Telephonic Press Briefing with Judith Heumann, Special Advisor for International Disability Rights, U.S. Department of State

April 13, 2016

Click here to listen to the audio file

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by. Welcome to the briefing on International Disability Rights. At this time all participants are in a listen-only mode. Later we will conduct a question and answer session. Instructions will be given at that time. Should you require assistance during the call, please press * then 0. As a reminder, this conference is being recorded. I would now like to turn the conference over to our host, Cynthia Gire, U.S. Department of State, Office of International Media Engagement. Please go ahead.

MODERATOR: Thank you, and greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Media Engagement. I would like to welcome our journalists who have dialed in from throughout the Asia Pacific. Today we are joined by Judith Heumann, Special Advisor for International Disability Rights here at the U.S. Department of State. Today, Special Advisor Heumann will brief us on her visit to China as the head of the U.S. Delegation to the U.S. – China Coordination Meeting on Disability, and talk about her role on protecting and promoting the rights of persons with disabilities around the world. I appreciate all of you taking the time to participate in today’s briefing. Special Advisor Heumann will be speaking to us from Beijing, China. She will begin with opening remarks. We will then open it up to your questions. And with that, I turn it over to the Special Advisor.

SPEAKER: Thank you very much, Cynthia and I would like to welcome all of you for joining us today. Let me briefly give you a little information about myself, and then the work that I am doing at the State Department. So, I am a wheelchair user and I am 68 ½ years old and I had polio in 1949 in the United States. At that time in the United States we really had no laws in place that guaranteed disabled people like myself the right to education or the right to be able to access our communities like my brothers and my family and others. What that basically meant was that I did not actually begin to attend school until I was nine years-old and I did go through elementary school and high school, did attend undergraduate school and pursued a career in education where I ultimately had to file a lawsuit against the Board of Education and the City of New York for denying me the right to a job based on my inability to walk. We were able to settle that case and I did, in fact, become a teacher and taught in Brooklyn, New York, for three years in elementary school. I then went on to California and got my graduate degree and I have spent the last number of decades working about 20 years with civil society advocacy organizations run by disabled individuals and I’ve worked in government and the World Bank for the last 20 years.

I give you this information because I think it is relevant to understand that in the United States, like in countries around the world, disabled individuals have been fighting very hard to be able to be not only in legislation that governments develop to give us the right to participate in life in general; but, also to be able to get our laws effectively implemented. We’ve seen great rewards that are coming as we saw with the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006 in New York and now there are more than 160 countries that have ratified the treaty. The United States has not yet ratified the treaty but the President and the Administration fully support ratification of the treaty. We believe that the disability rights treaty really is helping to strengthen the voices of disabled individuals around the world like in China and Asia Pacific countries as disabled people are working to develop effective legislation with ultimate implementation which, over time, will help remove barriers that really –as these barriers exist – really limited opportunities for equality in our countries.

The discussions that we held yesterday here in Beijing were the second discussions. We had a similar meeting last year in Washington, DC, where delegations from the U.S. and China have gotten together. The discussions this week focused significantly on the issue of legislation that our countries have that are centered on rights for disabled individuals as well as specifically looking at issues around education for disabled children and adults and employment. The U.S. Delegation was a diverse delegation composed of people from civil society organizations and government, including disabled and non-disabled individuals in various levels of positions to meet with the Chinese and be able to share information on the progress that we have been making in the United States as well as the existing barriers that we are still working to overcome. We very much emphasized the importance of a robust civil society, the ability for civil society organizations to be able to licensed and effectively function in China and other countries; because, we see in the U.S. that the voices of disabled individuals through our civil society organizations and parent organizations, working with government, in what I describe as a “healthy tension” between civil society and government is really what has enabled us to get laws like the Americans With Disabilities Act and many others to be passed and implemented.

We’ve seen important changes in issues regarding disabled children attending school. About 60% of all disabled children in the United States who have needs for special education services are spending 80% or more of their day in a regular classroom setting. We are seeing very positive outcomes not just for disabled children but for non-disabled children as well. And data that we have – which we believe is important in Asia Pacific countries – to understand that whereas people have fears about the inclusion of disabled children in regular classroom settings because they believe that the performance of non-disabled children will be adversely affected. We, in fact, are finding that that’s absolutely not true. Quite to the contrary. And that we shared information with the Chinese about issues in the area of employment, including certification, teacher training, etc. We did also emphasize our concerns about the Foreign NGO Management Law which is being considered in China because we believe that if that were to advance that it would further limit the voices of disabled individuals which we think, obviously, is really not in the best interest of Chinese disabled people or society overall. So, I am happy to take questions.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s event. For those asking questions, please state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to today’s topic: international disability rights and the U.S. – China Coordination Meeting on Disability. With that I will just remind you to press * 1 on your phone to join the question queue. With that we will start with the first question from Suzan Ahmad from Malaysia.

