You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 63: Disability Rights are Human Rights

Disability Rights are Human Rights

This July marks 33 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed — a landmark law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, communications, and government resources. The ADA is meant to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in everyday life, and the law’s signing made the US the first country in the world to adopt a declaration of equality for persons with disabilities. The legacy of the ADA has included increased activism and policy gains for persons with disabilities worldwide.  

In this episode of Big World, SIS and Kogod professor Derrick Cogburn joins us to discuss the ongoing legacy of the ADA (2:12), noting that disability policy was once a bipartisan issue in the United States but is no longer. He also describes disability policy as emanating from three imperatives: moral, economic, and legal (4:37).

Cogburn explains the importance of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) (6:28), explaining that the US is not among the more than 180 countries who have ratified the convention, despite then-President Barack Obama signing the CRPD (8:28). He also describes global disability movements (9:42) and discusses frameworks like the New Urban Agenda, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and the Sendai Framework, all of which incorporate disability policy.

What are some policy shifts in the realm of online accessibility over the last decade (20:23)? What are the ramifications of untapped potential when spaces, either physical or online, are not accessible to people with disabilities (29:32)? Cogburn answers these questions and discusses shifts in activists’ approach to creating disability policy goals in recent years. The podcast concludes with Cogburn’s comments about how the inclusion of persons with disabilities can have many positive impacts on our world (33:29).

During our “Take Five” segment, Cogburn shares the five disability policies he would want to see instituted globally (16:39).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that really matters. The ability to get around in the world—to walk down the sidewalk, board a plane, go to school—is something most of us take for granted. Likewise, we take for granted the ability to see and experience the internet, whether it's a website or a video or a podcast. But this mobility, this access, whether around your hometown or around the internet, cannot be taken for granted by individuals with disabilities. Disability policy is the playing field leveler, the missing link between people with disabilities and their accessing the world as freely as everyone wants to. So, today we're talking about disability policy, both in the US and globally.

0:59      KS: I'm joined by Derrick Cogburn. Derrick is a professor here at the School of International Service and also in AU's Kogod School of Business. He's the founding executive director of the AU Institute on Disability and Public Policy, faculty co-director of the Internet Governance Lab, and director of COTELCO, the Collaboration Laboratory. He researches at the intersection of information technology, global governance, and socioeconomic development. And he's published widely and served in numerous advisory roles, including as a member of the high-level panel of advisors for the United Nations Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technologies and Development. Derrick, thanks for joining Big World.

1:41      Derrick Cogburn: Thank you so much, Kay. I'm really delighted to be here.

1:44      KS: Derrick, as you know, probably better than I do, July marks 33 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed. It's better known now as the ADA. The ADA was a landmark law prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities. And in your view, how is the legacy of the ADA still playing out today? And what role has it played in further inspiring disability policy and legislation and activism?

2:12                DC: Well, that's a great question, Kay. And one of the things that I'd like to highlight is that the ADA was an incredibly bipartisan piece of legislation. And disability policy has been bipartisan up until recent times. People came together, legislators came together to really recognize the needs of persons with disabilities. It was facilitated by activists who came together to promote the idea. There's a famous picture of Capitol Hill with some of the stories of persons with disabilities written out and stacked up on Capitol Hill. And it dramatically visualized the lives of persons with disabilities, and really pricked the hearts of legislators and encouraged them to pass the ADA. And the legacy has been that over time, the legal and regulatory policy infrastructure in the US has gotten stronger and stronger. It has enabled activists to be able to organize, to assert their rights to education and transportation in other areas. It's led to technological developments, and it has led to global developments that have been modeled on the ADA, which hopefully we'll get a chance to talk about.

3:28      KS: Absolutely. So, with the ADA being signed 33 years ago, how does the US currently compare to other countries when it comes to disability policy? How are we doing?

3:39                DC: So, we're doing pretty well. So, we have a rich brick-o-lizer overlapping set of policies that support the rights of persons with disabilities in a number of areas. And so if you look at somebody that's trying to access a public facility, there are legal and regulatory policies in place that require that company or organization to make their facilities accessible in a variety of ways. So, not just for mobility impairment, but also for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, blind and visually impaired, as well as those with learning differences and learning disabilities, to be able to access the resources here in the country. So, that legal framework really creates the environment where if an organization is not doing the right thing, a person with a disability, an advocate can advocate for their rights. And I usually talk about this, Kay, in three ways.

