Telephonic Media Briefing on International Disability Rights
Special Advisor for International Disability Rights
MODERATOR:Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Media Engagement. I would like to welcome our callers who have dialed in from across the Asia Pacific region. Today, we are joined by Judy Heumann, Special Advisor on Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State. Special Advisor Heumann will discuss U.S. policy and programs in support of international disability rights around the world. This is a very important discussion for all of us, and I really appreciate you taking your time out of today to participate in the briefing.
Special Advisor Heumann, who will be speaking to us from Washington, D.C., will begin with opening remarks. We will then open it up to your questions. For those reporters participating in the call, please remember to press *1 on your phone to join the question queue. If you are using a speakerphone, you may need to pick up the handset before entering *1. Today’s call is on the record and will last approximately 25 minutes. And with that, I will turn it over to Special Advisor Judith Heumann.
JUDITH HEUMANN: Thank you very much Cindy and welcome to everybody on the phone. Technology is really great that we can communicate from so far away. Tonight I want to briefly discuss the work that we have been doing over last number of years since I’ve been at the Department. The position of Special Advisor was created by the Obama Administration, and I started working in June 2010. So, I’ve been in the position now for five years. Over the course of the five years I have travelled around the globe, but specifically in Asia. I’ve been to Mongolia, Korea twice, Japan twice, Vietnam twice and China twice. And it has been a wonderful experience for me to meet with disabled individuals from civil society organizations, to meet with government officials, human rights organizations, and to meet with the media to talk about laws in the United States, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act which have really been helping us make significant advancement in the United States. I’m 67 years old and had polio in 1949. And when I had polio, we basically had no laws in the United States addressing the issue of such important points as physical accessibility, access to education, both physically and the right to attend primary, secondary school or higher education. Our public transportation system was not accessible at all, and employment opportunities for disabled people were very limited. These are some of the same issues that disabled people around the world have been struggling with for centuries now, and we have seen that many governments around the world are seriously looking at what needs to be done to proactively be removing barriers to enable disabled people to become equal members of their society. As some of you may know, in 2006, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. There are now, I believe, 154 countries that have ratified this treaty. The U.S. is still working towards ratification. We have signed the treaty and President Obama and Secretary Kerry have been working very hard to advance ratification of the treaty. The United States played an active role in the development of this treaty with the United Nations between 2002 and 2006, using the Americans with Disabilities Act as one of the key pieces of legislation, which we consider to be the gold standard. The Americans with Disabilities Act is inclusive to anti-discrimination legislation. It came into being in 1990. As some of you may know we will be celebrating the 25th Anniversary for the ADA here, and embassies around the world will be part of a series of celebrations integrating information on the Americans with Disabilities Act. For us in the United States, this law is critically important because it covers both government and the private sector. The Americans with Disabilities Act has established a floor of what needs to happen around the United States to ensure that disabled people will be able to advance in their lives. Today we see that all of our public transportation, of our bus systems are accessible, trains that are being constructed are accessible, major renovations to our train systems are being made accessible. All new buildings must comply with the standard for the Americans with Disabilities Act. Major renovations on buildings must also comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act standard. And employment is an issue that we have been working very hard on as part of the law that physically addresses issues regarding what employers may and may not do when interviewing someone who has a disability for a job. President Obama in 2010 basically viewing the Federal Government as needing to be a model employer, encouraging the private sector to continue to do more than advance employment opportunities, put forward a directive to help governmental agencies, directing them to increase the number of disabled people that are being hired in our federal agencies, and to work to ensure that people have opportunities to advance in employment. They, approximately 12 percent of the government workforce, are individuals with various forms of disabilities. Federal agencies have personnel that address many issues in the areas of employment, not just in the areas of disability, but agencies have in their Human Resources offices staff that can help to ensure that a disabled person can get the accommodations they may need, the various tests to get certain jobs within federal agencies, or to ensure that people are getting the accommodations for interviews. Accommodations to be able to successfully perform their jobs when they are hired. So there will be celebrations at the White House and celebrations