REPORTER: Hello. My name is Suzan Ahmad and I am calling from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My question would be in many low-income countries where disability is treated as say stigma. People with disabilities face discrimination in all aspects of life. So how do we combat this injustice? Thank you.

SPEAKER: Very well put. And thank you for this very important question. I think as you know, stigma against disabled people, or religious minorities, or people from the LGBT community and others face significant stigmatization and ultimately, discrimination. In the area of disability, I believe that it is very important that we start at the very local level and that we get the leaders in local communities to be working more effectively with disabled children and adults and their parents to really help dispel the myths that people believe about disabled individuals. I’ve seen some-- when I was India a number of years ago --a project called the Commitments Project which was in Hyderabad, Ander Pradesh, a really wonderful program, where, at the very, very, grassroots level, disabled individuals were organizing. They were meeting with the leaders in their villages, and beginning to have discussions with village leaders about their ability to make meaningful contributions in their communities in spite of various disabilities that they may have. And I remember asking one of the people from this program what are some of the changes that happened and one of the gentlemen said to me -- that people were calling him by his name. And I heard that very frequently – that disabled individuals in many communities get called disparaging names and do not get called their names so it really adversely effects and permeates so many aspects in a country. Not just the individual disabled person; but, the family is also stigmatized for having a disabled family member and it goes on and on and on.

I believe government and civil society – not just disabled people’s organizations, but the religious communities and other leaders need to be speaking out with positive messages about the importance of diversity. And that through those types of systemic efforts plus I think we have seen in countries around the world where there are laws which prevent discrimination, where you can’t prevent people from having negative attitudes and stigmatizing disabled individuals, by removing barriers such as when communities are being built up – where roads are being constructed, housing is being developed, etc., making sure that those are accessible. Enabling disabled children to go to school with their counterparts without disabilities. Being able to work in the formal and informal sectors. Where people in the work that I do can break bread together and can really get a much more clear understanding that I may use a wheelchair, someone may have a mental health disability or intellectual disability or diabetes, epilepsy or HIV or whatever it may be. We all have contributions to make to our communities and we need to do it together. Working together I think is the way that we begin to slowly change people’s negative views and fears. I think it goes without saying that non-disabled people are fearful of becoming disabled. And I think that is something that really, also strongly continues to have people looking at us in a disparaging way. We like to talk about it as a way of ensuring that our communities become more accessible and accessible, and ensuring that if one does acquire a disability because of age or whatever may cause it that their lives can continue to move forward without them becoming relegated as second class citizens.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Stephanie Scawen from Al Jazeera in Malaysia.

REPORTER: Hello there. Hi. As a wheelchair user myself, in Kuala Lumpur, I find it very frustrating just getting around sometimes. When you travel around the region, what do you find are the biggest challenges in the region facing wheelchair users in Asia?

SPEAKER: Well, so. Let me start out by reiterating the fact that I am 68 years old and I grew up in New York and although I clearly understand that Kuala Lumpur and New York City are not the same, I did grow up when I couldn’t use the buttons, there were no ramps on the street. I tell the story that when I was in New York in the 60’s every summer I would take singing practice and I would have to go like 20 blocks in New York City in very very very busy streets, primarily in the street because there weren’t ramps on the corners. So, I really do understand the degree of inconveniences that people face. But I think that really in many ways makes us stronger and as much as I think that we were fighting then as others continue to fight around the world and we too also in the U.S. work to ensure that there are good standards that are established and that those standards are, in fact, implemented. I think that when I keep talking about the importance of enabling disabled people to find their voice and to help people become knowledgeable about the fact that there are countries all over the world, including I am sure in Malaysia, unfortunately, I have never been to Malaysia, where there are ramps that are being put on buildings and on streets. And that enables people to get around the communities. Not just disabled individuals but other people who are older, who are shorter, children, women with baby carriages, etc. So, I like to turn frustration into constructive energy – ensuring that people are really being taught about what is possible. And I think that universities play a very important role in this also making sure that people are studying – for example in fields of architecture, or city planning, that those individuals are also learning to build communities that are universally designed to have positive impact on not just for those of with disabilities but the entire community overall.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Santi Dewi in Indonesia, with Rappler.

REPORTER: Good morning. Thank you very much. I am calling from Jakarta and my name is Santi. My question to you is that what is the lesson that we can learn from America in terms of embracing the rights for people with disabilities. Because recently we just got a case that was exposed nationally where a person with a disability was not allowed to board an international airplane just because he entered the plane alone, not joined by someone else. Because of that it has become a big case in our country. Apparently, right now in our country we still face the truth that many people discriminate against a disability person rather than embracing them as part of our community so what kind of lessons can you share with us about America?

