office of international disability rightsOne billion people, or over 15% of the world’s population, have some form of disability, according to The World Bank. Despite the widespread prevalence of disability, many people with disabilities across the world struggle to access basic services, public spaces and employment. This traps many people with disabilities in poverty and impairs their health. To address this issue, Representative Dina Titus (D-NV-1) introduced The Office of International Disability Rights Act in order to create the Office of International Disability Rights within the Department of State’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

What Challenges Do People With Disabilities Face?

Disability intersects with a range of other issues, including education, poverty and health. Though 140 countries signed the Convention On The Rights Of The Child officially recognize the “the right of the child to education,” in practice this right often does not apply to children with disabilities.

Children with disabilities are less likely to have access to education than children without disabilities. This is because access needs for children with disabilities to understand educational materials, or even be able to navigate a school building, are not guaranteed in many nations. For example, unless children with physical disabilities have access to wheelchairs, ramps and accessible school rooms, they will be unable to fully participate in school. Without sufficient access to education, people with disabilities are disproportionately poor, are often unemployed and lack financial access to healthcare. According to the United Nations, 80% to 90% of working-age people with disabilities are unemployed.

Disability rights are particularly essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the United Nations, “barriers such as physical accessibility, barriers to implementing basic hygiene measures, affordability of healthcare, limitations on health insurance, and discriminatory laws and stigma, can be life-threatening in the midst of a pandemic.” Ensuring equal access to healthcare resources can help reduce the impact of COVID-19 on disabled people, many of whom live in poverty. This is where The Office of International Disability Rights Act comes in.

What would The Office of International Disability Rights Act Do?

The office would serve multiple purposes, including acting as the State Department’s advisor on disability issues, representing the U.S. within international governance bodies on the topic of disability rights and making sure that the State Department itself is inclusive of disabled people. The Office of International Disability Rights would coordinate with civil society organizations as well as the U.S. government at large and other governments to advance disability rights around the world.

To make sure that State Department practices follow disability rights guidelines, the State Department will create disability inclusion training for personnel and develop a formal disability inclusion policy. The Office of International Disability Rights would also collaborate with other offices of the State Department to ensure that disability rights violations are properly recorded in annual reports on human rights.

If Congress passes The Office of International Disability Rights Act, the Secretary of State will brief the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate on progress made on the above efforts, as well as any recommendations for legislative actions to advance disability rights.

Why Should International Disability Rights Be A U.S. Priority?

This bill has both domestic and foreign policy precedents. In 2010, the U.S. first appointed the Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the Department of State. The advisor helped incorporate awareness of disability rights as part of Department policies and annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and Trafficking in Persons report. Thirty years ago, the U.S. passed the Americans with Disabilities Act to protect the rights of disabled people within the U.S. to access basic services, education, healthcare, workplaces and other public spaces.

While neither of these past initiatives has solved every disability rights issue, each helped build institutional capacity and an important framework for disability rights at home and abroad. The Office of International Disability Rights Act would help build on these initiatives, in a time when the unmet needs of people with disabilities are a quickly growing international concern.

Tamara Kamis
Photo: Flickr