around the United States, regarding the 25th Anniversary of the ADA. It’s very important to know that the ADA was a collaborative effort between civil society and government. We, in the U.S., both in civil society and government believe it’s strictly important that we have a vibrant civil society where organizations can be established, registered without undue intervention. So, one of the important aspects of the work that I’ve been doing in my travels in Mongolia is to be able to work with governments that are interested in implementing legislation to help them advance implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We also have a developing relationship with China, we visited last year twice, including in November when China hosted APEC. The Chinese Government put forward something called The Friends of APEC, and the United States is a member of the Friends. At a recent meeting in the Philippines that I did not attend, my colleagues at the State Department did attend. We continue to work China and a number of other countries on the advancement of the inclusion of disabled people in APEC related work. We also had the opportunity this year host a delegation from China with official discussions on disability. So we focused on employment, education, the role of civil society and the role of the business community. And then had three additional days with the Chinese reviewing various programs. Likewise with Mongolia, we have a very good relationship with the government and civil society and the U.S. Embassy, with a number of exchanges with a two-week visit from a Mongolian delegation where we helped them visit a number of cities. We met again with government and civil society, to learn not only about the Americans with Disabilities Act, but to also have a greater experience about life in the United States as a disabled individual. And we worked very closely with three of their legislators who were learning more and more about our lives. I think that’s a brief overview of where we are now and I’d like to open this for questions.
MODERATOR:Thank you, Special Advisor Heumann. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. For those asking questions, please state your name and affiliation, and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing, International Disability Rights. With that, we will begin with our first question which was pre-submitted from a reporter in Vietnam. And I’ll read that question now.
In a report on THE RIGHTS OF CHILDREN WITH DISABILITIES IN VIETNAM made by activist Eric Rosenthal in 2009, he said Vietnamese legislation should reflect the core principles of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which include the right of all persons with disabilities to “full and effective participation in society”. With your recent trip to Vietnam, have you seen any progress in the implementation of the Article 19 of the CRPD that states persons with disabilities should be living independently and to being included in the community?
JUDY HEUMANN:Thank you for the question. I would say we have seen some progress in Vietnam. I met with a number of disability rights organizations that are working on Article 19 and other Articles on Rights of People with Disabilities. There is a more vibrant civil society with disabled people speaking up more about both the barriers and the suggestions for the types of changes that need to be made. We’ve seen from external embassies, some civil society organizations in Japan for example, helping people in Vietnam learn more about standards for independent living. I’ve been impressed with a number of groups that I did meet in Vietnam that are really doing very good work. Helping disabled people come out of their homes and into the community. I would say however, and have spoken both with government and with disability leaders in Vietnam, that Vietnam needs to continue to do a better job in allowing more organizations run by disabled people to become registered. And the issue of effective implementation of the laws that they have needs to also occur. We obviously commend the Government of Vietnam for ratifying the disabilities treaty, I think this is a very important effort and success for the government and civil society. And, like in the United States and other countries, in the beginning, what is important is the laws and implementation. And we speak very frequently about the importance of effective implementation and the responsibility of government to ensure that when standards are not being complied with, that actions are taken in order to ensure that compliance happens. The National Assembly when I was there last year, a brand new building, had no wheelchair accessible bathrooms. And I’ve been told that now there is one wheelchair accessible bathroom. But that is an example of how in the United States and many other countries, a new building being built as an example has accessible bathrooms on every floor. So, that is a concern. And it relates very much to Article 19, living independently, because in order to be able to live independently, or have a better choice of where one chooses to live, the society has to be more visibly acceptable. Sidewalks with ramps, trains, etc. We met when we were in Ho Chi Minh with transportation authorities, and I think they are very sincerely working on the development of their new system to be accessible. We did a tour of a new area in Ho Chi Minh and it was very accessible, so progress is being made and more needs to happen.
MODERATOR:Thank you, and just a reminder for the reporters to press *1 if they’d like to join the question queue. And I’ll just give you a follow up on that, and that is: How important is direct interaction between disabled people and the local government? What are ways to increase that interaction?
