How A Law To Protect Disabled Americans Became Imitated Around The World
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.
SHAPIRO: They listen to Judith 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.
JUDITH 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, Judith 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.