"It was an experience that made me feel like a rock star," described Kimberly Tissot, “And it’s only because of how I live life in the U.S. I am independent. I am educated. I’m a mom and I’m in a leadership role and I don’t think that many people in the Dominican Republic had ever seen that. It was very empowering for me and, I hope, for [my partners] as well.”
After having her leg amputated due to a rare childhood cancer, Kimberly became an advocate for disability rights at an early age. She is now the executive director of Able South Carolina in Colombia, South Carolina, where she helps others find practical solutions to live independently. Today, with the help of the Department of State’s EMPOWER Partnership Program, she is taking her leadership as a disability advocate abroad.
Michael Schwartz of Syracuse University’s College of Law, who traveled to Ethiopia in September with EMPOWER, talked of how surprised his hosts were to learn that he -- as a deaf person -- has a pilot’s license and is an avid scuba diver. For him, he said, just explaining how he lives his life without barriers helped his partners in Ethiopia brainstorm ideas for ways they could improve the rights of persons with disabilities in their own country.
Both Kimberly and Michael traveled abroad with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ EMPOWER Partnership Program, a multi-country initiative that pairs advocates in the United States with organizations in 19 countries abroad to promote the rights of persons with disabilities worldwide. This past week in D.C., we got to meet all of the teams -- over 57 organizations -- and learn about their plans for the next phase of this ambitious exchange program as teams begin to implement their projects worldwide.
Kimberly, Michael, and all the EMPOWER Partnership’s U.S. organizations are a great reminder of what American leadership looks like. By sharing their own lives, experiences, and expertise, they are sharing the story of one of the United State’s most important civil rights accomplishments, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. Their stories are a reminder that this change started, first and foremost, with individuals who were willing to imagine, and then demand, to live their lives the way they wanted.
Of course, one cannot talk about the rights of persons with disabilities without mentioning the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Disabilities Treaty), which was inspired by the principles codified in the ADA. The United States signed the treaty in 2009, and we remain committed to ratification. As Secretary Kerry has said, “This [ratification] is about projecting U.S. leadership. It's about helping our veterans, promoting our values and our companies. This treaty doesn't change America. It's about America changing the world.” Ratifying this treaty will enable the United States to exercise greater influence at the highest levels, which will assist grassroots efforts, such as those envisioned by many of the EMPOWER participants, to foster systemic changes worldwide for the full and effective inclusion of persons with disabilities in society.
At the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, we are humbled by and proud of our EMPOWER participants, our supporters in the office of the Special Advisor for International Disability Rights, and our partner, Mobility International USA, who, since 1992, has helped the Department open our own exchange programs to persons with disabilities.
We are excited to see what comes next for our international teams and what impact they will have on the lives of people with disabilities around the world.