Ben Sides, the Disability Action Group’s communications officer and Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) special agent, is shown in front of the DS Chicago Field Office in late 2018. Sides uses an above knee prosthetic for his daily work and appreciates the accommodations provided under the ADA. Photo by Jeff Johnson and Logo by ADA National Network (adata.org)
By Ben Sides
July 26th marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA was written to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Since the act was passed in 1990, the Department of State has taken significant steps to focus on diversity, inclusion, and equal access. These steps have included the hiring of individuals with disabilities, providing reasonable accommodations to level the playing field, and reviewing the physical accessibility of the Department’s facilities around the world. While the ADA is a national mandate, many countries have adapted their own accessibility regulations, but others have no guidelines or regulations at all. This can certainly become an obstacle for employees serving overseas. While the Department will work to mitigate any issues for U.S. facilities or workspaces, it is not always easy to invoke change in international jurisdictions.
The Department has also encouraged advocacy for employees with disabilities serving at posts around the world through the Disability Action Group (DAG). DAG’s membership has grown significantly since 2015 when the charter was rewritten to clarify their role. DAG, an employee affinity group, works to help make employees and their supervisors aware of the Department’s commitment and obligations to persons with disabilities. They collaborate with staff from the Office of Civil Rights and the Bureau of Global Talent Managements’ Office of Accessibility and Accommodations (GTM/OAA) to help promote full and equal participation for employees with disabilities. GTM/OAA’s Disability and Reasonable Accommodations Division is the Department’s sole decision-maker for reasonable accommodations. DAG also serves as an advocate between the Department’s employee base and senior management.
The provisions of the ADA addressing architectural, transportation, and communication accessibility have changed the environments for Foreign Affairs employees in numerous ways. From a 30-year perspective, DAG members and partners have reported having greater support from Department services. Specifically, employees with mobility impairments have experienced substantial improvements in physical access to the Department’s transportation, facilities, and USG-sponsored training, both domestically and overseas.
“Without the provisions of the ADA, many Department employees with disabilities would not be able to serve at posts overseas or even join the Foreign Service,” said Marjorie Stern, GTM/OAA program analyst and DAG member. “Although locally employed staff are covered by local laws and not the ADA, they are typically the ones who assist with implementing OAA’s reasonable accommodations such as installing adaptive software or making physical changes to facilities.”
While the impact of the ADA is meant to serve those on U.S. soil, it has provided a clear influence for persons with disabilities around the world. Several Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program students shared with DAG how vital the ADA had been to their exchange experience. The program is managed by the Department’s Office of Citizen Exchanges within the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The FLEX program provides scholarships for high school students from Europe and Eurasia to live with a host family in the United States for an academic year, attend high school, and learn about American society. These students are exposed to American culture and traditions and are able to share theirs as well.
Mihaela Motcă, a Romanian exchange student hosted in Sitka, Alaska shared that she was happily surprised to have her profound hearing loss acknowledged and accommodated, both by her host family and especially at the high school she was attending—through the use of technology and closed-captioned videos.
“The use of technology for those with hearing loss in Romania is not as widespread as it seems to be in the United States,” said Motcă.
Another FLEX student with hearing loss, Marija Tomovic from Montenegro, shared that while she was aware of the ADA before visiting the U.S., she was particularly struck with the many businesses and institutions that accommodate visitors with disabilities.
“One of the high notes during my stay in Washington, D.C. was a visit to the Starbucks store near Gallaudet University,” said Tomovic. “Most of the baristas use and understand American Sign Language and the store is equipped with digital displays, notepads, and an ordering console with two-way keyboards so that customers and employees can type back and forth.”
Other FLEX students have noted the independence of Americans living with disabilities and their ability to advocate for their rights. The students were able to see how the ADA can serve as an inspiration in their home countries.
“In Estonia, broad laws concerning people with disabilities do not exist, however, there are some specific building laws concerning accessibility in some Estonian jurisdictions,” said FLEX student Elisabeth Egel. “Thanks to laws such as the ADA, Estonians with disabilities have more courage to work together as a group to try and improve the conditions that they face and to affect change.”
Finally, FLEX participant Azat Toroev from Kyrgyzstan, noted that the ADA indirectly impacts the work of disability activists and politicians in his home country, since these groups lobby for additional accessibility and better representation.
“Civil rights groups in Kyrgyzstan are slowly changing the language around disabilities while advocating for additional recognition and inclusion for many underrepresented citizens,” said Toroev.
The ADA confirms the vital role that civil society plays in American democracy; it is a story of civic activism encouraging legislative action that leads to enduring change over time. The ADA has also inspired the world to see disability issues through the lens of equality and opportunity, and influenced actions by international organizations, such as the Organization of American States and the European Union, to address discrimination faced by persons with disabilities. Overall, the ADA has encouraged equal opportunity and reminded America that their heritage of equal rights for all requires equal access for all. The Department remains committed to the mandates of the ADA, and DAG will continue to advocate for all employees whether domestic or overseas.
Ben Sides is a special agent in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Services, functional training division chief at the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center, and communications officer for the Disability Action Group.