Remarks in Honor of the 26th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Special Briefing
Judith E. Heumann
Special Advisor for International Disability Rights 
Washington, DC
July 26, 2016

MS TRUDEAU: Thank you, everyone, and welcome to the State Department. It is an extraordinary pleasure today, in honor of the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, to introduce State Department Special Advisor for International Disability Rights Judy Heumann. Special Advisor Heumann is an internationally recognized leader in the human rights community and a lifelong advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. Special Advisor previously served as an assistant secretary at the Department of Education, and as the World Bank’s first advisor on disability and development. She is also the co-founder of both the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California, and the World Institute on Disability.

She started her current role at the Department of State in 2010, a post created following the U.S. signature of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In this role, the Special Advisor has made countless trips abroad, engaging our embassies, foreign governments, and members of civil society on issues pertaining to the rights of disabled persons. Notably, she has also been a leader on Administration efforts for the U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – a treaty that will help us to influence other countries to adopt disability laws and practices that rise to U.S. standards, as well as expand opportunities for Americans with disabilities who wish to serve, study, work, or travel overseas, including our veterans and wounded warriors. Special Advisor Heumann is the only senior advisor focused on disability-inclusive diplomacy at any foreign ministry anywhere in the world.

With that, Special Advisor, it’s a pleasure to have you here today, ma’am.

MS HEUMANN: Thank you very much. Good afternoon. First, I wish to extend condolences from the White House, Secretary Kerry, Ambassador Kennedy and myself to the families and victims of the recent killings of disabled people in Japan. We mourn with them today.

As you know, today is the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. For me personally and for more than 52 million disabled people in the U.S., the ADA is our Emancipation Proclamation. The ADA and other laws have had a profound effect on the lives of disabled people here and around the world. The ADA and other – over the course of my life, growing up in Brooklyn, New York, I’ve experienced denial of admission to public school because I was considered a fire hazard. I have seen communities without ramps on corners, inaccessible buses, and trains being transformed. Today, I take an accessible bus and train to and from work, something unthinkable only a few decades ago. Today, being denied a job as a teacher, as I was in the early 1970s because I couldn’t walk, would clearly be considered discrimination under the ADA.

Today, the ADA generation knows that they have rights to education, employment, equal access in a way my generation only dreamt about and fought for. The U.S. is not perfect, as we all know in many ways. We are, however, a model for the world, demonstrating that disabled people working and fighting for equality can exert great influence, persuading our Congress of their obligation to pass the ADA. As the Special Advisor, it is my responsibility to ensure that we are leading by example. Sharing our experiences around the world with our embassies and our consulates allows civil society, disability communities, government, and the media to see what and how we have been able to make our achievements.

According to the World Bank and the World Health Organization, at least 15 percent of the world’s population are people with disabilities. One billion people and 80 percent live in developing countries. We're talking about people with visible and invisible disabilities – people like myself who had polio, those who are deaf or blind or have an intellectual disability or diabetes or depression or post-traumatic stress disorder or HIV/AIDS, on and on.

We recognize that each country’s situation is unique, but there are themes that are common to all countries: the need for adoption of comprehensive nondiscrimination laws that cover both the public and private sectors; the need for adoption and enforcement of accessibility standards; the need for laws to be effectively enforced across the board; the need to ensure that students with disabilities have access to quality education with their peers; and the need to combat violence and abuse against disabled people.

Linked to many of these themes is the overarching issue of disability stigma – the shaming of disabled people by societies, the fear of the unknown, and the fear of many non-disabled people that they could become like me or other disabled people whose lives they believe cannot be equal to theirs. But we can’t wait to change people’s attitudes before we implement strong laws aimed at protecting and advancing the rights of disabled people. We have seen that the removal of barriers results in people recognizing that disability is not a tragedy. Through strong laws, we are changing people’s views on what we as disabled people can contribute to our societies.

I want to briefly highlight some examples of the department’s accomplishments in promoting disability rights. With our Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, we have collaborated on a range of exchange programs, including the very successful 2013 EMPOWER partnership program, which had representatives from 19 countries in all geographic regions involved in two-way exchanges to promote disability rights. We’re promoting long-term, bilateral dialogue with countries such as China, with whom we have now held two very productive U.S.-China Coordination Meetings on Disability, one here in Washington and one in Beijing. We are also working with the Chinese and the APEC region, through the Group of Friends mechanism, which we both were founders of.

We continue to encourage our embassies and our consulates to learn from disabled people in their communities, to invite people into our embassies and consulates in order to be informed about the barriers that disabled people are experiencing, so we can more robustly work on diplomatic engagement.

The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor is proud to fund what we call the RightsNow! project, launched in 2014 with six countries. It is empowering disabled people to effectively advocate for implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in their countries. We continue to strengthen the congressionally mandated Country Reports on Human Rights or Human Rights Reports to provide more robust coverage of human rights abuses experienced by persons with disabilities.

Today, over 160 countries have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – this treaty, which was inspired by the core principles and objectives of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Today, more than ever, it is important for us to seize the opportunities presented by the treaty to improve the lives of the millions of disabled people around the world. In doing so, we must shine a light on the discrimination disabled people face as well as the opportunities for change. I encourage all of you to examine how you, too, can be inclusive of disability in your work.

Thank you.

MS TRUDEAU: That’s great. I want to thank the special advisor for joining us today. And we look forward to having you back.