International Day of Persons With Disabilities

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
December 3, 2016

SECRETARY KERRY: Hello everyone. On behalf of the entire State Department, I am really pleased to join in recognizing the 25th annual International Day set aside to honor the one billion people around the world who have disabilities.

Here in the United States, after many, many years of discrimination and delay, we have finally made substantial progress in ensuring that persons with disabilities are able to exercise their full rights. And I remember early, symbolic actions such as the effort to create a Wheelchair Division for the Boston Marathon in my home town. As a senator, I had many meetings with advocates who spoke with great dignity and clarity about the importance of making our country more accessible. And I will never forget the day that their diligent efforts broke through and President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act – the ADA – into law.

That historic, bipartisan legislation, which I was proud to co-sponsor, has played a critical role in making the United States more inclusive, productive, and prosperous. It has enabled our nation to benefit more fully from the energy and the talents of persons with disabilities. It has encouraged disabled people to be ambitious about what they can expect to accomplish at work and in life. It’s really changed things for people in a profound way. And it has galvanized people and governments around the world to see disability through the lens not of charity, but of equality and justice. Since its passage, many other countries have used the ADA as a model to enact their own statutes, and the principles underlying it inspired the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which entered into force in 2008.

We often think of human rights in theoretical terms, but for persons with disabilities the concept could not be more tangible. It finds its expression in a sidewalk with curb cuts; a public building with accessible entrances and bathrooms; a bus with lifts; an elevator with Braille and audio cues; a train platform with tactile strips; and students with intellectual and development disabilities being included in classes with non-disabled children.

Disabilities have many causes and the principle of equal access is the same in all cases, but we have a particular obligation to members of our armed forces who returned to our shores with lost limbs or other grave injuries – and to the victims of conflict. As Secretary of State, I have traveled to many countries where the manufacture of prostheses is a major industry, and where children are at daily risk of landmines. On my first trip to Bogota as Secretary, I met with soldiers, police, and civilians who had all been victimized in that country’s long civil war and who were – with help from USAID – doing their best to rebuild their lives.

Stories like this help explain why support for disability rights has become a core element of U.S. foreign policy. And it’s why, at the State Department, we include critical information on the issue in our annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. It’s why President Obama appointed Judy Heumann to work with diplomats across the globe as our first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights. It’s why we promote the hiring of men and women with disabilities, and why we created an Office of Accessibility and Accommodations to ensure access to reasonable accommodations in the workplace. It’s also why we back Mobility International’s project to promote enforcement of disability rights in countries from Armenia and Kenya to Vietnam, Peru, Mexico, and Guatemala. It’s why we support a range of educational and cultural exchange programs that specifically include opportunities for people with disabilities. And it’s why the Obama Administration has repeatedly called on our Senate to approve ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Leading the way on this issue is the right role for the United States, but it’s also meaningful to me personally.

My father’s sister had polio and she went to Warm Springs, Georgia for treatment. There the family became acquainted with another patient – Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1933, my father was on a train that carried a large delegation of Warm Spring patients to Washington for FDR’s inauguration as president in the very depths of the Great Depression. Then a teenager, my father was among the first group received in the White House following the celebratory parade. Standing behind his sister’s wheelchair, he watched as the curtains parted and FDR entered on his son James’ arm, rocking awkwardly from side to side with his braces locked at the knees. My dad’s sister did not survive her polio, but FDR – who could not himself stand unaided – would not rest until he had put our entire nation back on its feet through his wisdom and courage.

The lesson in that history could not be simpler. Discrimination may create obstacles, but overcoming obstacles is often the truest measure of character and leadership. Any society that aspires to greatness will do all it can to harness the contributions of people with disabilities by creating a legal and physical environment where that is possible.

The United States of America has been a leader in that effort, but we should not be, we cannot be, complacent because there is much more that we can do and that we must do. We believe in the fundamental rights and dignity of every human being. Only by living up to that principle, by supporting the rights of disabled people, can we ultimately be true to ourselves.