NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
MODERATOR: Good day and welcome to this New York Foreign Press Center briefing on Protecting the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. My name is Daphne Stavropoulos and I’m today’s moderator. It’s a pleasure to introduce our speakers. Sara Minkara serves as the U.S. special advisor on international disability rights, a position she has held since November of 2021. Mr. Vladimir Cuk is the executive director of the International Disability Alliance.
This briefing is on the record, and as with all of our briefings, I will add this disclaimer that views expressed by briefers not affiliated with the Department of State are their own and don’t necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government. If you’ve not had the opportunity to do so, please ensure your full name and media outlet appear on the screen, and following our speakers’ remarks I will open the floor for questions. If you have a question, go to the participant field and raise your virtual hand and wait for me to call on you, and when called on, please enable both your audio and your video and identify yourself by full name and outlet.
And with that, it’s a pleasure to turn the floor over to Special Advisor Minkara. Thanks for joining us today.
MS MINKARA: Awesome. Thank you, Daphne, and thank you to the amazing team that’s with us today, and thank you to Vlad. I’m honored to be with you all here today, so I’m going to give some brief remarks in terms of what we’re doing here in New York, share some of our priorities, then dive into kind of talking a little bit about our work in disability in Ukraine and disability-inclusive democracy. And then I’m going to end with talking about the GLAD Network and hand it over to Vlad.
So we’re here in New York because it’s COSP15, Conference of State Parties, that happens every year at the UN, where people and organizations and individuals come together to really discuss what are issues surrounding disability inclusion, ranging from topics – climate and disability to disability-inclusive democracy to COVID and disability, and so much more. We’re here – we’ve just finished our side session that we hosted, and I’ll talk a little bit more about that later. We have – we are having many bilateral and multilateral meetings with our partners. And then we’re participating in other side sessions and also participating in our first GLAD meeting as co-chairs.
But just briefly, I’ve shared this earlier a few months ago, but just to kind of give you guys a summary on our priorities, which will connect to what we’re here, so first we’re – one of our main priorities is fostering accountability and building capacity. It’s really important for us as we are really traveling the world and working with different governments and countries to really support in building capacity and helping governments uphold their commitments when it comes to disability policies, right, and we’ve – recently did a trip to Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – and earlier we did a trip to Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, and Kuwait. And during those trips we actually had a lot of great outcomes and deliverables. One example is the ratification of the CRPD in Lebanon.
Our second priority, which is related to what we just hosted earlier today, it’s promoting disability-inclusive democracy. As we all know, the democracy commitment is an important commitment for the Biden administration, and we want to make sure disability-inclusive lens is part of that conversation. We believe that for a country and for our global community to achieve full prosperity, peace, and security, everyone needs to be included, and when we say “everyone,” that means also persons with disabilities. From accessing voting rights to political participation to development of policies, let’s make sure persons with disabilities are part of the conversation, but not just from a rights-based perspective. It’s from a value-based perspective: How do we really get our systems to believe that the inclusion of persons with disabilities into our democratic process is a value for everyone? And when we really put forward that value-based narrative, we tend to find ways and solutions and address challenges to really include persons with disabilities into our democratic process.
And we just finished a side event that was virtual and – where we – it was cohosted by IFES, and we had speakers ranging from Assistant Secretary Lisa Peterson from the State Department to Senator Kaltayeva from Kazakhstan to Liselotte Correa from Mexico, INE in Mexico, to Senator Ras Adiba from Malaysia and to Mushegh Hovsepyan from Armenia, from Disability Rights Agenda. And they had an amazing – we had an amazing conversation, dialogue in terms of what are best practices out there, what are challenges, and how can we look at this from an adaptive lens than a technical lens.
Our third priority, which is advancing human rights in moments of crisis – as we all know, persons with disabilities during most moments of crisis are forgotten, left behind, and if they are seen, they’re seen from a pity lens. We’re focusing on how do we make sure persons with disabilities’ needs are addressed and also seen as a source of solution and value when we’re talking about response and negotiations in peace and rebuilding. We’re focusing a lot on Ukraine and disability, and we’ve done a lot of work both internally within the State Department, externally in terms of organizing a biweekly international NGO working group to really make sure that the conversation, dialogue surrounding Ukraine and disability is on the forefront of people’s minds.
