Promoting the human rights of persons with disabilities has been a key objective of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration both at home and internationally.
“Disability rights are not abstract concepts” wrote Secretary of State John Kerry. “They are about things you can see and touch that make a difference. They are about sidewalks with curb cuts; public buildings with accessible bathrooms; restaurants, stores, hotels, and universities with ramps and elevator access; buses with lifts; and train platforms with tactile strips.”
Judy Heumann is the United States’ first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights. She came to the State Department to help implement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities — which the U.S. is a signatory to. During her tenure, she has used diplomacy to promote disability rights worldwide:
“According to the World Bank and the World Health Organization at least 15 percent of the world’s population have disabilities…
When you are excluding a large percentage of a population, it has economic implications on the country, needless economic consequences … We try to work both with civil societies in other countries and government to make them recognize that disabled people can make the same contributions as other people if those barriers are removed.”
Special Advisor Heumann, who is herself a wheelchair rider, has traveled to nearly 40 countries to engage governments and civil society on disability rights. Her team has worked to empower the voices of Disabled Peoples Organizations, helping them to help their governments draft laws that protect disabled persons from discrimination. She has worked within the State Department to expand visitors and exchange programs so that government and non-governmental representatives can learn first-hand how the Americans with Disabilities Act is implemented in the United States.
Special Advisor Heumann and her team have trained State Department staff to create more inclusive environments in U.S. embassies and to recognize and document abuses of disability rights in some countries for inclusion in the Congressionally mandated Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.
“Our work,” said Special Advisor Heumann “Is to encourage disabled people to fight for their rights, to give them their needed information on how to do it … [and] to encourage governments to do ultimately what I think they realize is the right thing.”