From October 3-5 in Geneva, the UN will hold the “Social Forum,” an annual three day event organized by the UN Human Rights Council. The forum works as a unique space for the open exchange of ideas between global civil society, diplomatic community, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations on a specific theme chosen by the Human Rights Council every year.
All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming. – Helen Keller
The theme for this year’s forum is the promotion, and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities. This year also marks the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Disability may not seem like a pressing global issue at the surface, given the wars, refugees, pandemics and, other challenges facing the world community, but the truth is nearly 1 in 5 people in the U.S., or about 19 percent of the population, have some type of disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The U.S. Census Bureau definition of disability is fairly broad, and more than half of the census participants reported that their disability was “severe”.
The Census report shows that only 41% of the people with a disability between the age of 21 to 64 were employed, compared with 79% of those with no disability.
The lower likelihood of being employed for people with a disability naturally coincides with a higher likelihood of experiencing persistent poverty – yet another obstacle for people with disabilities to overcome. Adults aged between 21 to 64 with disabilities have median monthly income of $1,961 compared with $2,724 for those with no disability.
Nearly 1 in 5 people in the U.S., or about 19 percent of the population, have some type of disability.
Among the U.S. population with some form of disability, about 8.1 million have difficulty seeing, 7.6 million experience difficulty hearing, 30.6 million have difficulty moving or walking.
If one assumes that the U.S. disability statistics are broadly representative of the global population, we are talking about up to one billion people around the world who have some form of disability. This makes the disabled perhaps the world’s largest minority group in need of social protection and promotion.
Given that disability statistics are hard to find, this often makes the plight of persons with disabilities an “invisible” problem that can lead to a lack of access, resources, opportunities, and often empathy towards the people with disability.
One of the UN’s goals is to mainstream disability advocacy into development goals, to lessen the invisibility and ensure that everyone has access to education, jobs, services and other internationally agreed development goals.
I have seen growing awareness and acceptance around the world for the disabled but there is a long way to go. The first step really is just inclusion and access to everyday events. A disability is a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses or activities.
By that standard there is a strong likelihood for anyone to be disabled at some point during a lifetime.
Hillary Clinton added rights for the disabled as a vital part of her Presidential platform. Speaking to a group in Orlando, Hillary pledged full support for “a group of Americans who are, too often, invisible, overlooked and undervalued, who have so much to offer but are given too few chances to prove it.”
Donald Trump’s mockery of a disabled reporter is seen as one of the most negative moments of his campaign. Unfortunately, he is not the only politician to fall short on this issue.
In 2012, the U.S. Senate shamefully failed to ratify the United Nations “Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.” That despite the strong lobbying by Conservative stalwart Bob Dole.
Not understanding the needs of the disabled can also have terrible consequences.
In August, Daniel Kevin Harris, a deaf man, was shot and killed by a trooper through a tragic misunderstanding. Harris was unarmed and did not hear the siren of the officer behind him as he was driving home. When he got out of the car and attempted to communicate he was shot. Another needless loss and poignant reminder of how all of us have to make accommodations. Harris was described by a neighbor as “effervescent, funny, social, just a unique man.”
Only 41% of the people with a disability between the age of 21 to 64 were employed, compared with 79% of those with no disability.
And that is the other message. The abilities should define the person. One of the great accessibility leaders of our time is Haben Girma. She is the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. She surfs. She is a White House “Champion of Change” and she has met with Apple execs to improve communication options.
As Haben shows and as the 2016 Paralympics Games reminded us, fantastic abilities are unlimited among human beings. One of the great stories this year was the homecoming of the Dutch Paralympics team. The team was coming home with 18 gold medals, 19 silver and 26 bronze.
As the team’s KLM airplane entered Dutch airspace they were escorted by two F16 fighter jets from the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The F16s flew with them the rest of the way home, with the pilot executing a barrel roll in their honor. Talk about visibility!
As U.S. Ambassador in the Marshall Islands I loved seeing the work of the volunteers of Deaf World Teach, an organization dedicated for the cause of teaching sign language to deaf families, professionals, and the deaf community in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. They helped to found and run the Majuro School for the Deaf, and perhaps more importantly, began to bring deaf students out of the shadows and onto the public stage. Deaf students sign their national anthem at national events, using hands, arms and smiles to sign these beautiful words:
“My island (heart) lies o’er the ocean;
Like a wreath of flowers upon the sea;
With a (the) light of Maker from far above;
Shining with the brilliance of rays of life.”
On the issue of disability, there should be no walking back by the global community. Human rights are human rights.