Remarks to the Advisory Committee on Persons with DisabilitiesBarry F. Lowenkron, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
February 6, 2006
Welcome to the second annual meeting of the State Department and USAID Advisory Committee on Persons with Disabilities. On behalf of Secretary Rice, I want to thank the distinguished members of the Committee for their dedicated service to the nation. We welcome the input of the disabled community on foreign policy issues and will be interested to receive your report and recommendations.
I am delighted that Secretary Rice appointed Stephanie Ortoleva as the new Disability Coordinator and Executive Director of the Committee. Stephanie already has worked closely with all of you, and with Chris Camponovo, our outstanding, outgoing Coordinator. She is a tremendous choice. I know, because she also serves as an invaluable member of my team in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Congratulations, Stephanie.
Ladies and Gentlemen, our mission in the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, is to advance President Bush’s Freedom Agenda across the globe. Dignity and Liberty are the birthright of every human being. But recognition of these inherent rights means little unless they can be effectively exercised. And it is the responsibility of every government to ensure that all men and women, including citizens with disabilities, have the equal opportunity to exercise their rights.
The American people can be proud of the pioneering leadership our country has shown in promoting both in principle and in practice the fundamental rights of people with disabilities at home and abroad.
As President Bush said last July marking the fifteenth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, "The ADA reflects our Nation's faith in the promise of all individuals." This far-reaching legislation has helped to break down the barriers that once prevented people with disabilities from having equal access to employment, places of public accommodation, telecommunications and public services in our country. Not only has the ADA enabled millions of our fellow Americans to exercise their rights and live their lives more fully, the ADA has enabled our nation to benefit from their many talents and skills.
The ADA is also serving as a model for other nations across the globe. Indeed, sharing our experiences with the ADA has helped to inform the ongoing United Nations negotiations on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Secretary of State Rice remains strongly committed to advocating worldwide for the rights of the disabled as part and parcel of her transformational diplomacy.
The participation of people with disabilities in the life of their nations is an important indicator of a country’s democratic progress. In many developing countries, indigenous non-governmental organizations interested in the concerns of people with disabilities are helping to build the civil societies essential to accountable government and economic growth. To protect the rights and address the needs of people with disabilities in developing countries, for fiscal year 2005, Congress provided approximately $2.5million for disability programs and for Fiscal Year 2006, Congress provided $4 million.
The United States will fund about a half million to Mobility International USA to increase participation by people with disabilities in U.S.-based international development programs. Disabled persons will not just be the beneficiaries of the funds; they will also serve as agents, administrators and consultants on how best the funding can be applied.
About a million dollars will help provide local partners with the means to build the capacity of Disabled People’s Organizations (DPOs) to promote and protect the rights of people with disabilities.
And another million dollars will fund our cooperative efforts with the Consortium for Elections and Political Process in an effort to increase the political participation of people with disabilities and raise their visibility in the political process.
The experience of Nicholas Halm, the Secretary General of the Ghana Federation for the Disabled and himself a blind teacher in Ghana, demonstrates how empowering examples can be set. Halm was part of the initial team that monitored the presidential elections in Ghana in 2004. He reported that his participation was significant for two reasons. First, he said, it was "an effective means of educating the public about the capabilities of people with disabilities. Other voters saw first-hand how people with disabilities could contribute positively to the development of their communities." "Voters looked at me," he said, "with interest and amazement as I asked questions and put down notes in Braille. A few gathered courage and asked me questions about my life." Second, Halm said that "as a result of this public recognition of their capabilities and their usefulness to society, the observation exercise encouraged self-assertiveness among Ghanaians with disabilities."
Helping people with disabilities vote by secret ballot -- a right guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights -- has been one of our major objectives. Our own national experience in this area, and our willingness to target foreign assistance grants toward that goal, puts the United States in a strong position to push on this important issue.
USAID funding has supported the efforts of The International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) to promote the adoption of low-cost voting techniques to ensure that blind citizens have the right to cast their ballots in secret. In 2002, in collaboration with the Ghana Electoral Commission and the Ghana Federation of the Disabled, IFES developed and pilot-tested a tactile ballot guide, which was then used in the 2004 presidential elections.
The tactile ballot guide has since been successfully used in Sierra Leone, Namibia, Tanzania, Lesotho and Liberia.
The disability program for the Middle East at IFES is funded by my Bureau, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The $538,000 program has enabled IFES to work with disability groups in Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan in the run-up to key elections.
IFES worked with the Lebanon Physical Handicap Union and the Lebanon Youth Association for the Blind to enable them to better prepare for historic elections last spring. Their activities included voter and civic education, election monitoring, liaison with election authorities to discuss needed reform and raising public awareness about issues of importance to citizens with disabilities, including by the posting of billboards near polling stations. One of the European Mission election observers commented to the DPOs on the billboards: "When I was coming down the highway last week", he said, "I kept seeing your billboards, so I asked ‘why so many’?" When I observed the polling stations during the first day of elections, I knew the answer. Some members of the DPOs live in very small and remote villages. When they went to vote, people from their village told them that they saw the campaign and that they apologized for not being able to make the polling stations accessible."
Beginning in the spring of 2005, IFES worked with NAS, an Egyptian NGO, to position it to become more effectively engaged in the fall 2005 elections. As a result of this project, Dr. Ashraf Marie, co-founder of a leading Egyptian DPO, made several television and radio appearances. Dr. Marie has become an important voice in his country and has had an impact on the media and the political process in Egypt.
And today, with our help, IFES is working in Yemen and Jordan in advance of their 2006 elections.
I have described only some of the ways that American diplomacy is helping persons with disabilities around the globe exercise their fundamental rights, and by so doing, helping them build a more hopeful future for themselves, their countries and our world.
In the years ahead, Secretary Rice and I will look to all of you on the Advisory Committee for insights and ideas. Thank you for your generous commitments of time and expertise. I look forward to working with you, and I wish you productive discussions.