4:37                DC: I talk about the moral imperative, the economic imperative, and the legal imperative. So, the moral imperative means it's the right thing to do. And we look at the number of people with disabilities in the world. There was a report that came out in 2011 by the World Bank and the World Health Organization that sort of shocked the world and helped us to understand that there were more than a billion people in the world living with some form of disability. It's about 16% of every country's population. And so to include those persons that have some form of disability is the right thing to do. But there's also an economic rationale that those persons with disabilities and their families and their friends will make decisions about where they go, where they spend their money, where they apply to university, where they bank, where they shop.

5:33                DC: And so if your company or organization or university is as accessible as possible, you will encourage and entice those persons to participate. And if not, they'll go somewhere else. But then the last part of it is the legal rationale. So, if neither of those two really motivates you to do the right thing, there's the legal rationale. And because we have that strong policy infrastructure, there can be first advocacy, and if advocacy doesn't work, there can be legal remedies for persons with disabilities to support their rights.

6:07      KS: And Derrick, if we're talking about physical spaces and then we're talking about the move toward sustainable development worldwide, can you talk about the kinds of movements that are occurring globally in disability inclusive sustainable development? How are we including persons with disabilities in sustainable development?

6:28                DC: So, let me start by talking about the CRPD. The CRPD is the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is the first human rights treaty of the 21st century. But it's interesting because it is both a human rights treaty and development instrument. So, it was adopted in December 2006, and it was open to signature in March 2007. And now we have 186 countries around the world that have ratified the CRPD and 104 countries that have signed the optional protocol, which makes it even stronger. So, the CRPD has 50 articles and it represents almost every area of human existence. So, it deals with education, it deals with awareness raising, it deals with political participation, it deals with sport and recreation and leisure. And all of these are rights that persons with disabilities have.

7:31                DC: And it represents a shift, Kay, away from what was called the medical model, to a social justice and a rights-based model. And what that means is under the medical model, it was kind of a charity-based approach, kind of this right thing to do. "I want to be a good person, so I want to help persons with disabilities." And that really put the focus a lot of the times on the person who was doing the good work. "Look at me, I'm doing this good work to allow this person to participate." Well, that's a model that the persons with disability movement globally moved away from, to say, "It's great if you like me and you want to help me and so forth, that's wonderful, but I don't want to rely on that. I have a right to transportation. I have a right to be able to get on the subway and navigate around the city, to access art and parks and restaurants and so forth.

8:28                DC: So, that rights-based approach has been really reflected in the CRPD, and that's a really, really strong component. And as I said, the CRPD, even though the US has not ratified the CRPD, we signed it under President Obama. remember I told you earlier how disability policy used to be bipartisan? Well we've gotten into such a hyperpartisan political environment, that this treaty that was based on our legal and regulatory

9:00                DC: ... framework and advocated for by U.S. disability advocates as well as others around the world, was signed under President Obama, but the Senate wouldn't ratify it. And I was in the Senate chamber the day it was voted down, and it was highly disappointing. But that CRPD is really the cornerstone, looking at disability as a right and as a human right and for social and economic development.

9:29                DC: But in addition to that, we're in a really interesting moment because there are several other overlapping global policies all aimed at supporting the social and economic development of persons with disabilities. And I'll just kind of go through them quickly.

9:42                DC: So one is the New Urban Agenda, which comes out of UN Habitat III. This was a big conference in Ecuador that takes place, I believe it's every 20 or 30 years. And it's designed to say, "Since more and more people are living in cities, what do we need to do to make cities as accessible as possible?"

10:02                DC: And then we have the Sustainable Development Goals. So the Sustainable Development Goals succeeded the Millennium Development Goals, which were designed to reduce poverty, eliminate poverty by the year 2015. And so, when the SDGs were adopted, the 17 SDGs, they overcame a lot of limitations of the Millennium Development Goals, including the fact that in the MDGs there was no reference to persons with disabilities. So the ability to achieve the Millennium Development Goals was limited by not including persons with disabilities. So the SDGs has a very strong focus, again, because of advocacy of these transnational persons with disability movements, a number of key components into the SDGs focused on persons with disabilities.

10:51                DC: And the last one that's overlapping for me is about disaster risk reduction. So we know with climate change and all of the developments that are happening, natural disasters are on the rise. So hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and so forth. So thinking about how do persons with disabilities fair under the highly likely situation of a natural disaster striking a particular country. And so, the Sendai Framework on disaster risk reduction focuses on helping countries and cities be better prepared to deal with natural disasters. And there's something called the Dhaka Declaration, which focuses on disability inclusive disaster risk reduction.

11:36                DC: So globally, Kay, all of these strategic frameworks, and there are a few others that are regionally based, like the Incheon Strategy for the Asian Pacific, and other regional strategies that have come together to really facilitate thinking about specifically addressing the needs of persons with disabilities in inclusive social and economic development.