JUDY HEUMANN: Very important that disabled people very much interact with local government. We have certainly seen this in the United States and other countries around the world and we’re working on the adoption of the Convention on Human Rights of Persons with Disabilities and on the passage of the Disabilities Act there was various significant engagement. I believe that disabled people have been out of sight and out of mind for so long. And there is this belief that disabled people maybe are not able to make contributions and therefore aren’t paid as much attention to disabled people as others. I think once government officials and the general society engage more with disabled individuals they really begin to learn that we are just like them, the kinds of changes that need to happen in our communities not only benefit disabled individuals and their families but benefit communities overall. We certainly see that societies have an increasing population of older individuals, that accessibility is very important. We look at this as a universal accessibility, something that will benefit all people. Now, another reason for engagement with the local government and the disability community is to really get a much better understanding of how disabled people are being adversely affected. When I was in Vietnam I learned from some people there, and verified by the embassy that people with certain types of disabilities are not allowed to get driver’s licenses. If the person who is able to drive is unable to get a driver’s license, that can have a significant adverse effect on their ability to work. So there are many, many different issues that we face in all of our countries and you really learn more effectively on what those barriers are and how to effectively remove the barriers. So, legislatively and then through public awareness people understand how the removal of these barriers benefits society overall, and that has to come from the voices of disabled people and collaboration is always important.
MODERATOR:Thank you. Our next question will come from Jason Martin from Tokyo, the US Embassy. Can we please open his line?
JASON MARTIN: Yes, hi, it’s Jason Martin and it’s good to be on a call with you and again, I had the opportunity to work with you when you came through Addis Ababa, Ethiopia when I was the Cultural Affairs Officer there. And we worked very closely with USAID for a great program with you. So I know how much you are able to accomplish when you’re out in the field. So thank you.
JUDY HEUMANN:Thank you
JASON MARTIN:So I don’t have a question so much as just letting people know what we’re doing here in Tokyo. This week is an important week for us, because as you know this week we have John Wodach here, who is doing a very interesting program speaking with members of the Japanese Diet about Japan’s new legislation and how it compares and contrasts to the ADA and what still may be missing with that legislation, or what needs to be done to further disability rights in Japan. And he’s also going to be speaking to students and leaders in business in Nagoya and Tokyo this week. So we’re very excited to have him. If there’s anything that I need to be thinking about while we’re dong program with him, I guess that could be a possible question for me. And I just turn it back to you for your comments and your suggestions while we have Mr. Wodach here.
JUDY HEUMANN: Thank you, Jason. I think this is an example of some of the work that the U.S. Government through the State Department has been doing. John Wodach is a retired lawyer who worked in the Federal Government in our Department of Justice for more than 40 years. He was the individual that developed in the Civil Rights Section of the Department of Justice, a section on disability rights. So, I believe that there are about 140 lawyers now in the Federal Government in the Department of Justice that address issues of implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. John also will be going to Korea this week, or is he already back from Korea? Do you know Jason?
JASON MARTIN: Yes, we’re the next in line from Korea.
JUDY HEUMANN: And he also have visited Mongolia, and I would say that one of the important roles that John plays is that he is a very benevolent, very knowledgeable, very involved in both the development of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the regulations. And he was one of the key people on the development of regulations on an earlier piece of legislation in the U.S. called Section 504. One of the important parts of his work is to really help explain to people how the Act has worked and what advancements have come about as a result of the law. I think having John be able to speak with local media, to be able to answer questions in that regard would be also very, very important.
JASON MARTIN: Yes, we do have a media component to the program and will be trying to, definitely making sure that that happens. Thank you.
JUDY HEUMANN: And I think working with business leaders, let me also say when I travel I meet with businesses, I’ve met with the American Chambers in four of the countries that I have visited. We have recently submitted an article that was published in the Shanghai American Chamber of Commerce, and the Korean-American Chamber of Commerce has also asked that we do a piece for them on employment of disabled individuals. So we will be doing that over the next couple of months.
