A Global Bill of Rights for Disability Inclusion

Donald Steinberg, CEO of World Learning

Washington, D.C.

[Remarks as Prepared]

It’s a great pleasure to welcome you here today to World Learning headquarters in Washington to mark the anniversary, as we do each July, of the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Twenty-seven years ago, President George Herbert Walker Bush signed the ADA with the words, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” Disability rights advocate, Senator Tom Harkin added, “This vital legislation opens the door to full participation by people with disabilities in our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our economy, and our American Dream.”

Thank you, Becca, for your kind introduction and for your leadership as co-chair of World Learning’s Disability Working Group. I also wanted to welcome two groups of special guests. First, we have disability advocates here from the Middle East and North Africa under the International Visitor Leadership Program. They are here for a three-week program, and will also visit New Orleans, Denver, and New York. 

Welcome as well to disability leaders from Pakistan, here under a program co-sponsored by the U.S. Mission in Islamabad and our close friends from Mobility International. To both of your groups, thanks for taking time to share your experiences with your counterparts in the U.S. and to build ties of friendship that will last forever. You’re now officially part of the World Learning family as well.

The history of the disability movement is less known than the fight for the rights of women, the LGBT community, and racial minorities, but it was just as tough and just as important. There were public protests, sit-ins, lawsuits, Congressional lobbying, and grass roots movements at the state and local levels. People with disabilities kept “discrimination diaries,” in which they’d document daily instances of inaccessibility, discrimination, and assaults on their dignity. 

Activists with the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities used an inside-outside strategy to build on past victories, but the ADA took previous rights many steps further. For example, before the ADA, no federal law prohibited the private sector from discriminating against people with disabilities. 

Perhaps most significant, the ADA worked from a new premise and a changed mindset. Rather than blaming the victim, our country finally acknowledged that the lack of social, economic and political progress for people with disabilities wasn’t really a consequence of their disabilities, but a result of discrimination driven by prejudices.

 At World Learning, we take these challenges seriously through a “four-pillar” approach.

  • First, we target specific programs for people with disabilities, using them as planners, implementers and beneficiaries under the watchwords, “Nothing about us without us.”
  • Second, we ensure that disability inclusion is mainstreamed into each project we execute, each proposal we submit, and each activity we host.
  • Third, we strive to walk the talk internally by providing accommodation, training, and affirmative opportunities, as well as calling ourselves out for bad employment practices wherever they may exist.
  • Finally, we seek to be thought leaders, action leaders, and spokespersons, reminding our colleagues in government, academia and civil society that disability inclusion isn’t only the right thing to do; it’s smart thing to do.

I’m pleased to announce that World Learning has just been asked by the U.S. NGO umbrella organization, InterAction, to lead a program at its next CEO Retreat on practical steps we all must take to integrate marginalized people into all our work.

Further, last December, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, World Learning joined with a dozen other groups, including USICD and Mobility International, to issue a “Global Call to Action for Disability Rights and Inclusion.” 

All told, our groups invest $3 billion each year through partnerships with developing countries, and we felt obliged to speak out for the political, social, and economic inclusion of the 1 billion people with disabilities worldwide.

Our Call to Action celebrated progress over the past decade, such as the central role of disabilities in the new Sustainable Development Goals, the adoption of many national action plans for disability inclusion, and the creation of dedicated funding streams by numerous donors.

But we also noted that the everyday reality for most people with disabilities in this world is still marked by a lack of access to health care, education, housing, transport, and employment.  

Disability and extreme poverty go hand-in-hand, as people with disabilities are often the poorest people in the poorest regions. They are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and violence when social order breaks down in conflicts and natural disasters. Moreover, when we fail to draw on the skills of this community we waste tremendous talent and perpetuate the cycle of inequality and exclusion. Simply put, we’re not providing the resources, attention and leadership needed for this talented population to better their own lives and their own societies.

The Call to Action demanded six steps from government, the UN, civil society, and other under a so-called “Bill of Rights for Disability Inclusion.”

  • First, we must adopt purposeful, comprehensive and time-bound action plans on disability inclusion, drawing on the insights and expertise of disabled persons organizations.
  • Second, we must mandate disability inclusion in all projects, with five percent of our resources going to accommodation, training, institutional strengthening, research and data collection.
  • Third, we must create national and multilateral funds to strengthen local disability groups and governments, which are best placed to address their national realities.
  • Fourth, we must embed disability advisors at all levels within our organizations and give them authority to influence decisions and budgets.
  • Fifth, we must hire more people with disabilities, backed by mentorship programs; fair hiring, employment, and promotion practices; and safe spaces where disclosing a disability leads to support and accommodation rather than discrimination or worse.
  • Finally, we must address the “intersectionality of marginalization,” since many people with disabilities also face compounding bias because of their gender, sexual orientation, displacement, race, religion, and age.

In conclusion, in a world of limited resources and endless priorities, some might ask whether we can afford to adopt this Bill of Rights. Here at World Learning, we look at it differently. We ask: “In a world that needs to draw on the full talents of our diverse populations to eliminate poverty, achieve social justice, and end conflict, can we afford not to? Thanks for listening.  

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