Promoting quality education for all.

A Message for the 116th Congress on International Disability Rights

Anna Martin, 

With the 116th United States Congress sworn in just over a month ago, it is a crucial time for us to be thinking about how we as advocates can align ourselves with our Congressmen and Congresswomen to fight for the quality, inclusive, free education for all that GCE-US is so passionate about.

We want to give a special thanks to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and the United States International Council on Disabilities (USICD) for hosting “Promoting American Interests through International Disability Rights: Recommendations for the New Congress” which brought experts Judith Heumann, International Disability Rights Advocate, Isabel Hodge, Executive Director of USICD, and Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, Global Disability Advisor at the World Bank together to discuss how the 116th Congress can leverage American policy and leadership to promote disability rights worldwide.

Isabel Hodge of USICD spoke of the findings from a study that they did with InterAction that found out of the 85 U.S. government programming solicitations they reviewed, 40% did not mention disability and only 20% required people with disabilities to participate in a meaningful way. This helps us to understand that if donors and governments are not directly asking for disability inclusion, it does not happen.

Judith Heumann, who was the Senior Advisor on Disability Rights at the U.S. State Department from 2010-2017 urged for the U.S. government to have an Ambassador on Disability Rights. A title does open doors and for disability rights to be fully realized around the world, a Senior Advisor is not enough. However, currently without this position being filled by anyone, disability inclusion is not getting the visibility it requires. While Judy was at the State Department, the issue of disability became more of a priority. The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young Africa Leaders, which brings young people from all over Africa to the U.S. to hone their leadership skills, went from having zero participants with disabilities to 65 by the end of the 6 and a half years that Judy was in this position. With a position like Ambassador on Disability Rights, we know this kind of inclusion could happen in more programs like the Mandela Washington Fellowship.

Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo from the World Bank spoke of the ebbs and flows that have occurred with work on disability and mentioned that when there is someone who understands disability in a senior position, things get done. There is room for more leadership in this area and it is imperative for this Congress to recognize that. Other donors around the world are really prioritizing this issue, so for the U.S. to stand alongside those other funding agencies, there is a need to put more people with expertise on disability -- especially people with disabilities -- in senior positions.

Event sponsor Congresswoman Dina Titus from Las Vegas gave inspiring remarks. She was grateful for the education that Congress has received on the issue of disability from the various people in the room, but also understands that “surely there is a lot left for us [Congress] to do." She stressed that there should be someone at the ambassadorial level focused on disability inclusion at the State Department and that with 177 of 193 UN members having ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the United States not being one of those, “we know we need to do more.”

When asked what concrete recommendations they had for our new Congress, the following were brought to immediate attention:

  • Introduce disability into your lexicon.
  • Congress needs to have a better understanding of why disability is important. Their staffers should be asking questions about how disability is included and how it is measured.
  • Reach out to disability experts and invite them to your events.

Again, GCE-US wants to commend IFES and USICD for gathering such a rich panel together to discuss international disability rights and urge our new Congress to do more on helping people with disabilities realize their rights.


Anna Martin serves as the Disability Inclusive Education Advocacy Advisor with the Global Campaign for Education-US (GCE-US) and Light for the World. 

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