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On Disability, Heumann Takes on the World

Heumann at the State Department Washington, D C /Google ImagesBy Kathi Wolfe

As the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act approaches, it’s easy to forget that people with disabilities worldwide encounter barriers. This isn’t the case with Judith E. Heumann, special advisor for international disability rights with the U.S. State Department.

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 organizations).

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 contingent.

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 movement.

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.

Judith Heumann / Google ImagesWhen 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 didn’t 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; I’m 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 we’ve learned over these many decades and an opportunity for us to learn from governments about what they’re 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.

Judith Heumann outside the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing, May 2014./Josh Chin, the Wall Street Journal.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.



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