Office of Public Engagement

Celebrating the International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Ed. Note: This was cross-posted from Disability.gov

Judith Heumann is the Special Advisor for International Disability Rights in the Department of State

Judith Heumann is the Special Advisor for International Disability Rights in the Department of State

On the eve of December 3, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, it is worth noting that 2011 also marks the 30th anniversary of the International Year of Persons with Disabilities. Much has happened to advance the rights, equality and inclusion of persons with disabilities since the International Year was adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 1981. International Decades of Disabled Persons have been adopted by the UN, the Asia Pacific region, the Americas and the African region, advancing activities to combat discrimination on the basis of disability. 

In 1990, with its adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the United States became the first country in the world to adopt national civil rights legislation unequivocally banning discrimination against persons with disabilities. A global pioneer, the ADA has inspired adoption of disability rights legislation around the world, including the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD is the first international treaty to comprehensively address the rights of persons with disabilities, and has unified the global community with a common language of disability rights.

In celebrating this year’s International Day, and in a spirit of reflection, the State Department is hosting a screening of the Independent Lens film, “Lives Worth Living.” This documentary charts the history and rise of the disability rights movement in the United States. It shows how far we have come in striving for a society where persons with disabilities can live their lives on their own terms, through access to education, employment, transportation, political participation and other fundamental spheres of life. It also demonstrates the power of unity, and how historically marginalized members of civil society can claim their place as agents of change in championing rights and freedoms, not only for themselves but for all people. 

Such themes have been repeated over the past year, as we have witnessed civil society standing up for freedom and democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere. Secretary Clinton has referred to civil society as one of the “essential elements of a free nation,” and noted that “societies move forward when the citizens that make up these groups are empowered to transform common interests into common actions that serve the common good.”

As we contemplate the next 30 years, it is worth considering how we in the U.S. disability community can continue to unite our common interests into common actions to serve the common good of persons with disabilities, both here and abroad. We still have progress to make at home, but for many persons with disabilities abroad the barriers they face have much in common with the barriers faced by persons with disabilities in the United States 30 or more years ago. We have much to share with and learn from our colleagues around the world, as we work together to make the rights articulated in the CRPD a reality in the daily lives of children, youth and adults with disabilities. It is work that we at the State Department are dedicated to, and on this International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we hope that you will commit to joining us in this endeavor.

Judith Heumann is the Special Advisor for International Disability Rights in the Department of State. 

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