SPEAKER: So, I have a funny story. Not so funny, but, in 1973 or I think it was 1974, I worked for a United States Senator and he was the chairman of a committee and one of the issues that they were looking at were proposed rules or regulations that our Department of Transportation was considering that would have prohibited disabled people like the gentleman you were talking about and myself from being able to fly unaccompanied onto an airplane. So I happened to be staying in Washington, DC, at that time and my family lived in New York and it was a holiday so I had flown to New York by myself and I can’t walk and I, you know, need assistance. So, I was flying back to Washington, DC, I had something called the Federal Register, which is a publication that comes out with proposed regulations and part of my job was to review these particular regulations that had that provision. What ultimately up happened was that I was boarding onto the plane and then they told me that I was going to have to have someone on the plane who would be able to assist me in case of emergency and obviously I was not going to buy a ticket for somebody else. But the gentleman sitting next to me said that he would act as my person, support person, and I refused because I said in the event of an emergency, there would be other people that wouldn’t be able to get off of the plane by themselves and so ultimately I got arrested, got taken off of the plane. When the police officers that arrested me found out that I was working for the Senator, they actually never pressed charges, but it allowed me to file a lawsuit against the airline. They settled out of court.

Today, in the United States, we have a law – and you can look it up – the Air Carrier Access Act, the ACAA. The ACAA clearly would make the practice that you just discussed, not legal. And if in fact the person would have been flying on a carrier coming to the United States (inaudible). Most countries do not have laws as strict as the United States when it comes to airline travel but I really do encourage you to look at the Air Carrier Access Act and look at the provisions. The bottom line is the U.S. has developed many, many, laws over the years – many of them strong – they community would argue that they could be stronger, but with reasonably good enforcement and in the case of airline travel certainly we still have issues, but a person that believes that they have been discriminated against can file a complaint with our federal department of transportation and get a remedy if something like what occurred in your country would have occurred in ours. There would have been a remedy and the airline would be held, would have to address the problem.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Michael Delizo in Manila.

REPORTER: This is Michael Delizo of the Manila Times and my question is what are the major issues that you notice in China when it comes to protecting the rights of people with disabilities?

SPEAKER: I would say that there are a series of issues which are not exclusive to China. Some issues are more particular around China. Let me say that I think that China is a very large country. There are many people living in rural communities, many individuals have not yet gotten the kinds of support that they need. Children, for example, not yet in school and employment being a very big issue. I would say that China like the U.S. in the past and other countries they’re still dealing with the issue of segregation, many children attending segregated schools although in the meeting that we had yesterday the people from various educational ministries were talking about their support for inclusive education. I think stigma is still a very big issue in China where there is a fear of disabled children going to regular schools. Disabled people are not attending universities as they should be but I think the Chinese are aware of this they’ve made changes over the last couple of years and the Gao Kao is now enabling disabled people who are blind and have other disabilities take the admissions exam I think, like in the U.S. in the 60’s and 70’s, when are laws started to come into force, it will be very important for the government to ensure, for example on the issue of admissions, that colleges, that students are in fact not discriminated against. They may be able to take the Gao Kao but we need to make sure that they are not being discriminated against for admission into universities. And I think that the issue of employment is a very big problem. A lot of segregated employment there is a quota system in China. Which, I think has some benefit to it but also many companies are not identifying disabled people who meet the qualifications for employment in some cases because they are not getting the education that they need and in some cases the employer still needs to understand that disabled people can do many of the jobs that they have to offer. I would also say that we’ve spoken with the Chinese about the construction of segregated schools which we believe is not a positive direction to move forward in and also I believe that institutions for people with psycho-social disabilities are not the way to move forward. Community-based organizations are what we believe are very important and what I said earlier the need to have a more robust civil society, with NGO’s that are not part of government, that are free standing, like in our country and in many other countries around the world, we believe will ultimately help ensure that disabled people can obtain the human rights that they deserve.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our final question is from Benyao from the China Review Agency. And I know that you have to go, Special Advisor Heumann.

REPORTER: We have noticed that the State Department has just issued an International Women of Courage Award to one of the Chinese disabled activists whose name is Ni Yulan. And my question is that if the talk with your Chinese counterpart has covered this issue and if there is any progress on this issue. And do you think these sensitive issues will influence the future cooperation between China and the United States. Thanks.

SPEAKER: We did not discuss this issue at our meeting yesterday. Certainly it is an issue that has been discussed in other channels. And it is correct to say that the Secretary did grant an award to Yulan.

MODERATOR: Any closing words before we close the call?

SPEAKER: I really appreciate all of your interest and we are certainly always available to talk with reporters individually, however you would like, and try to provide you with information as follow up questions. And I really appreciate the time you all took to do this.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. And I will turn it back over to the operator.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, this conference will be made available for replay. You may access the AT&T Replay Service internationally by dialing 1-320-365-3844 and enter the access code 385901. US is 1-800-475-6701 and enter the access code 385901. That does conclude our conference for today. Thank you for your participation in using AT&T Executive Teleconference Service. You may now disconnect.