Senator Harkin – Disability Rights Abroad

Senator Tom Harkin
Senator Tom Harkin


ABILITY Magazine has graciously invited me to write a regular column offering a perspective from Capitol Hill on current disability issues. Many of this magazine’s readers already know me from my work shepherding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) through Congress in 1990. In a career in the House and Senate spanning three decades, I have also worked on many other bills affecting the lives of individuals with disabilities, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Assistive Technology Act, and the Rehabilitation Act.

For me, advancing disability rights is deeply personal commitment. My late brother, Frank, was deaf from an early age. Growing up with him, I was appalled by the discrimination and low expectations that he faced because he couldn’t hear. His struggle for equal treatment and economic self-sufficiency profoundly shaped my view of disability law and civil rights for individuals with disabilities.

While we still have a long way to go in the U.S., we have made progress thanks to the ADA and other statutes. However, in many other parts of the world especially in some developing countries-disability rights are not yet on the agenda. International relief efforts in the wake of the South Asia tsunami have reminded us that we are a global community. As we go forward with reconstruction and rehabilitation in that region and elsewhere, we must ensure that projects are accessible to and inclusive of people with disabilities.

In championing disability rights abroad, our advocacy should have three broad goals: access, inclusion, and awareness.

First: access. We can jumpstart change by requiring that any construction or reconstruction projects funded by the U.S. government be accessible. At the request of Congress, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) recently adopted access standards that will now govern all its grants overseas. USAID solicited a wide range of views and included individuals with dis abilities in its work. The agency came up with thoughtful access standards.

But we have much work still ahead of us. For example, not even the World Bank requires adherence to access standards. We must urge every governmental and nongovernmental agency that provides funds to developing countries, either by grant or loan, to adopt access standards. Access must be respected as a fundamental human right and economic necessity.

Second: inclusion. There must be an effort to ensure that people with disabilities are included in projects that pro mote economic development and democracy. Congress recently required that all USAID grantees specify how they will address the needs and protect the rights-of people with disabilities. From now on, education and employment programs will have to include people with disabilities. Voting projects will have to consider how people with disabilities can participate in the political process. And so on. For too long, people with disabilities have been invisible or slighted. With this new legislation, we say to all grantees: find them, accommodate them and include them.

Third: awareness. We must raise awareness of these rights on a global scale. For starters, we need to give moral and material support to fledgling disability rights organizations in developing countries. I secured modest funding for this purpose in the 2005 appropriations bill and hope to do better in future years.

The planned United Nations Convention on the Rights of Individuals with Disabilities can make an historic difference. I am deeply disappointed that the U.S. government has not taken a leadership role in the convention. I hoped that we would be leading the charge in drafting a convention. Instead, we have sent signals that we may not sign the convention. From the nation that takes so much pride in the progress we have made under the ADA, this failure of leadership is not just disappointing. It is shameful.

Will we end the long and tragic history of discrimination against people with disabilities around the world? Will we send a message-loud and clear-that it is no longer acceptable to lock away people with disabilities, to deny their rights, and to ignore their potential? The answers are in our hands. So let us join hands to end discrimination against people with disabilities in every nation of the world, rich and poor.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-lowa) is the author of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He recently addressed this column’s issues at the World Bank Conference on Disability and Development.

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