Senator Harkin — Global Disability Rights

Circa 2008


Dear ABILITY Readers,

I often tell people that the day the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in Congress, was the proudest day of my legislative career. This was landmark Civil Rights legislation, a long-delayed Emancipation Proclamation for millions with disabilities. It said “no” to the exclusion and discrimination that had held back people with disabilities in the United States for centuries. It said “yes” to a future of inclusion and opportunity for all Americans.

The ADA has been a great success in many ways, helping to integrate people with disabilities into the mainstream of society. However, we still have much work to do, both in ensuring physical access for people with disabilities, and in changing attitudes and expectations towards people who have disabilities.

Unfortunately, the barriers that we have begun to eliminate here in America—obstacles of isolation, exclusion and low expectations—remain pervasive and entrenched elsewhere in the world. I believe strongly that the United States should take the lead in changing this status quo.

To that end, I have been working in recent years with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department to make fundamental changes in the way U.S. foreign aid programs work. Our endeavors are focused on three, key areas: access, inclusion and awareness.

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ACCESS: We have jump-started the process of change by requiring that all overseas construction or reconstruction projects funded by the U.S. be accessible to people with disabilities. Several years ago, I was disturbed to learn that U.S.-funded reconstruction in Bosnia was not being done in an accessible manner. Think about it: in a war-torn country with a growing number of people with disabilities, we were rebuilding structures without a thought about making them accessible. That’s outrageous. We know that the cost of making a building accessible is negligible, if you plan it up front. However, the costs of retrofitting are expensive and, in many developing countries, prohibitive. So we need to get it right the first time.

At my request, the USAID adopted access standards that govern all overseas projects. The agency solicited a wide range of input, including those of people with disabilities. In the process, they came up with excellent accessibility standards.

INCLUSION: We need a robust effort to ensure that people with disabilities are included in projects that promote economic development and democracy. This is not a matter of charity or assuaging our consciences. It’s smart economic policy, and it’s been abundantly proven that people with disabilities can be exceptionally capable and reliable workers.

Moreover, it is critical that people with disabilities have the opportunity to advocate for their own inclusion and participation in the social and political institutions within their own countries. To this end, for the last four years, I have secured funding to support local USAID missions working directly with, and providing financial support to, disabled persons organizations (DPOs) in developing countries.

For example, in Ecuador, we support a program to teach computer skills to people with disabilities. In Ghana, we support a program that trains people with disabilities to be election observers. We also enhance the participation of people with visual disabilities in local elections, by providing training on a tactile ballot system. In Uganda, we back a sign-language training program, with the goal of increasing inclusion of people who are deaf.

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But it is not enough to fund these programs; our leaders in the disability advocacy community must also share their knowledge and experience. So I have also secured funding for U.S.-based disability organizations to provide training and technical assistance to DPOs in developing countries.

RAISING AWARENESS: In many parts of the world, disability rights are not only nonexistent, they are not even on people’s radar screens. Where this is the case, the first step is awareness. Programs such as those mentioned above are a start.

In addition, the Convention on the Rights of Individuals with Disabilities can make a historic difference. I am deeply disappointed that our own government decided not to sign on to the Convention. Indeed, this failure of leadership is not just disappointing, it is shameful.

To date, we’ve taken only baby steps toward ensuring the rights of people with disabilities around the globe. Looking ahead, I am not naïve about the barriers and opposition that stand in the way of a true global disability rights movement. However, based on my own experience with ADA, I am optimistic about our longterm prospects.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Let the 21st century bend towards global disability rights.


Senator Tom Harkin

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