted to work for this administration?

I have had so many. One moment to highlight was President Obama's commitment that the U.S. ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. While the Senate failed to recommend that the President ratify the CRPD, the efforts of his administration never faltered. He believes that laws like the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, are examples of why the U.S. is a world leader in removing barriers and discrimination on the basis of disability. He is still committed to the ratification, and I do hope that the next Congress will recognize the importance of our ratification and act accordingly.

How have you seen this administration move the ball forward?

In 2010, President Obama issued Executive Order 13548, which calls upon federal government departments and agencies to improve recruitment, hiring, retention, and advancement of persons with disabilities. Government agencies developed plans and published statistics on progress toward achieving the goals of the Executive Order. In 2012, total permanent employment in the federal government for persons with disabilities had increased to 11.89 piercent, with more people with disabilities in federal service both in real terms and by percentage than at any time in the past 32 years.

In the State Department, I am also encouraged by the increase in the number of new hires with disabilities. The support of Secretaries Clinton and Kerry has been instrumental in making this progress. The Department this year created the Office of Accessibility & Accommodations to strengthen our ongoing provision of reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, and increase access to physical and virtual workspaces. 

What are some of the challenges you have faced?

"The World Bank estimates that there are 1 billion people -- 15 percent of the world’s population -- with disabilities."

Integrating disability rights into the Department’s human rights work has been a welcome challenge, and much has been accomplished in my six and a half years as the Special Advisor. The position of the Special Advisor is in itself an achievement – putting the issues of disability rights on the map, on the agenda for our work in bilateral and multilateral settings. We have worked office by office, bureau by bureau in Washington, and with our diplomatic missions overseas, to show how the U.S. record on disability rights and our advocacy for raising standards internationally can be a powerful tool for U.S. global leadership. I have tried to lead by example, and have benefited from the President’s personal commitment to inclusion as well as cooperation throughout the Department.

The World Bank estimates that there are 1 billion people -- 15 percent of the world’s population -- with disabilities. That is why efforts such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities are vital. Over 165 countries have signed on to the convention, and I am looking forward to additional ratifications, including by the United States.  We have found, in our activities worldwide, that the CRPD has increased the empowerment of persons with disabilities and expanded disability rights movements. The State Department has increased its engagement with these groups, supporting the development of vibrant organizations within broader civil society.  This role is key to moving beyond the signature and ratification stage to the more important tasks of enacting implementing legislation and enforcing policies and standards that protect the rights of persons with disabilities. 

What do you see as the future of the disability rights movement both here at home and abroad?

When we talk about disabled people and the disability rights movement, it is very important to keep in mind the broad range of people including those of us with physical disabilities as well as those with developmental, intellectual, or psychosocial disabilities. All disabled people have the right to enjoy our human rights on an equal basis with others in all areas of our lives, including in our access to education, employment, and the ability to participate as full citizens in our respective societies.

I would also ask that we -- all of us, not just people in the disability rights community -- look at issues through a lens of disability, rather than looking at specific issues separately, or as only issues for the disabled community. And by that, I mean that we need to look at how cross-cutting issues impact persons with disabilities -- not for special treatment, but because the way we approach them for the disabled community can help inform the approach we take for everyone.

For example, how we protect the rights of disabled victims of violence can improve how we protect all those who are vulnerable to violence.  Improving educational and health care services, and training of professionals for services to persons with disabilities, can improve institutional capacity for all citizens, both now and into the future. In the area of accessibility, breaking barriers provides opportunities to those individuals who have difficulty walking, or who may have baby carriages, or who may have shopping carts or are carrying things that are heavy. Ramps on corners help everyone. Accessible buses and accessible trains help people all over the world, and accessible buildings -- including accessible bathrooms, things having Braille on them -- that helps everyone also.  

How can Americans help advance human rights for persons with disabilities and get involved as advocates in their communities this International Day of Persons with Disabilities?

"I have also observed that when disabled people from other countries come to the United States, when they leave the United States, one of the things they say is how they don’t feel different, regardless of their disability."

As the world becomes smaller through globalization, it is critically important that the U.S. exercise its hard-earned leadership in expanding the recognition of the rights of disabled individuals. Ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), among its benefits, will help veterans and civilians have equal opportunities overseas to what their non-disabled peers have, such as the ability to study abroad, the ability to travel abroad, and the ability to work abroad. 

I have also observed that when disabled people from other countries come to the United States, when they leave the United States, one of the things they say is how they don’t feel different, regardless of their disability. They feel that they can move around the community, that they’re not disenfranchised from being here. And I think that’s a very positive thing to say, that our laws, when effectively implemented over time, not only are removing physical barriers and barriers in other areas, but through the removal of these barriers are enabling people to come together across the country and really value each other for who we are, not for our sexual preference, our race, disability, et cetera. Most people, of course, are not engaged in international diplomacy, but are active in their home communities doing what they can to respond to the concerns of persons with disabilities.

I would ask that people take opportunities -- not only on December 3, as this is a 365-day-a-year challenge -- to listen to their fellow citizens with disabilities, and work with them to find and advance solutions. This is what has made the U.S. a strong model for disability rights advocates around the world, and we can do more to strengthen that model, working together. 

Jazmin Kay is an intern in the Office of Digital Strategy.