And then last but not least is – our priority is disrupting the narrative surrounding disability, moving from a charity lens to a value-based lens, which I kind of referenced earlier. Ultimately, you can have all the policies and all the legislations, right, but who implements the policies? It’s the people. And how do we really make sure people see the value in the inclusion of persons with disabilities, don’t see it as a favor, as an add-on, as a charity, or as just the right thing to do, but truly believe it’s the – it brings value to society at large.
Last thing, and then I’ll hand it over to Vlad. We are honored and excited that we will be joining the U.S. Government, will be joining as co-chair to the GLAD Network. The GLAD Network was founded in 2015, and it is a coordination of bodies – bilateral, multilateral, donors and agencies, private and public foundations, and a coalition of disability movement organizations – coming together to really move forward the needle in the conversation around disability-inclusive development and humanitarian action; how do we make sure that that is at the forefront of people’s mind, and how do we make sure that we are kind of disrupting the status quo when we’re talking about disability-inclusive development.
So I’m honored to kind of hand it over to Vladimir Cuk, who is executive director of International Disability Alliance and the permanent co-chair to GLAD.
MR CUK: Thank you very much, Sara. This is a very great moment for us. And actually, this is the first moment that we are publicly saying that we will be co-chairing the GLAD together. So welcome, Sara, and welcome, U.S. Government, to this important role.
GLAD is a network of donors and foundations and the UN, as Sara mentioned a little bit previously, that is tasked to promote disability-inclusive development and humanitarian action. And why is that? Because we noticed that we did receive a lot of political commitments over time, and in many cases, in many moments of time, global leaders, world leaders, were really strongly committing to, like, promoting disability rights. But never these particular commitments were followed up with concrete financial and human resources commitments. So this part was never there enough, at least, or when it was happening, it was happening in such a small way and a slow progress way.
So we wanted to create this network, and it was first made with the UK Government and then leadership was to cover from – with DFAT Australia, and then back to UK, and then Norway, and now U.S. will take this leadership together with us forward.
This is incredibly important because without financial commitments and the human resources commitments to development, we cannot advance and we cannot include 1 billion persons with disabilities in sustainable development, and without those, we cannot have sustainable development. So it is incredibly important. And what we notice is that really this network is one of or maybe the most impactful tool the disability rights movement globally have today. And that is – so, Sara, you are coming into very instrumental role, and we can do a lot, and especially now, coming out of – hopefully coming out of COVID crisis – let’s say like that – and faced with the Ukraine war, faced with the financial crisis that is looming every day more and more.
So now it’s more than ever when typically world leader says disabilities maybe not so important right now, let’s deal with that next week – and we should remind them that, no, we have to talk about that right now. So Sara, it is critical that we have now leadership from somebody like U.S. that is a world leader in so many things, that can now take charge with us, and to remind the world that the time to act is now. So thank you very much. Welcome.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much for those opening remarks. We’ll open the floor for questions. If you have a question, please raise your virtual hand or type your question in the chat, and I’m happy to either call on you or read your question in the chat to our speakers.
And I can start by asking, Special Advisor Minkara, how do disability rights intersect with other global issues like climate crisis or gender inequality?
MS MINKARA: I mean, they are – disability rights intersect with all segments, all issues, all sectors within our society. Let me give an example – like, for instance, that you mentioned climate change, right? So climate change, when there’s a climate disaster that happens, that goes back to the crisis conversation. A lot of time, the way a country or city responds, persons with disabilities are not part of the response – are not included or the response is not accessible for persons with disabilities.