JASON MARTIN:Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ve had a few more reporters join from Vietnam and I just wanted to read a follow up question from one of our reporters in Vietnam: In 2011, the National Association filed a complaint against Netflix for filing against the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide full closed captioning to most of its content. With your vision, do you think similar lawsuits could be brought into reality in developing countries like Vietnam, because in Vietnam the majority of people will say that poverty resolution comes first?
JUDY HEUMANN: Well, I think that first, I appreciate your question. I don’t know if Netflix, for example, is something that currently is in Vietnam. But I do think the example of Netflix is very important. That example is that deaf people have the right to be able to access information. And accessing information clearly helps people be able to move out of poverty. It’s one of the important reasons why deaf individuals must be going to school, they must be learning and they must be taught the same curricula that other individuals in Vietnam or China, or whichever country we’re talking about anywhere in the world. We know that disabled individuals are still not attending primary and secondary schools to the same degree that non-disabled children are. So we know that when disabled children who are blind or physically disabled or intellectually disabled or have a psychosocial disability or reading disability. If those children are not receiving appropriate education, they will have difficulty entering the formal work sector. And as each region is really advancing, economies are growing, it’s important that disabled people are not excluded from that cloak because what it means is that the government will have to provide subsidies, more subsidies because people won’t have the opportunity to work, because they don’t have sufficient education. So the Netflix example I think is more where you have people in the United States who want to be able to have access to what other people have in the United States. And so the lawsuit against Netflix is an example of the deaf community saying “we want to have access and we believe that there is a violation of the law”. So, now they will have access.
MODERATOR: Thank you, and just one other follow-up question from the same reporter. You just informed us that the rights of Persons with Disabilities will be part of the agenda of the celebrations in US Embassies and Consulates around the world. What is the message from the US Government behind this?
JUDY HEUMANN:The message is: effective legislation which is brought forth will help remove barriers that are limiting disabled people and their families from taking their rightful place in society. The message also will be that disabled people need to be a part of the development and implementation of laws and many of our embassies will be inviting disabled people from their communities to participate in the celebration for July 4th. Embassies are doing it at different times, but at the end of the day what we have seen has been happening over the last number of years because of the leadership of first Secretary Clinton and now Secretary Kerry and the White House. And the fact that the disability community in the United States is very engaged. We’re seeing that collaboration, the ability to have a very vibrant disability rights community, thousands of organizations both run by disabled people and organizations that are working on behalf of disabled people have really been resulting in progress. We have a lot further to go, I think that the U.S. certainly does not think we have made the achievements that we have wished to make yet, and we have seen substantial achievements over the course of my life. And, that every year we are progressing.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And just a reminder to press *1 if you have a question to join the question queue. I have another question for Special Advisor Heumann, and that is really just a follow up to your visit to Japan last year. The focus was on women, and I know that the Obama Administration and Secretary Kerry have been focused on empowering women and girls, there’s Let Girls Learn Initiative. Is there anything you want to say specifically about empowerment of women and girls as it relates to people with disabilities?
JUDY HEUMANN: I just came back from a meeting in New York at the United Nations the meeting is held every year and it was very exciting to see the number of disabled women who were participating very actively in these meetings. The issues that disabled women were discussing were focused in part on violence against disabled women, which is to a higher degree than against non-disabled women. Frequently will go unreported, and frequently the police and judicial systems are not effectively addressing these types of violations. So there was a lot of discussion on that. I also believe that, I attended the mission on the State of Women in February of this year at the United Nations, and one very positive thing that I heard at that meeting was the fact that many governments when they made their intervention, like the United States, included disabled women in their presentation. As a group of women who needed to receive their rights and have better opportunities, just like the general women’s community we are fighting for. I want to make a point about the issue of gender, and generally about the issue of disability. Many people acquire disabilities like myself, either at birth or at a young age. But many, many other people acquire their disabilities in adulthood. And they may acquire disabilities such as diabetes, a heart disease, or as a result of violence or conflict. Women and men, they will experience higher degrees of disability. It’s very important that we look at the breadth of the population of disabled individuals, and that in the case of girls and women, we look at what major problems are in a country for non-disabled girls and women. And certainly that will mean that disabled girls and women will have the exact problems, but typically speaking, more significantly. You can tell that there are some things that women around the world are not able to take advantage of, health care facilities that are not accessible, health care workers that believe that disabled women do not need appropriate health care, facilities themselves not having the appropriate equipment, or not accepting women in order to have the exams that non-disabled women would be having. So the voices of disabled women are emerging, but they need to have a more integrated part or the overall Women’s Movement in countries, and governments need to embrace the inclusion of disabled women in policies and practices that they are developing.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We have another question from a caller from China. Could you open that line?
