Of disability and accessibility

Judith Heumann is an internationally recognized leader of the disability community and a lifelong civil rights advocate for disadvantaged people. She has been appointed Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the US Department of State. She previously served as the Director for the Department on Disability Services for the District of Columbia, where she was responsible for the Developmental Disability Administration and Rehabilitation Services Administration. From June 2002- 2006, Judith E. Heumann served as the World Bank's first Advisor on Disability and Development. In this position, Heumann led the World Bank's disability work to expand the Bank’s knowledge and capability to work with governments and civil society on including disability in the Bank discussions with client countries; its country-based analytical work; and support for improving policies, programs, and projects that allow disabled people around the world to live and work in the economic and social mainstream of their communities. She was Lead Consultant to the Global Partnership for Disability and Development. Judith was in Addis Ababa last week to see the lives of people with disability and Henok Reta of The Reporter caught up with her and sat down with her for a brief interview. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Let’s start with the embassy building, do you find it to be up to the standard with regard to the people with disability?

Judith Heumann: This is one of our newer embassies and so I am looking into the construction and that is it following the US standard for construction; so it’s good to know that I can go inside the building as someone who uses a wheelchair. It’s important to know that every floor is accessible fulfilling the requirements set under disability standards and I think it’s important to remove anything that restricts movement for people with disability.

For some people, it may not be an easy thing to talk about accessibility and standard. But, beyond physical appearance of buildings what can we say about accessibility of building facilities for disabled members of the community?

I think we can set standards. There is an ISO standard on disability and the US has a standard on disability and if Ethiopia was looking at adopting the ISO standard on disability it works fine. Not only having the standard, but also addressing the issue is quite important. People who are going to build a structure have to know what the standard is; and monitor how the standard has been utilized. For instance, In the US, we have a standard on curves with yellow bumps so that blind people can easily feel it while walking with stick. We have a requirement for deaf individuals as well. The standards are not only about physical structures, but another area such as information technology is also very important. Information technology also requires accessibility for blind people. Think like captioning so that a deaf person can easily read what is on computer and television.

Is there any advancement in the area of information technology for the disabled?

I think there are advancements with regard to movies for instance. Technology is being used to aide deaf people to have visual description and for blind people to have verbal description.

Despite some progress in this country, there is still a to be done with regard to access for disabled people. Can you tell us your observation from the several visits you have made in this country?

I think what is going on here is somewhat similar to what was in the US in the past. You don’t have a standard; so there is no standard to utilize while you have construction. In the US, a disabled individual like me now can file a complaint if any construction appears to be inaccessible; and the governmental agency will look into the complaints and if the investigation results in standards which are in contrast to the law, the company will be forced to correct or any legal measure could be taken against it. So, the law has to encourage disabled individuals to complain and act according to their right. It should also be to reinforce all along the way.

In the last Paralympic Games, Tanni Gray-Thompson, one of the most outspoken paralympian, said that a shift in perception is needed towards people with disability across the world. Do you really feel that indeed change in attitude is yet to be realized?

I wouldn’t say change is yet to come. I would say that the change is not coming fast enough. Things are not changing fast. We are still experiencing discrimination. Women with disability have more burdens everywhere. So, things are not going fast. But in the case of disability, I would say in my lifetime, things have changed. When I was growing up in New York City, buildings, public transport and other new innovation were not accessible. We had many problems before the new laws came into effect. But the way we deal with disability right now is changing. Laws in countries like the US reinforce that any new building, renovation and construction will have to be accessible. I would say it’s a gradual change everywhere; even in the US, it has not ever been up to the expectation that at least one school should be built for the disabled or for people in need of special education. Most importantly, accessibility with any new building, construction and renovation has to be made fast. For example, the train system in the San Francisco area was developed in the 1960s and members of the disabled community in California filed a charge against the company that built the railway system and it was obliged for renovation. That all happened so quickly, I would say.  The same thing happened in the Washington area with the same company and the court ordered the renovation to be applied in the other new stations. Even look at New York City, there is still the old system there and the state law is also the previous one. But it still requires full accessibility for disabled people since 1981. It took time but the change has been realized in many of those big cities in the US that all buses and trains are accessible. I was unable to use buses when I was going to school but now I can use buses or trains to go to my office.

How much are you aware of these changes in other countries outside of the US?

Many countries including Ethiopia have ratified the convention and in that convention there are certain obligations intended to bring about change towards disability. I think major problems still exist in those countries but things are on the move. In Ethiopia, I see changes as much as the need for more work to be done especially in the construction undertakings. My visit also took me to the newly inaugurated Light Rail Way Transport (LRT) so that I will see how the infrastructure is built considering accessibility for considerable number of people in this country. I’m excited to try it out and find it to be accessible for people like me. (She went to try the LRT after this interview).

In spite of all the positive responses on the construction sites, many people with disabilities in Ethiopia look to be passive and the change in attitude from the community seem to be a far cry for now.

I think something has to change with regard to that; the movement of the civil society is less or there are not enough activists working hard towards the issue of disability in the country. I always look for people to come into my office from different civic societies that I can hear them and they will help me look into specific matters. When people are free to express their views then they are heard. And that democracy has to take place to enable people express their concerns and thoughts. I have a concern that the role of the civic society is limited or that they are passive. This has a long-run effect on the community and the government feels the same.

You have managed to meet with some disabled individuals in Ethiopia. What did you feel about their life?

We discussed a lot of issues on disability such as disabled children or children with a special need should get a teacher who can understand them. Schools should be built with all the necessary conditions to become accessible for students with disabilities. Families have to take care of their children at home to offer them the same opportunity and a healthy growth like others. It’s always difficult to live with disability and without accessibility. Employment opportunities for disabled individuals have to be secured that no disabled person is left behind in the country’s development agenda. In the United States, President Barack Obama put pressure for more equal job opportunities for people with disabilities and I think your government should lead by example. Some of these people need financial support to solve their economic problems, and others need wheelchairs and technologies to have active involvement in the development of the country. In Ethiopia, like the US, you have disabled veteran civilians to take a good care of.

How do you gauge the right of the disabled in Ethiopia and their participation in the making of the economy?

According to the World Bank, 17.5 percent of the entire population is considered to be disabled, and this is a huge figure to address. I also read that traffic accidents are becoming a major factor in causing physical disability and mental injury for thousands of people every year. I think the number is big to deal with and it needs to be taken into account in the development plan. Reducing the man-made causes and incidents of disability is also another thing to look for while making sure a sufficient place is set to enroll those already disabled in the socio-economic development of the country.