How A Law To Protect Disabled Americans Became Imitated Around The World

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At the State Department conference for people with disabilities, adviser Judy Heumann (center) is surrounded by admirers from around the world. (Joseph Shapiro/NPR)
At the State Department conference for people with disabilities, adviser Judy Heumann (center) is surrounded by admirers from around the world. (Joseph Shapiro/NPR)

They came from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Bangladesh.

From Kazakhstan, Lesotho and Mongolia.

From Nicaragua, Nigeria and China. From 33 countries in all.

They were people in wheelchairs, on crutches. Some were deaf or blind. And they all wanted to find out how their country could learn from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which banned discrimination based on disability in employment, government services and public accommodations.

That act changed the way people with disabilities in this country wanted Americans to understand their problems — not as issues of health but as ones of civil rights.

Patience Dickson-Ogolo of Nigeria (left) and Krishna Sunar of Nepal are advocates for people with disabilities in their home countries.
Patience Dickson-Ogolo of Nigeria (left) and Krishna Sunar of Nepal are advocates for people with disabilities in their home countries.

It's a very American response to solve a problem by protecting people with the guarantee of civil rights. So it may seem surprising that 25 years after the ADA was signed into law, the act has become one of America's most successful exports.

That was clear at a conference at the U.S. State Department this month, where some 50 people with disabilities from around the world — and the advocates who work with them — wanted to learn about American disability laws.

"Everybody in this room is a leader. Or you wouldn't be here," Judy Heumann, the State Department's special adviser for international disability rights — who uses a motorized wheelchair — told the audience. "And we are slowly changing the world. And we will more rapidly do so."

But the problems in other countries are often much bigger than those faced by people with disabilities in the U.S. Often when other countries pass disability laws, there is little enforcement of those provisions. Poverty and attitudes are also barriers.

Patience Dickson-Ogolo, from the Advocacy for Women with Disabilities Initiative in Nigeria, said disabled women in her country often lack basic rights: They have trouble opening bank accounts and they are discouraged from marriage. Dickson-Ogolo, who uses a wheelchair, is an exception; she attended the conference with her husband.

Congressman Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, are applauded after Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. President George H. W. Bush signed the act into law on July 26, 1990.
Congressman Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, are applauded after Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. President George H. W. Bush signed the act into law on July 26, 1990.

Krishna Sunar, of the National Association of the Physical Disabled in Nepal, spoke about the April earthquake that killed or injured some 30,000 people. He asked that the U.S. help make sure reconstructed government buildings include wheelchair ramps.

Elena Pascu, from the Center for Legal Resources in Romania, wanted advice on how to close down government-run institutions in her country for people with intellectual disabilities.

The ADA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. The idea was that people with disabilities weren't expecting cures. Instead, they were demanding access. For wheelchair users that could mean curb cuts, a motorized lift so they could board a bus, a ramp into a building so they could get to work or school. It meant they could live where they wanted and socialize with friends — just like people without disabilities.

Since 2000, 181 countries have passed disability civil rights laws inspired by the ADA, according to the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, a civil rights law and policy center.

At the State Department conference, participants know some of the history of the American disability civil rights movement and about Heumann, who is regarded as one of its heroes.

Judy Heumann (right), one of the leaders in the movement that led to the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, talks to a participant at the State Department event.
Judy Heumann (right), one of the leaders in the movement that led to the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, talks to a participant at the State Department event.

She was treated like a rock star: Participants crowded around her. They took selfies, gave her gifts and confided to her about their own problems back home.

When Heumann was an infant in 1949, she got polio. When she was old enough to start her education, her New York City school rejected her. They told her a girl in a wheelchair would be a fire hazard, but her mother fought and Heumann was able to attend.

She went on to college and earned a degree in speech therapy to help children with disabilities. But when she tried to become a teacher, the New York City school system again told her the wheelchair would be a fire hazard.

A frustrated Heumann moved to California, where she became a leader in the new disability civil rights movement — ending the exclusion of people with disabilities.

Years later, Heumann, the woman once thought too disabled to go to school or to be a teacher, became President Bill Clinton's assistant secretary of education, in charge of special education.

"What the U.S. really inspires people to do — is to do," Heumann said at the conference. "It's to say that we don't accept certain things." And to learn, by looking at U.S. civil rights movement, that "changes will not occur overnight." But they will come when people are persistent and "not only look at the problems but look at solutions and become a part of the solution."

Dickson-Ogolo said that just a few days in Washington was eye-opening. She was able to get around easily in her wheelchair because of sidewalk curb cuts, lifts on buses, elevators to the subway and the wheelchair-accessible room and bathroom at her hotel.

Heumann knows the value of travel. Since taking the job at the State Department in 2010, she has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles to more than 30 countries. In some places, like rural Africa, people have never seen a person in a motorized wheelchair.

It was her own travel, years ago, that sparked some of her push for rights in the U.S. In 1972, she visited Germany, where her parents were born, and Sweden. She saw how people with disabilities there had access to health care and social welfare programs as well as sports programs.

"Sometimes, it's really hard to imagine something or to dream something you've never experienced," says Susan Sygall, co-founder and head of Mobility International USA, one of the many American nonprofit groups that trains people with disabilities from around the world.

