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Disability Action Center NW

A Diverse and Socially Inclusive America Needs to Share Its Story


Wheelchair athlete, left, races along side able-bodied high school runners, April 19, 2006 in Rockville, Md. [AP File Photo]

Tara D. Sonenshine serves as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
Diversity is our strength, and everyone, including persons with disabilities, has important contributions to make.

That was one of the overarching messages at the 10th Special Olympics 2013 World Winter Games in South Korea this month, where athletes Tae Hemsath and Henry Meece — born in South Korea with developmental disabilities — returned to their birth country as Special Olympics athletes. Tae competed as a snowshoe racer, Henry as a snowboarder.

That same message resonated today throughout a public forum, where participants at Gallaudet University came to learn about opportunities in international exchange for persons with disabilities, and for members of the deaf community.

The audience was moved by the words and experiences of speakers, including U.S. Representative Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a former Army helicopter pilot who lost her legs in Iraq; T. Alan Hurwitz, President of Gallaudet and recipient of the DeafNation Inspiration Award for Higher Education in 2012; and Dr. Christie L. Gilson, a Fulbright alumna who is the first blind member of the Fulbright Board.

The event, underscored the State Department’s longtime commitment to the human rights, dignity and inclusion of U.S. citizens and citizens abroad with disabilities.

Working through our Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), we offer a wide array of programs that support diversity and social inclusion. And those efforts are supported by the overall messages of inclusion shared by our Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) and our embassies.

In September 2012, our Professional Fellows program launched its Empower Program, with four grants totaling $1.8 million to promote the rights of persons with disabilities in more than 20 countries. And IIP has dedicated the month of February to an exploration of human rights and social inclusion through disability rights, working with our Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

We also work in close collaboration with Judith Heumann, State’s Special Advisor forInternational Disability Rights, who served as a member of the U.S. Presidential delegation at the Special Olympics Games in South Korea.

Working with Special Advisor Heumann, for example, our embassy in Kathmandu invited 70 NGO activists to engage with American disability advocate Helena Berger. Speaking from Washington, she suggested ways they could urge their political representatives to create legislation to address the needs of persons with disabilities.

ECA’s Office of Citizen Exchanges regularly includes sports-related activities in its work. For example, SportsUnited has included the theme of Sport and Disability in its Open Competition, with exchanges scheduled this year for Brazil and Mexico. Over the coming year, our Sports Envoys and Visitors programs will take place through embassies in all the regions.

With our arts exchanges, too, we work to raise awareness and enrich our programs. In October, for example, actors and teachers from Maryland-based Quest: Arts For Everyone traveled to Mexico, where they led workshops on visual theater and professional development, and raised awareness of challenges faced by the deaf performing arts community. And Jim Bingham’s filmFor Once in My Life, a documentary about singers and musicians with disabilities was featured in our headliner film and filmmaker exchange program, the American Film Showcase. Jim shared his film with a variety of communities in Belarus and China.

These and many other programs build on a longstanding commitment that extends back to the mid-1990s, when ECA created a grant that established the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange. We continue to work with the Clearinghouse to promote opportunities for persons with disabilities in the United States and abroad. And we support the Department’s global network of EducationUSA advising centers to better serve students with disabilities looking to study in the United States.

Our message of disability inclusion is central to telling America’s story, because we believe that no story can be complete — and no challenges fully addressed — without everyone’s full involvement. Inclusion isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do.