On July 26, our nation marked the 30th Anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, and at the Department, we are committed to promoting a diverse workforce and inclusive culture where all employees are respected, valued, and able to fulfill their potential. On behalf of the State Department, we are humbled to receive the 2020 Public-Sector Employer of the Year Award from Careers and the DisABLED Magazine for our commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion in our workforce of more than 76,000 employees.
Twelve and a half percent of Department employees identify as having a disability, whether “visible” or “invisible.” Employees with disabilities—including Foreign Service Officers and Specialists, Civil Service employees, and Locally Employed Staff—serve all over the country and across the globe.
In recognition of the Anniversary, we want to highlight a few of our incredible employees who are making immense contributions to promoting and normalizing disabilities at the Department and serving as change agents in American diplomacy.
Della Herrmann arrived in the United States as a refugee fleeing the Iranian revolution. She and her family settled in Alexandria, Virginia, where she learned English in the midst of the hostage situation. After the horrific events of 9/11, Della joined the Foreign Service as a Political Officer and has served in Amman, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh, as well as in Washington D.C.
For individuals with “invisible disabilities,” I would encourage everyone to speak up and not hide their disability. We all have issues and no one is perfect. The more transparent we are, the more space we create for a more genuine and supportive work environment. For colleagues working with those of us with “invisible disabilities,” I say, please don’t be so surprised when you find out. The baseline for humanity should not be perfection. The more we humanize our diplomatic corps, the more we will become approachable. For those of us who work in “relationship building,” honesty will go a long way over cover-ups.
I can speak from having traveled many times overseas. The minute I share my needs, I gain trust. Whether from American colleagues, local staff, or interlocutors outside our embassies, I have seen nothing but open arms and support when I revealed my story. Again, if we are to build relationships, honesty is key. I realize another way to answer this question is to focus on the operational side of having a disability. I prefer to speak about the attitudinal impact of disability rather than the personal and physical aspects which can affect one’s dignity. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Disability and Reasonable Accommodations Division in the Bureau of Global Talent Management’s Office of Accommodations and Accessibility cover the operational side very well.
The Department’s focus on diversity and inclusion will increase the rate of visibility for officers with disabilities. But no matter what the Department does, if folks do not speak up and ask for what they need, those of us who do will remain a minority voice. No one should be ashamed of asking for and receiving the support they need to be at their peak performance. We are stronger standing together in the light than hiding in the shadows.
Stemming from a lifelong belief in bringing change from within “the system,” India Ochs currently is a Compliance Officer with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Born with an undiagnosed neurological speech disability, India also has over 30 years of experience in public speaking and leadership training.
All one needs to do is to see graphics on Facebook about clearing snow from a ramp versus the stairs at a school to understand how making things accessible for people with disabilities benefits everyone. In the snow scenario, clearing off the ramp first allows all kids to access the school, versus clearing off the stairs first only allows those who can walk to access the school.
People don’t realize the broad reach that making things accessible for people with disabilities has on society as a whole – after all, how many know that the Internet and text messaging—things we all rely on now—were prompted to help deaf people to remotely communicate with others. Yet having accessibility for employees with disabilities goes beyond just the tangibles like mobility issues. The more resources provided to employees with disabilities, the more they can tap into all of their talents when on the job and fully engage with colleagues.
I could facilitate a meeting in person communicating with pen and paper, but of course it’s far easier to do so using the voice app on my iPad, not to mention the need to communicate with people on teleconference lines. Making things accessible also allows the Department to think outside of the box. The first time the Department acquired an iPad with a voice app for me, they had to draft a whole new policy to do so, while now more extensive policies are in place for other employees. I definitely never thought my own speech disability would cause whole new policies being drafted, but I appreciate seeing how much more inclusive things are now as more and more employees are getting their needs met.
Rigbe is a Disability Inclusion Advocate with more than 12 years of experience working on inclusion, research, advocacy, project management, and human resources. Besides having a physical disability herself, Rigbe developed an interest in disability inclusion advocacy after working for a nongovernmental organization on the inclusion of persons with disabilities, which exposed her to issues and challenges faced by individuals with disabilities. She currently works at U.S. Embassy Addis Ababa as a Senior HR Assistant and Disabilities Advisor.
There are different provisions under the Ethiopian law that addresses the rights of persons with disabilities, but they are all scattered in different sectors and not in a comprehensive manner, which makes it hard for rights-holders to claim their rights and make duty-bearers accountable. The ADA is a comprehensive document that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of engagement, including employment, transportation, access to public services, etc. The disability rights movement in Ethiopia has been highly impacted by the ADA as the bill has been used as a reference towards a comprehensive disability act and cited as a best practice almost in all advocacy work being done in relation to ensuring disability rights in Ethiopia.
When it comes to the inclusion of persons with disabilities, there are four types of barriers that persons with disabilities face: physical, attitudinal, institutional, and communication. People in the Embassy may pose these barriers or fail to remove them consciously or unconsciously; either they do not have the skills and knowledge to make sure they or their environment is barrier-free or they do not feel the need to do so. As a result, we are not giving equal opportunities to persons with disabilities as we are giving those without disabilities. So, the question is how do we ensure inclusion? We need to give people the skills and the knowledge they need, we need to make sure that they work on their conscious/unconscious biases and help them see that the need is there. We also need to consider positive discrimination to make sure we are giving equal opportunities to people who were not given access to opportunities; if we can not do that, at least we need to look for ways to provide certain skills or make a linkage of some sort.