Sygall's group, in Oregon, has taught 2,300 people with disabilities from around the world how to advocate for civil rights in their countries. When they come to Oregon, she says, they see how different life is for people with disabilities in America — and they then want to push for change in their own countries.

In the U.S., they see "the magic of the Americans with Disabilities Act," she says. "You can see that, yes, people with disabilities should and can ride the public buses. Yes, people with disabilities can and should be at high schools, at the universities. Yes, people with disabilities can be employed, can be leaders, can participate in recreation and sports, can basically have the same rights as everybody else."

In 2006, one of the biggest civil rights protections yet to be inspired by the ADA was adopted by the United Nations. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities lays out basic civil rights — getting an education, a job — that would be protected for the world's 650 million people with disabilities.

A total of 157 countries have ratified the U.N. convention. But opposition in the U.S. Senate — where there is worry that an international treaty will overtake U.S. laws — means the U.S. is one of the few countries yet to ratify it.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Think about the things the United States exports to other countries - technology, medications, pop culture. Another major export is democracy. One prime example marks its 25th anniversary on Sunday. It's the law that protects the rights of people with disabilities. NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The Americans with Disabilities Act banned discrimination based on disability in employment, government services, public accommodations. That's a very American response to a problem - to see it as a civil rights issue. So one of the surprises of the ADA is that it's been imitated in countries around the world. According to the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, since 2000, 181 countries have passed disability civil rights laws, laws that were inspired by the ADA. Last week, 50 people with disabilities from around the world and the advocates who work with them came to the U.S. State Department to learn about American disability laws.

HAMZA: My name is Hamza. I'm from Morocco.

ELENA PASCU: Hello, my name is Elena Pascu. I'm from Romania.

OIDOV: OK. This is Oidov from Mongolia.

LANDING BADJIE: (Through interpreter) Thank you very much. My name is Landing Badjie from The Gambia.

SHAPIRO: This delegate from The Gambia who is deaf and speaks through an interpreter wants to know how much opposition there was to getting the ADA passed before President George Bush signed it into law.

BADJIE: (Through interpreter) When the final draft of ADA, until the President George Bush sign, I just want to know how long was the process?

SHAPIRO: The participants come from 33 countries, from places like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Lesotho, Mongolia, Nicaragua and China. There are people in wheelchairs, on crutches, ones who are deaf and blind.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: They listen to Judy Heumann. She's regarded as a hero from the American disability rights movement. Now she's the State Department's special advisor for international disability rights.

JUDY HEUMANN: Everybody in this room is a leader, or you wouldn't be here. So that's the reality. And all of us together are part of the movement that exists in our countries and around the world.

SHAPIRO: Heumann was the daughter of a butcher in Brooklyn. She was an infant in 1949 when she got polio. When it was time to get an education, her New York City school rejected her, said a girl in a wheelchair would be a fire hazard. Her mother fought and got her in. Later, Heumann went to college and got a degree in speech therapy. She wanted to help kids with disabilities, but the New York City school system said a teacher in a wheelchair would be a fire hazard. Years later, Judy Heumann, the woman once thought too disabled to go to school or be a teacher, took a job as President Clinton's assistant secretary of education. She was in charge of all special education for the entire country.

Since joining the State Department five years ago, she figures she's traveled hundreds of thousands of miles and visited more than 30 countries. Sometimes, like in rural Africa, people have never seen a woman in a motorized wheelchair. Heumann's job is to tell people about disability civil rights around the world and at the State Department conference.

HEUMANN: Hi. Did you have polio?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes.

HEUMANN: Me too

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK.

HEUMANN: (Laughter). Nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nice to meet you.

SHAPIRO: At the State Department conference, participants crowd about Heumann in her motorized wheelchair. They take selfies, give her gifts, confide about their own problems back home. And the problems are often much bigger than those faced by people with disabilities in the U.S. A man from Africa says countries that are now passed disability laws, but unlike in the United States, there's no enforcement. A woman from Nigeria says women with disabilities are denied basic rights. A man from Nepal talks about the destructive earthquake there in April and asked for help to make sure reconstructed government buildings include wheelchair ramps. Susan Sygall runs Mobility International USA, one of the many American nonprofit groups that train people with disabilities from around the world.

SUSAN SYGALL: Sometimes it's really hard to imagine something or to dream something that you've never experienced.

SHAPIRO: But when people come to Sygall's group in Oregon, they see how different life is for people with disabilities in America, and they then what to push for change in their own countries.

SYGALL: So by coming to the United States and seeing what the Americans with Disabilities Act has accomplished, you see that yes, people with disabilities should and can ride the public buses. Yes, people with disabilities can and should be at the high schools, at the universities. Yes, people with disabilities can be employed, can be leaders, can participate in recreation and sports, can basically have the same rights as everybody else. And I think that, perhaps, is the magic of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

SHAPIRO: One of the biggest civil rights protections yet to be inspired by the ADA was adopted by the United Nations in 2006. The convention on the rights of persons with disabilities lays out basic civil rights - getting an education, a job - that would be protected for the world's 650 million people with disabilities. One-hundred-fifty-seven countries have ratified the U.N. convention, but there's been some opposition in the U.S. Senate where there's often worry that an international treaty will overtake U.S. laws. So the United States has not ratified the U.N. convention. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.