Advancing Disability Rights Worldwide Through Exchanges

Posted by Judith Heumann
May 29, 2013
Civil Society Leaders Address Disability Rights Through the Empower Program in Washington, DC

President Obama has proclaimed that international disability rights should be at the heart of our nation’s foreign policy.  The State Department has put that declaration to work in our public diplomacy efforts around the world in many of our exchange programs.

Just this week, I had the pleasure of meeting with 34 disability rights advocates from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Tajikistan, and Uganda who were in the United States as part of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affair’s Empower program.  They had the opportunity to work side-by-side with disability rights advocates here in the United States, in month-long fellowships ranging from the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities in Chicago, to the American School for the Deaf in Connecticut, to the Assistive Technology Resource Centers in Hawaii.  They were able to experience first-hand the diversity of the United States, and the work being done to protect and promote the rights of persons with disabilities across the country.

Disability-inclusive diplomacy efforts like the Empower program put persons with disabilities at the core of work being done to promote the rights of persons with disabilities around the world.  These young advocates are future world leaders.  Meeting with advocates from other countries enables them to build a broad network of people like themselves, who are fighting for enjoyment of human rights, and to create societies that are more just, equitable and inclusive of persons with disabilities.

We believe persons with disabilities and their families have a role to play in strengthening democracy around the world.  Our ability to be educated, to move into the world of work as equals, and to live independently in lives we create for ourselves, requires the kind of democracies that treat all citizens as equals.

In the United States, we have some of the strongest laws in the world, ensuring our rights as disabled people.  These laws are the result of a cross-disability civil society movement that has worked with local, state and federal government on development and effective implementation.  However, these laws are a work in progress, as they are in many countries around the world.  At the State Department, we are committed to the inclusion of disabled people in our exchange programs, to ensure that they have the opportunity to learn from each other, and to learn from our experiences here in the United States.  In the end we are all stronger and more knowledgeable.

The Empower program is one example of the work the State Department is doing to promote disability-inclusive diplomacy.  It is my hope and expectation that those who participate leave the United States having made friends who will continue to work with them as they return to their countries.  Together, our combined efforts are improving the lives of the more than one billion disabled people around the world.

About the Author: Judith Heumann serves as Special Advisor on International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State.

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