So how do we make sure that countries take into consideration the perspective of persons with disability into how we respond to crisis? How do we make sure, also, persons with disabilities are part of the long-term solution in addressing climate change? Because people with disabilities are like any other community – there’s value to be brought forward. So disability in general intersects with all aspects within our society, in our system.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. I don’t want – I wonder if, Mr. Cuk, do you want to add to that.
MR CUK: Yeah, I – definitely it is very important. I mean, Sara said it very well, but maybe to say it a bit more, that the climate change and climate action is really – feel that we as the International Disability Alliance and the GLAD want to really look very carefully into. We did not enough connect disability rights with the climate change. There was no understanding that we need to speak with one billion people, which is maybe a little bit shocking, right? So I think that in this year and next year, we should be really focusing a lot of our time on connecting climate change and disability rights.
Typically, in any crisis situation, whether it is war but also climate and nature-induced crisis, persons with disabilities are those that are usually left behind. And this is a rule that applies for global south and global north. If you remember any climate crisis in the last 20 years, there’s horrific stories about persons with disabilities left in the homes – permanent homes, specialized schools, institutions, simply because nobody thought about how we will be rescuing the disabled people that maybe need help, assistance, transportation, et cetera, et cetera. So this we need to change.
So for the first time in the conference in Glasgow last year – UNCCC climate change conference – for the first time, disability has been recognized as a stakeholder group. So now we have actually space through which we will be in the future influencing. And maybe we will be looking in how can we align GLAD work with the next meeting that will be happening in Sharm el-Sheikh in – October?
MS MINKARA: October, yeah, exactly, in Egypt, yep. Yeah, exactly.
MR CUK: Yes, yes. So that is a task for Sara and I, so I think.
MS MINKARA: Exactly.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much for that. I do have a question in the chat, but before we do that, perhaps we could just pivot just a little bit. I think the anniversary of the ADA is next month, and maybe, Special Advisor Minkara, you can just tell us a little bit about the anniversary and ADA and why it’s important.
MS MINKARA: So yes, the ADA’s anniversary is next month in July, and July is Disability Pride Month. And the ADA was established in 1990 and it is a legislation, a law, a policy that really allowed persons with disabilities in the U.S. to be able to live their full life. And as a person with disability who was born and raised in the U.S., I can personally testify how much it really allowed me to receive inclusive education, have the right for employment, all aspects of our – of what a person, in their livelihood, what they should be living in an inclusive world. So – and the ADA has influence and was part of the influence of the development of the CRPD, the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. And ultimately, it really showcases that a person with disability has value to society; let’s make sure that the system that we’re in is accessible and inclusive for all so we can be able to contribute to our world.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. This next question comes in from a chat. It is from a journalist based in D.C., Sahar Zahran from Al Ahram: “Tell us more about your program in Egypt. And what is your opinion of the efforts Egypt has taken towards people with disabilities in Egypt?”
MS MINKARA: So we visited Egypt in March, and we had a wide range of meetings with members of parliament, of persons with disabilities to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Social Affairs, even civil society, so a wide range of meetings. And we also met with their National Council on Disability, Dr. Iman. And one of the outcomes that we’re taking forward is there is the Law 18 that was developed – adopted a few years ago which is a comprehensive law on disability inclusion, and now the next step is how do we make sure the implementation – what – implementing the law. And one of the requests from us was providing technical expertise surrounding how can we support the NCD, their National Council on Disability, in terms of the implementation of the law. And there’s a lot to learn from here in the U.S. We have over 50 years of experience in terms of adaptation of law and adoptions of law and also the implementation and our National Council on Disability. So that is something that we are continuing the conversation and working with them on.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. In your opening remarks, you had mentioned some progress that you had noted in Lebanon, and you’ve just now talked about Egypt. I wonder if you could also talk about some of the deliverables that came of your visits to other countries in the Middle East and South and Central Asia.
MS MINKARA: Yeah, definitely. To give another example, in Tajikistan, we – they are – they have a action plan to really move towards the ratification of the CRPD, and we had meetings with the minister of labor, the minister of health, and other entities within the government. And one of our outcomes is how do we keep supporting their plan towards moving towards the ratification of their CRPD again, providing technical expertise.
