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Democracy, Human Rights, Refugees: Remarks at the High-level Meeting: Equal Access, Inclusive Development

Thank you, and I would like to thank in particular the Chinese Disabled Persons’ Federation for hosting today’s event. It is a great honor to be with you today, at what I hope will be the start of a robust, substantive, and on-going dialogue on promoting truly equal access and inclusive development for persons with disabilities throughout APEC member economies. Achieving progress will require sustained engagement, and I would also like to congratulate China for its leadership in developing a Group of Friends to continue this important conversation in the months and years ahead.

I’d like to focus my remarks this morning on securing equal opportunities in education and employment for persons with disabilities. There is no denying that for our economies to achieve their full potential, we must draw upon the contributions of all our peoples, and this must include the fifteen or more percent of our populations that live with various forms of disabilities.

But before contemplating the path ahead, I want to take a moment to reflect upon the road the United States has travelled these last few decades. As a child, I, like more than 1 million other American children with disabilities, did not have the benefit of attending inclusive schools. Although access to quality education is critical to an individual’s future employment prospects, we were not allowed to attend school. I was nine years old before I went to school and even then I was placed in classes only for disabled children. Although I later attended university and earned my Bachelor’s degree, levels of inaccessibility prevalent at that time are no longer permitted in our universities. It was clear at that time in the 1950s that employment was not something our government anticipated we would have. When I applied for my first job as a teacher, I was initially denied my certification simply because I could not walk. I went to court and sued the Board of Education to obtain my certificate to teach, and finally did get a job teaching elementary school children.

Today, I am proud to say that such blatant forms of discrimination are no longer legal in the United States. With strong federal legislation and effective enforcement by the federal and state government agencies, a knowledgeable and active disability rights community playing a key role, and more than four decades of experience, Americans with all kinds of disabilities are attending educational institutions, including universities, and getting jobs in the public and private sector to a degree unprecedented in our history. However, that does not mean our work is done. Far from it. We now collect data on the unemployment rate of disabled people and know that the rate of unemployment for disabled people is higher than that of non-disabled people. We still have a long way to go to ensure that all persons with disabilities can enjoy meaningful careers, economic self-sufficiency for ourselves and our families, and the sense of purpose and self-worth that can come from work freely chosen, undertaken in workplaces that are respectful and support us in maximizing our contributions.

As recently noted by President Obama in his proclamation for our National Disability Employment Awareness Month, “When employees with disabilities are passed over in the workplace or denied fair accommodations, it limits their potential and threatens our democracy; when disproportionate numbers of Americans with disabilities remain unemployed, more work must be done to achieve the spirit of what is one of the most comprehensive civil rights bills in the history of our country;” the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

This work begins with strong leadership by government, private sector, and civil society. The U.S. federal government has sought to be a leader in the employment arena by increasing the number of persons with disabilities within its own ranks. In 2010, President Obama issued Executive Order 13548, which calls upon federal government departments and agencies to improve recruitment, hiring, retention, and advancement of persons with disabilities. Government agencies developed plans and published statistics on progress toward achieving the goals of the Executive Order. In 2012, total permanent employment in the federal government for persons with disabilities had increased to 11.89%, with more people with disabilities in federal service both in real terms and by percentage than at any time in the past 32 years.

The key U.S. enforcement of disability rights protections in the workplace is carried out by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Labor. Together, these three agencies enforce federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against qualified job applicants or employees because of those individuals’ disabilities, history of disability, appearance of disability, or association with someone with a disability. The law requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee or job applicant with a disability, unless doing so would cause undue hardship for the employer. Reasonable accommodation means a modification to the work environment so a disabled person can perform his or her job. For example, provision of a sign language interpreter for someone who is deaf, an accessible bathroom for a wheelchair user, or screen reading software for someone who is blind. Our laws also prohibit employers from creating a hostile work environment for workers with disabilities and from retaliating against individuals who assert their legal rights.

In all of these areas, non-governmental disabled people’s organizations have been ever present in holding government accountable and pushing it to do better. The private business sector has also taken up the challenge of increasing employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. For example, the U.S. Business Leadership Network is a national disability organization that has over 60 affiliates across North America, representing over 5,000 employers. Such private sector initiatives help create workplaces, marketplaces, and supply chains where persons with disabilities are included and respected for their talents, abilities, and contributions.

I look forward to exploring how we can work together as APEC economies to improve development outcomes for persons with disabilities, including through enhanced legislative, enforcement, and programmatic initiatives to support equal access to education and employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. We have much to learn from each other, and everything to gain in building more inclusive societies, with workforces that benefit from the unique contributions of persons with disabilities.