REPORTER: Yes, hello. Is it difficult for American people with disabilities to find a job? China has the same problems. Second question: What can you do to help Americans and Chinese to find a job, to lower the unemployment rate? And, last question: Is there a partnership between your association and its Chinese counterpart? Thank you.
JUDY HEUMANN:The last question was, is there a relationship between us and the Chinese?
CHINA PRESS: Yes, between your association and its Chinese counterpart.
JUDY HEUMANN: Ok. Let me answer the last question first. I work at the US Department of State which is similar to your Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We interact both with the Chinese Government and we have relationships with CDPF, the China Disabled Persons’ Federation. We also have met with a civil society organization in China, the Disabled Persons’ Organization to discuss many issues, one of them which we are focusing on is lowering the unemployment rate of disabled people. In the United States we have many different programs to assist disabled people in getting jobs. But let me please point something out. Earlier I mentioned that the Americans with Disabilities Act under Title 1, which focuses on unemployment explicitly prohibits medical examinations for disabled people based on their disability. In other words, if a disabled person applies for a job, an employer cannot ask questions at the interview about their disability and the employer can only do a medical exam if a) a job is being offered, and b) if they are given a medical exam for other individuals, not disabled individuals. We believe that testing can be used as a way of keeping disabled people out of the workforce. And we have spoken with people in China about the importance of reviewing whether there are tests that are being given preclude people who could be working from working. We have programs in the United States, and I believe you have programs like this too in China, where disabled individuals are receiving training and support to be able to secure a job. We have in the United States right now a higher rate. Basically our law requires that all disabled children in primary and secondary schools must be attending school and cannot be denied the right to education because of their disability. And China has been working on increasing the number of disabled children in schools, which will obviously help people move into the world of work. We have been encouraging also that there not be construction of separate schools for disabled children, that it is important that disabled and non-disabled children attend school together, learn the same curricula, and subsequently have greater opportunities to secure employment. The meeting that we had in May here in the United States with the Chinese delegation focused in part on employment, I think we had a very good exchange. We had representatives from our Federal Department of Labor, our Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and the Department of Education, as well as an organization for the United States Business Leadership Network, which is a non-profit organization that works with hundreds of businesses in the U.S. that have committed to employing greater numbers of disabled people. So the United States, like many countries around the world, still have a disproportionately high number of disabled people that are unemployed, but our employment rate is slowly moving forward and we look forward to continuing to work with China and other countries to share information on how we are all working on this.
MODERATOR:Thank you, Special Advisor Heumann. Before we close the calls today, do you have any final words?
JUDY HEUMANN: I just want to say that it has been very fortunate for me to be able to have the opportunity to visit so many countries in Asia and to see the work that is being done in countries across the region. We very much encourage the ability of disabled people to establish organizations, non-profit organizations and we also believe that it is important for disability organizations and others to be able to receive funding to support their organizations both from government and from friends external to the government of a receptive country. Disability is frequently an area where, as we have been discussing, there are limited resources and that the advancement and the creation of effective local disabled people organizations really does help to improve the development of laws, the implementation of laws -- of civil society organizations including disabled people civil society organizations --really does not only affect the disability community, but it adversely affects the society overall. So we really encourage governments to look at the importance of a vibrant civil society including disabled people’s organizations and allow funding to support the work that they are doing to advance opportunities.
MODERATOR:Thank you. I want to thank the U.S. government participants and all of our callers for participating in today’s call. If you have any questions about the call, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.