Another example, in Morocco we met with the ministry of social solidarity, Minister Aawatif, who is very much committed towards inclusive education. And one of the outcomes is how do we continue supporting and providing technical expertise surrounding inclusive education.
So there’s a wide range of kind of outcomes in each country, and one of our goals is to kind of really build capacity, as I mentioned in our first priority, and really allow for there to be kind of shared responsibility building capacity and taking the work forward. There’s a lot that we can learn from each other in sharing best practices, and that’s what we’re hoping to keep on doing. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. I can ask another. I’m seeing – oh, Pearl, I’d rather ask your question or have you ask your own question. Go ahead, Pearl.
QUESTION: Hi, Daphne. Thank you so much. Very interesting to hear the briefers today, so I just want to thank you, Sara and your colleague here. So my question to you is you described places where you have traveled the world and these – what I can say key pillars that you’re working on, which is tremendous work.
How about Africa? Because people living with disabilities in Africa suffer an even greater vulnerability to even other countries that you may put in the category of being poorer countries in the world. We have seen climate-affected areas like South African provinces like KwaZulu-Natal, Mozambique through the cyclones after cyclones, Malawi, Zimbabwe. A lot of people there do not have any support even after a treaty signed through the United Nations, where you are.
So where do those countries stand? Where do these associations – where do people go to for assistance? Or are you looking or preparing for some different focus on Africa, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa particularly? Thanks so much.
MS MINKARA: That’s a really good question. So first, high-level – our office, our mandate is global so we are covering all regions of the world. Unfortunately, I wish we had the capacity to do every country. I mean, that would be the dream. But we are going to be visiting Africa, a couple of countries in Africa in the fall.
And to answer your question, we are – the priorities will be the same. But again, to your point, there’s a lot of countries that have ratified the CRPD, for instance, and this is where we want to kind of support in terms of how do we actualize that into implementation.
So for instance, one of the countries we’ll be visiting will be Mozambique, and ultimately our goal in each country, we really tailor our outcomes and deliverables based on the need on the ground. But one need that is everywhere – that is needed everywhere is, I would say, the narrative change. Right? Because ultimately, as I mentioned, you can have all the policies, but who’s going to implement the policies? It’s the people. And how do we really create work and projects around narrative change? And that at times will need to be tailored based on the community or the region or the country we’re in, but also it could be a project on a global scale as well.
So definitely a good question and yeah, thank you.
MR CUK: Can I just jump in on this African question, if I can, please? So basically International Disability Alliance is a global network of organizations representing persons with disabilities. So one of our members is actually African Disability Forum, and this is a regional organization representing persons with disabilities. And we can say that there is a significant increase in the financial investment in the disability rights in the continent, especially Sub-Sahara Africa, especially Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, but many other countries as well – for example, Nigeria, et cetera, et cetera. And we see that there is more and more focus, attention from the global community. So I would advise if we are really, like, interested in this to make a contact with African Disability Forum to see how we can better work or better work maybe together. If you have any ideas or if you want to connect some dots, Pearl, it will be great.
But things are starting to shape, starting to move, and what we are seeing over the last couple of years is very promising developments. Simply, it is focus of international community is finally having some smaller results but still, like, visible results. There are many donors that are prioritizing disability in Sub-Saharan Africa, and we are documenting this and seeing that, like, things are changing. But of course you are very much right, Pearl. We are far away from a goal, but still there is some small level, like, optimism.
QUESTION: Thank you so much.
MODERATOR: Special Advisor Minkara, I wonder if you could talk about what the United States is doing to support people with disabilities who are impacted by conflict, including in Ukraine.
MS MINKARA: So as I mentioned earlier, one of our focus is crisis and how do we really – first, internally within the State Department, how do we mainstream and make sure that when we’re responding to crisis, disability is mainstreamed into our efforts and our approach. And then also we’re honing in on a few countries, and one of them is Ukraine because it’s a horrific crisis, like other crises as well.
