By Sofija Korac
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which celebrates its 30th anniversary July 26, prohibits discrimination through all aspects of public life by removing barriers and increasing accessibility so that all individuals can work and live as equals. The United States has been a leading advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities, and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations (USUN) continues to champion this mission at an international level. Working with partners from Antigua and Barbuda, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Korea, USUN has vocally led the charge to advance the human rights of persons with disabilities, while considering the unique impacts of instability and insecurity on their well-being. They have also worked to raise visibility for the issues that persons with disabilities experience universally.
USUN negotiators lead this effort by making proposals that advance the human rights of persons with disabilities in United Nations (U.N.) resolutions. These resolutions encourage governments to pass and implement laws recognizing that persons with disabilities must be treated on an equal basis in all spheres. Further, the resolutions create mandates for the collection of disability-specific data and focus the U.N.’s attention on this critical human rights issue. In 2019, USUN led the effort to garner support for a resolution that focused on accessibility for persons with disabilities globally. On a practical level, this included ensuring equal access to schools and jobs, to information and technology, and countries’ institutions and infrastructures such as transportation and polling places.
When drafting these resolutions, the team can also ask for the U.N. secretary-general to draft reports that highlight the situation of persons with disabilities around the globe. This not only helps inform the deliberations, but it often provides the framework for other U.N. agencies to implement programs and initiatives on the ground that integrate persons with disabilities in all aspects of society. In many ways, these efforts take the rights guaranteed for all Americans through the ADA into communities around the world.
In June 2019, the United States played a critical role in drafting U.N. Security Council Resolution 2475 on Persons with Disabilities in Armed Conflict—the first-ever U.N. Security Council resolution to address the human rights of persons with disabilities. Adopted unanimously, the resolution established concrete actions that the international community must take to address the unique challenges experienced by persons with disabilities during all stages of conflict. The USUN Mission in New York was at the forefront of this effort and continues to push for the full implementation of the resolution. In December 2019, USUN hosted the Security Council to evaluate the progress made and develop methods for further implementation, including those by future presidents of the Security Council. Through these efforts, the U.S. is reaffirming its commitment to promoting the rights of persons with disabilities around the world in all aspects of life, during times of peace and of conflict.
USUN continues to promote the realization of these rights through roundtable discussions and policy events at the Mission. The U.S. Representative to the U.N. Ambassador Kelly Craft met with a group of leaders with disabilities, including an American Paralympian, during the commemoration of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Dec. 2019. Last summer, Ambassador Cherith Norman Chalet, USUN’s acting deputy representative, hosted a high-level roundtable discussion with representatives from several American companies, including IBM and Google, that discussed their disability-inclusive policies. The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor moderated the event and will use the outcomes of the discussion in their work globally.
Despite decades of awareness raising efforts accompanied by incremental advances, removing barriers—either physical or attitudinal—for the full participation of persons with disabilities remains a global challenge, including at the U.N. itself. The U.N. proudly hosts the global effort to mainstream consideration of persons with disabilities, and yet, its very infrastructure can bar the full participation of diplomats, civil society, and secretariat staff alike. When the United States was set to deliver a high-level statement at the U.N., which reaffirmed their commitment to the human rights of women and girls, it was impossible for Sofija Korac, a wheelchair user, to join the ambassador at the U.S. seat.
“Our designated location was up a flight of stairs, and I could not access it as a wheelchair user,” said Korac. “The ambassador drew attention in her remarks to the continued struggle for inclusion, even at the U.N., and the need to make sure the U.N. is accessible to all people. Vocal support for inclusion matters, and, as a result of our action, U.N. officials are making the simple adjustments needed to ensure that all members of the U.N. community can participate on an equal basis.”
Seating and room access are one of many accessibility challenges faced daily by diplomats, members of civil society, and other visitors with disabilities at the U.N. Headquarters in New York. Full participation includes delivering remarks from the iconic General Assembly podium, participating in intergovernmental negotiations (regardless of whether an accessible entrance/exit is open), or access to official documents in accessible formats.
“Imagine being faced with abandoning your responsibility to represent your nation because of the U.N.’s lack of access, waiting for hours in the middle of the night for security to unlock a door because the after-hours access for persons with disabilities was closed, or using an overnight vehicle driveway just to access U.N. headquarters so that you could fulfill your duty as a representative of your country,” said Korac. “These are the types of decisions that me and other diplomats with a disability face on a daily basis.”
There is much work to be done—even at the U.N.—and the U.S. continues to lead the charge to ensure the full realization of the rights of persons with disabilities, including the rights codified through the ADA.
The USUN delegation has been strengthened by the experiences of one of their own, whose expertise has yielded positive accessibility improvements at the headquarters in New York. As a member of the U.N. Accessibility Steering Committee, the U.S. proposed and garnered support for changing the practices and protocols in the General Assembly as it pertains to seating. Working together with the U.N.’s Conference and Meetings Services department and other member states, the General Assembly adopted the U.S. proposal in Sept. 2019. Now all delegates who require accessible seats in U.N. meetings will have access to them. This provision is also being implemented at the U.N. offices in Geneva. It will also be applied to the other U.N. facilities around the world.
The Mission’s delegation actively works with other delegates and ambassadors with disabilities to remove attitudinal barriers on participation. This effort has demonstrated to the U.N. and other member states that accessibility is not an issue that needs to be considered only during disability-specific meetings. From the working-level to the highest levels of representation, persons with disabilities work on matters of peace and security, human rights and economic development, and management and legal affairs. The U.N. and secretariat are now rethinking their approach to making reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities a baseline in the daily work of the U.N.—not solely as temporary preparations for events focused on persons with disabilities. This change in mindset has paved the way for similar steps to be taken in the field by the U.N.’s regional and country offices as well, such as mainstreaming persons with disabilities in the Strategic Heritage Plan for renovations of U.N. facilities in Geneva.
USUN in New York strives to become a model and set the standard for others on accessibility. They are fortunate to have a Mission that can be arranged to accommodate persons with a wide range of accessibility needs—for example, a meeting with multiple wheelchair users and accessible technology like live captioning services or other audio/visual accessibility tools. However, despite the building’s construction 10 years ago, more can be done to improve internal accessibility for Mission staff. Their ambassadors and management team have been supportive in identifying and creating plans to address accessibility challenges within their facility. They are working to demonstrate how to meet all demands on their building simultaneously—whether health, safety, or security related.
While the USUN team continues to advocate on both an internal and international level, their experiences are a true model for how removing barriers creates equal access. Their efforts have highlighted the strategic importance of how inclusion can benefit from having a diverse workforce.
Sofija Korac is an advisor at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York.