Advancing Disability Rights Advocacy: Building Global Coalitions Through People-to-People Diplomacy

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Leroy Phillips, Yaa Oppong, and State Department DRL Staff Member Sit at Table During Meeting.

Advancing Disability Rights Advocacy: Building Global Coalitions Through People-to-People Diplomacy

In my capacity as a Foreign Affairs Officer in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) I had the incredible opportunity to meet Leroy Phillips, an outspoken radio host and advocate for people with disabilities who was visiting the United States from Guyana to give a presentation at the World Bank on disability-inclusive development. We had some time to share our personal experiences of vision loss and learn from each other; Leroy shared that he lost his vision when he was six years old for unknown reasons, and I shared that I lost my vision in my mid-twenties for reasons that were also not clear. 

Over the course of the conversation, I asked Leroy what helped him overcome the significant access barriers he faced in Guyana. He noted that his confidence aided in his ability to advocate for himself, which then allowed him to gain access to the materials he needed in the classroom while at the University of Guyana. When I asked Leroy where he developed his advocacy skills, he recalled being asked to participate on a cricket team with a friend. He said that once on that team he gained confidence and independence and has never looked back. I recalled the first time I began running with a guide and getting on a tandem bicycle after losing sight — it was the same feeling. My confidence soared, my body was powerful and others respected it — I was me again!

Tandem bike team, Joe Van Denburg and Kristin Fleschner cross the finish line after riding 10 hours and 19 minutes, placing 407th among 1,020 bikers. (Photo courtesy of Kristin Fleschner).

Both, Leroy and I could agree that almost all highly successful blind persons are involved in sports or other extra-curricular activities where they are surrounded with like-minded people. Sports networks allow disabled students to actively construct a coalition of friends, assist with building their own self-confidence and increasing their sense of independence, while also having fun within a network of strong supporters. I used my office as an example to highlight this point — I have run the Boston marathon and have twice completed the single-day 160 mile RAIN bike ride across Indiana. My small team in DRL includes a qualified Paralympic weightlifter and adaptive rower, and a three-time Paralympian wheelchair racer, Ann Cody who in this ShareAmerica article correctly emphasized, “Sport is a great convening mechanism for bringing people together.”

Although I did not want to use our conversation to compare the resources we have in the United States to the resources he had in Guyana, it was interesting to hear that what Leroy described about his life journey mirrors the path that successful disabled students have followed in the United States. Even with laws in place, disabled students must be their own advocates in the classroom because our materials and support are not always readily available.

My conversation with Leroy eventually landed on how we could continue to find ways to grow this network [for disabled students] beyond our individual borders. At the core, our communities share much in common and we must use this realization to build solidarity and allow for a global partnership to catalyze. Something we all know to be true is that we are stronger together. We must also recognize that even within our community we are different and diverse. For instance, I use a guide dog — Zoe the Seeing Eye dog, and Leroy uses a cane. Even with Leroy’s honest and clear dislike for dogs he still genuinely wanted to discuss the many benefits of using a guide dog. I explained that I traveled a lot and could always count on Zoe to point out coffee shops that I had previously visited, assist with finding door handles to enter and exit buildings, or direct me straight back to our hotel room when we were out. I told Leroy I could talk forever about Zoe’s benefits but, in the end, whether you are guided to the cricket field by a cane or a dog, we all arrive with the same goal in mind — to win!

Kristin Fleschner, Leroy Phillips, and Zoe the Seeing Eye Dog.

I will surely carry Leroy’s words with me as I advocate in the United States. I will certainly pay close attention to the ongoing efforts in support of the disabled in Guyana, knowing that we have a rock-star advocate there helping spread a shared message of support and inclusion. My team is motivated when we meet leaders like Leroy and State Department alumnus, Zabdau Zamuel, who was mentored at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes in Colorado Springs, Colorado. As he remarked, “I thought I was dreaming big until I found out what dreaming big is.

Although Leroy’s trip has ended, I’m excited to see that I already have a WhatsApp invitation from him. Our new friendship is evidence of what can develop when advocates for disability rights travel and share our stories. My hope is that Leroy carries our discussion with him as he moves forward in his work; using the energy and confidence he gained from his experience in the United States.

About the Author: Kristin Fleschner serves as a Foreign Affairs Officer in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry was also published on Medium.com/StateDept.

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