On Disability, Heumann Takes on the World
By Kathi Wolfe
As the 25th anniversary of the Americans
with Disabilities Act approaches, its easy to forget that people with
disabilities worldwide encounter barriers. This isnt the case with Judith
E. Heumann, special advisor for international disability rights with the U.S.
On April 28, she conducted a briefing in
Washington, D.C., at the Foreign Press Center on the first high-level United
States and China coordination meeting on disability. The event brought together
government and nongovernment experts to discuss disability rights issues
ranging from education to the role of civil society groups (nonprofit
The meeting was held April 14-15 in
Washington, D.C. Heumann led the U.S. delegation, and Sun Xiande, executive
vice president of the China Disabled Persons Federation, led the Chinese
Heumann, who contracted polio as a toddler
in 1949, was asked to The briefing provided a window not only into how the U.S.
and China are discussing disability issues but into the life story of Heumann,
widely considered to be the Rosa Parks of the disability rights
serve in her current role with the State
Department in 2010. This ... position ... was created by President Obama
as a result of the disability community asking that we elevate the issues of
disability not just domestically but internationally, she said before
discussing the U.S.-China meeting.
When she was
growing up, there was little thought about human rights, civil rights or equal
rights for disabled individuals, Heumann said. Over the course of her lifetime,
there have been many changes, she said.
The dramatic change in the United
States has been inspired very much by disabled people coming together to go
beyond just discussing what our problems were ... to look at the kinds of
solutions that we wanted to secure, Heumann said.
In the 1970s, a significant number of
pieces of disability legislation were passed, including Section 504 of the
Rehabilitation Act of 1973, she said. Section 504, modeled on the Civil Rights
Act of 1964, prohibited disability-based discrimination by any programs
receiving federal money. But it didnt cover the private
sector, Heumann said.
The 1990 passage of the Americans with
Disabilities Act, a bipartisan civil rights law that covers both the federal
and private sector, was a momentous occasion in the U.S., Heumann
said, noting that the State Department will be involved as United States
embassies worldwide celebrate the ADA.
Heumann became interested in
international issues when she attended the Paralympic Games in Heidelberg,
Germany, in 1972. I am not an athlete; Im a cheerleader ... but I
love to watch the sports, she said. It was the first time that I
met disabled people from all over the world.
Heumann went on to work with the Center
for Independent Living in Berkeley, Calif., the World Institute on Disability,
the U.S. Department of Education and the World Bank before assuming her current
position. Her work with the State Department has allowed her, she said,
to offer governments the opportunity to share information about what
weve learned over these many decades and an opportunity for us to learn
from governments about what theyre doing.
Last year, at the invitation of Zhang
Haidi, the chairwoman of the China Disabled Persons Federation, Heumann
and her colleagues visited China twice. During those visits, they met with
government officials, CDPF members and people from nonprofit groups (civil
society). The common thread between the U.S. and Chinese participants was
discussing the removal of stigma, the ability to have the right to
education, the ability for people to see that disabled people are capable of
working and want to make the same contributions as everyone else in their
society, Heumann said.
This year, China led the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation
conference. At the official meetings between the U.S. and China, the Chinese
asked that we have a meeting where we would focus on the issue of
disability, Heumann said.
The first day of the disability
coordination meeting was April 14. The Chinese delegation had a few officials
from government agencies and a number of representatives from the CDPF, Heumann
said. The U.S delegation was composed of senior representatives from government
agencies, including the Department of Justice, the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission and the Department of Education. A representative from the National
Council on Independent Living and the National Parent Technical Assistance
Center were among the U.S. delegation.