“The State Department has the honor of representing the American people to the world. To do that well, we must recruit and retain a workforce that truly reflects America. Diversity and inclusion make us stronger, smarter, more creative, and more innovative.” – Secretary Antony J. Blinken
One billion. This is the number of persons with disabilities around the globe, according to the World Health Organization. The largest workforce in the U.S. Department of State? Globally, the Department of State’s Locally Employed Staff (LE Staff)/Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs) number 56,000, representing approximately two-thirds of the Department. The intersection of these two circles provides our U.S. embassies opportunities to exponentially advance foreign policy, share best practices, and promote diversity and inclusion.
As we nod to those who lead by example, we highlight three U.S. embassies – Addis Ababa, N’Djamena, and Reykjavik – that expanded their diversity and inclusion sphere by hiring LE staff with disabilities.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Inspired Leader Meets a Mandela Washington Fellowship Alumna
U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda, Peter Vrooman, first experienced the importance of disability inclusion in the Department during his Foreign Service orientation. While taking the class, two of his blind colleagues fought court battles to become Foreign Service Officers in 1991, shortly after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Another “a-ha!” moment came while serving as the Charge d’Affaires in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2016. Vrooman realized that people with disabilities in developing countries disproportionately experience gender-based violence, unemployment, food insecurity, and lack access to education and health services. Vrooman noted, “I really found that I flipped around the paradigm in my own mind and began to see that hiring people with disabilities is critical to accomplishing many of our foreign policy and development objectives.”
While he was serving as Charge d’Affaires, the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa hired Rigbe Gebrehawaria, a Mandela Washington Fellowship alumna, as a Human Resources (HR) Assistant at the embassy. Her responsibilities included reviewing and improving upon the embassy’s HR policies and providing embassy staff training. “Having a disability and working on the HR team has resulted in disability inclusion policies and practices within the Mission,” she said. Gebrehawaria later remarked: “LE staff did not know anything about reasonable accommodations and had no idea about having the right to demand employers to provide the accommodations based on the local laws. That’s when I realized that we needed a post reasonable accommodation policy for LE staff and worked with my team to draft one.”
Gebrehawaria was able to share her expertise further in February 2020, when Ambassador Vrooman, now Ambassador to Rwanda, invited her to discuss best practices with his Mission Rwanda team. The conversation reinvigorated the U.S. Embassy and USAID’s thinking on hiring and programming approaches that support both people with disabilities and others. Towards the end of 2020, USAID Rwanda hired a short-term Disability Advisor to foster their disability-inclusive development efforts within the Mission.
During Gebrehawaria’s visit, the Ambassador also hosted a disability learning event that gathered Mission Leadership, local advocates for the rights of persons with disabilities, and USAID implementing partners at the Ambassador’s residence. There, they discussed challenges faced by persons with disabilities in Rwanda and explored intersections between disability rights advocacy and the Embassy’s efforts to promote inclusive country-led human capital and development programs.
On December 2, USAID launched the “Umurimo Kuri Bose” (“Employment for All”) activity, a two-year investment of nearly $1.5 million to promote an inclusive and enabling environment for 1,560 youth, with 80% of the funds dedicated to youth with disabilities. Today, disability inclusion continues to be among the core cross-cutting themes in all Mission’s strategies, programs, projects, and activities across target development sectors.
N’Djamena, Chad: On the Front Lines of Human Rights as a Change Agent
At the U.S. Embassy to Chad in N’Djamena, Djas Ratebaye is an LE staff member with a disability who serves as a political specialist. He is often the face of the U.S. Embassy and shows Chadians what is possible—individuals with disabilities serving as assets to the workforce and, even more importantly, its very own government.
“In Chad, wherever I am and whatever I do, the first thing that comes to the common person’s mind is, ‘You don’t belong here,’” said Ratebaye. “Yet, I’m grateful to have such great people as colleagues at the embassy. I give the best of myself at work.”
“There are no laws preventing employment discrimination based on disabilities in Chad, and as a result, persons with disabilities are woefully underrepresented in the workforce,” noted Seth Vaughn, the Political/Economic Section Chief of U.S. Embassy N’Djamena, who supervises Ratebaye. “The public calls that led the government to put focus on driving education and hiring of persons with disabilities have not realized much in the way of gains. Rights advocates complain that the knee-jerk response of the society to persons with disabilities is to offer charity and food rather than employment.”
“Djas is good at what he does,” Vaughn continued. “He has great experience cultivating contacts in the government and the NGO community. And he brings a passion, while taking an even-handed and balanced view in his reporting and counsel based on facts.”
Ratbye continues, “In this country where people with disabilities are seen as third-class humans, Chadian officials and others are fascinated when they see me performing my duties, and they start engaging respectfully with me on the disability issues.”
Reykjavik, Iceland: A Human Rights Champion Inspired by U.S. Policy
Even countries like Iceland that are known for their robust human rights still benefit from the United States’ disability rights model, and this started with U.S. Embassy Reykjavik leading by example through hiring Icelanders with disabilities.
“U.S. Embassy Reykjavik adheres to the principle that disability rights are human rights. By providing reasonable accommodations to staff with disabilities, but otherwise placing all employees on an equal footing, we ensure full and equal participation of all employees,” said Patrick Geraghty, the Public Affairs Officer.
“Helga Magnusdottir, lead Public Diplomacy Assistant for Cultural Affairs and one of the longest-serving LE staff at Mission Reykjavik, is a great asset to the embassy,” said Geraghty. “One of Helga’s strengths, borne from having to deal with inaccessible environments, is anticipating problems with respect to access. But, she does not dwell on the problem. Rather, she immediately forms an action plan to overcome whatever obstacle she faces. And this spirit carries over into her job.”
“Fifteen minutes before a visiting U.S. military band was to start their performance, the bassoonist realized he did not pack his instrument’s mouthpiece. While others were concerned with how this mistake occurred, Helga started making calls to her contacts and was able to come up with not one but five bassoon mouthpieces in just a few minutes.”
Magnusdorttir also led support for the U.S. Embassy team providing technical assistance to a delegation of Icelandic disability rights leaders advocating for a national disability law. Utilizing her knowledge, lived experiences, and contacts, Magnusdottir helped coordinate the group’s U.S. visit by connecting them with American experts to discuss disability rights related to accessibility, education, employment, and independent living.
“Because of Iceland’s profile as being in the forefront on human rights, I think many of the officers were surprised when they realized the status on disability rights in Iceland,” said Magnusdottir. “Once they realized that Iceland could really benefit from the U.S. perspective on disability rights, it has been an integral part of our U.S. Mission policy and goals.”
LE Staff with Disabilities = The Secret to the Success of American Diplomacy
“Some might have preconceived ideas of what a person with disabilities is,” underscored Magnusdottir. “Maybe, that is one of the obstacles. But, at the end of the day, we are just people. Let us work and find our value. Recognize that we all want to contribute and do something that matters in this life and in the pursuit of happiness.”
By creating an inclusive and diverse work environment where our individual differences are appreciated, valued, and celebrated, our diplomacy – along with our country and the global community – advance, one human at a time.
About the Author: Roberta Mather serves as the Senior Advisor for Employee Communications in the Bureau of Global Public Affairs, Office of Planning and Events at the U.S. Department of State.