Remarks at a High-Level Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on Disability and Development

John Kerry
Secretary of State
United Nations
New York City
September 23, 2013

Good morning. And it’s a great pleasure for me to be able to be here with all of you, an honor to be here for my first high-level meeting at the United Nations General Assembly as Secretary of State.

Before we begin, I want to just reiterate that we are monitoring very closely and with great concern the situation in Kenya. Ruthless and valueless terrorists remain a serious challenge everywhere in the world, as we all know, whether it’s in downtown Manhattan or in a mall in Nairobi or anywhere else in the world, and all of us have a responsibility to remain vigilant. We stand with the Kenyan people. The President has talked to their President; I’ve talked to their Foreign Minister. They are a resilient people, and they will need the world’s support in the coming difficult days.

But the bottom line is that this tragedy is a reminder, a terrible reminder, to all of us that we all share a stake in one another. And that is especially important to keep in mind as the international community prepares to renew the development goals for 2015 and beyond. What happens in one country, we are reminded day to day, matters to many others, to all of us. And what matters in one culture has to be considered elsewhere. That is a bottom line with respect to the topic that we are discussing here today. The way we treat people of all backgrounds, including how we treat disabled and non-disabled alike, this is how we demonstrate our values, and it’s how we define who we are.

Through our development agenda, we have a very important opportunity to show the world that we value everyone’s contributions, and that we leave no one behind, including those with disabilities. It is clear, and we have seen here in the United States over the last years, that we can make an enormous number of lives better in that process.

The principle behind this is really very, very simple: Our societies, all of our societies, are stronger when every single one of our citizens, able bodied and disabled alike, all get to live up to their full potential. And that’s why here in our country, many states have established standards, and they steadfastly enforce them – laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, which we passed in 1990 and we believe is really a gold standard with respect to how we treat people and how we open up the world for opportunities. We encourage the international community to look at, study, and, hopefully, emulate this law.

Thanks to laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, nearly one in five Americans are now protected from disability-based discrimination, and all Americans benefit from the contributions of our fellow citizens with disabilities. We see this every day in everyday life in the workplace, in schools, in education all across our nation.

Thanks to other groundbreaking non-discrimination laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, nearly 60 percent of students with disabilities are in general education classrooms for 80 percent or more of their school day. Nearly 350,000 infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families now receive early intervention services. And more than 6.6 million children and youth receive special education and related services designed to meet their individual needs.

This year the Federal Communications Commission issued the first-ever National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program in order to help meet the needs of deaf-blind individuals. And since then, hundreds of deaf-blind individuals have gained access to communication technologies through this program, allowing them to lead independent lives and stay connected with their family members and their friends.

In too many countries, however, we still see the rights and the dignity that we have been blessed to be able to now almost take for granted, that it is not existent in many of those places. So as we work to ensure equal access to public spaces, communications technology, education, and more, and though we’ve seen progress internationally, everybody here knows that we still have a lot to do.

Though disabled persons comprise 15 percent of the world, 8 in 10 live in developing countries. And there’s obvious reasons for that. And in those developing countries, 9 out of 10 children with disabilities don’t go to school. Compared with 5 or 10 years ago, many more countries now have laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, and many more countries require buildings to be accessible. But all countries, we believe, can work harder to enforce these laws, and to ensure that disabled people have as much right and ability to access their local supermarket or their school or even election booths.

Frankly, this is as much an economic issue as it is a human rights issue. But it is also profoundly a family issue, a personal issue, and a moral issue. None of the change that is needed is possible without the partnerships that we’re building at the international level, including meetings like this, where the world can come together to learn from each other’s experience of how we can make rights a reality for disabled people. No one can forget, however, that the most important partnerships we build are, in the end, those that we build with persons with disabilities themselves. We cannot afford to forget that disabled individuals are not only the beneficiaries of development efforts and investments, but they are also leaders, and they are the agents of progress. And they do so on an equal basis with others.

I’m honored today to be joined by Judith Heumann and Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, who are well known to you all as longtime leaders in the international disability movement. We’re honored that they have brought their expertise and leadership into our government to guide United States policy and practice that leaves no one behind in our diplomacy or in our development, including persons with disabilities.

So we’re here because we see the possibilities of diplomacy, the promise of development, and the potential of every single person. And in fact, I think all of us understand and we have learned gracefully in our country that the possibilities are, frankly, unlimited. So I hope everyone will leave here with a commitment to do everything that we can to make sure that we are pursuing the policies of inclusivity and that we mean it when we say we will not leave anyone behind. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

PRN: 2013/1159