And what we’ve done, for instance, in Ukraine is in the initial moments of the crisis we actually had a – organized a session with the civilian individuals and leaders and organizations on the ground in Ukraine to really hear what they’re experiencing, what their challenges, and try to really connect those experiences and those challenges and what we’re learning to our implementing partners, to other international agencies and organizations. And then we institutionalize a weekly and biweekly international NGO working group so we can keep on sharing what’s happening and sharing that back into our internal work.
When we were in Geneva on March 14th, we also organized a meeting with our implementing partners to really try to understand from their perspective also what are the challenges they’re seeing and how to really make sure that they are incorporating and including persons with disabilities into their on-the-ground efforts and really bridging that gap.
So that’s what we’ve been doing and continue to work on the conversation and dialogue, but ultimately there’s a long-term conversation, there’s a long-term effort that we need to be thinking about, is that a lot of times you hear certain conversations and certain individuals saying, well, this is – we’re doing our best or everyone is suffering, right? But let give you guys an example.
When a crisis hits, and imagine you are in your building and you’re not able to leave because of your disability, you’re not able to evacuate, leave your building, or access evacuation. Or when you access evacuation, you get to a bomb shelter and it’s not accessible. Let’s say information is not accessible. Let’s say when you get to the border you’re denied crossing the border because of certain criteria. This is what persons with disabilities are facing. We face access barriers across the board. We need to be addressing these. We need to be explicitly mentioning them. We need to be hearing what’s happening on the ground, and we need to make sure that agencies and international organizations that are doing crisis response, disability organizations and individuals with disabilities are part of the process in that development of those crisis response.
So there’s a lot of work to be done, but everyone – what’s important is everyone’s having these conversations and we’re moving forward. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much.
MR CUK: Yeah, just on – just to say that there will be a very good side event tomorrow morning 8:15 in Trusteeship Council room. So it is a rather large room, so I would like to, like, invite you to come. We will need people visiting. It will be – it will be lots of space there, but we are addressing a crisis. In Ukraine idea is with number of partners, and we will be having speakers from the Ukraine association of persons with disabilities directly speaking to the group. So I think it will be very important event, for me maybe most important side event of this week. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you for mentioning that. Perhaps I can share the link for a livestream or the information for in-person attendance with the journalists who are participating today after this briefing. I want to invite anyone who has joined us on the Zoom to ask one last question before we turn to our speakers for closing remarks. If you have a question, please raise your virtual hand or go ahead in the chat function and I am happy to read it out loud.
Well, we appreciate your time and I want to offer the floor back to the special advisor and Mr. Cuk if you have closing comments, closing remarks.
MS MINKARA: Awesome. Thank you, Daphne. I want to thank Vlad for his leadership, and I want to thank all of you who are with us virtually. I will say the media world, the media sector, it’s an important actually sector to really advance the rights of persons with disability because narrative change, where it happens is within the media as well, and how do we really get media to really be thinking about bringing more of the voice of persons with disabilities and also bringing it through value-based lines, and really how do we – that will help us kind of disrupt the status quo and disrupt the – in many ways the marginalization of persons with disabilities. So we look forward to continue partnering up with your guys and really continuing this dialogue and this conversation. Thank you.
MR CUK: And to maybe continue in this same direction specifically about media, I would like to invite you to just explore WeThe15 campaign. WeThe15, like a 15 percent of the world. I would kindly advise that you can visit the website to learn about this very interesting campaign that was started last summer that reached already 6.2 billion people, which is fantastic number. And we expect a lot further on this campaign, so I’m sure that you will find on that website something interesting. Thank you.
And once again to welcome U.S. to the GLAD co-chairmanship and that we will be doing some great things together. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Well, thank you again for making the time in your busy schedule this week. Good luck with the meetings later this week at the United Nations. Thank you for joining us. Todays’ briefing was on the record. A transcript will be made available as soon as it’s ready, and we’ll share it with everyone who participated. It will also be posted on the Foreign Press Center’s website.
So with that, thank you so much and good day.