11:59      KS: Derek, I want to get into the internet realm, but before we do, just a couple of follow-ups from... That is great information. I am curious, when the GOP-led Senate did not ratify the CRPD, what was the rationale? Was it the kind of talking point about how the U.S. isn't going to have policy set for it by the UN? What was their reason?

12:22                DC: That's essentially it. There were a few red herrings that were thrown into the mix, which I'll get to in a second. But the overarching concern was about U.S. national sovereignty. The surface argument was that the U.S. didn't want to have national policy set by some global tribunal, and that just would not have been the case. Anytime the U.S. accedes to a treaty, it can have a package of what are called RUDs—reservations, understandings, and declarations. And we could have put into a package of RUDs exactly how we were understanding each component of the CRPD limiting anything we were concerned about and still would have allowed us to participate in the processes. But it was just really a shame because, again, traditionally, this has been a very bipartisan issue and this, I believe has really hurt U.S. credibility around the world on this particular point.

13:28      KS: Yeah. And I imagine for someone who works, spends a lot of time in global governance issues, as you do, and you're a very positive person. Whenever I hear you talk, I'm always struck by the tone of positivity, but when I hear the Millennium Development Goals were intended to alleviate poverty by 2015, clearly that did not happen. The Sustainable Development Goals are even more ambitious, as you said, and more encompassing. If the U.S. continues to be so reticent to ever engage in these types of multilateral development types of problems, well, first of all, how do you stay positive in the face of that? And then second, what's the way forward?

14:09                DC: Right. Yeah, I am a optimist. I try to stay as positive as possible. It's disappointing, I tell you, frequently. But what I think excites me is I value collaboration. I value synergy. One of the things that has been so exciting to me, as I mentioned, we've been... I have a book on Transnational Advocacy Networks in the Information Society that really looks at how technology has fueled the ability for civil society activists around the world to coordinate and collaborate on their engagement with a variety of global governance processes, allowing distributed knowledge actors, people who are knowledgeable about a particular subject, to be able to assist those networks as they're engaging on the ground at different conferences and meetings and so forth.

15:04                DC: And Kay, it has been so exciting to see these disability advocates coordinating around the world in each of these different domains. Those kinds of things give me hope, give me energy to continue to facilitate that kind of person-to-person collaboration around the world. And I believe that that kind of advocacy will have an impact on monitoring and the follow-up on all of these areas, including the SDGs.

15:36                DC: Now, I have a big concern about the SDGs. We're about halfway through the SDG process, and there are not good evaluation mechanisms. There's no real good baseline data. What we have proposed is to go back and use text mining and AI to mine documents to be able to give us a better baseline on all 17 SDGs. And then, to be able to go forward, looking at a wide variety of sources, text-based sources, to be able to assess the progress on all of those SDGs. And we need that to be able to say, "Well, what's working? What's not working? Where should we put extra effort?" and so forth.

16:18                DC: Technology, for me, is a way of really leveling the playing field and creating an environment where these kinds of interests can be reflected and augmented globally.

16:39      KS: Derrick Cogburn, it's time to take five. This is when you, our guest, get to daydream out loud and reorder the world as you'd like it to be by single-handedly instituting five policies or practices that would change the world for the better. What five disability policies would you want to see instituted globally?

16:58                DC: Oh, my, I get to wave a magic wand and have these things happen. Okay.

17:02      KS: Blue sky.

17:02                DC: Blue sky.

17:03                DC: All right, let me think here. So the first thing that I would like to do is to see the CRPD ratified globally. There are some main countries that are missing. So the U.S. is missing from that. We have signed the CRPD, but we have not ratified it. So if I could wave a magic wand, I would definitely have the U.S. ratify the CRPD.

17:28                DC: Related to that, in Southeast Asia, or in the Asia Pacific rather, with UNESCAP, they have something called the Incheon Strategy to "Make the Right Real." And what I like about that is there's one thing to put the rights in place and have countries ratify the convention. And what ratification means is that you've now acceded to the convention. You've either ensured that your current legal and policy infrastructure is in

18:00                DC: ... Line with the components of the treaty, or you will put the required legal infrastructure in place in your country. So it's one thing to have those rights, and then there's another thing to make those rights real. And so I would like to ensure that all those countries in the world that are now putting in place the CRPD are educating their population, particularly the population of persons with disabilities, to know what their rights are and to facilitate advocacy for those rights. So that would be number two.

18:39                DC: Number three for me would be the Sendai Framework and the Dhaka Declaration. I'm so proud of what the network that I work with, which is the Disability Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction Network. So they met in Dhaka before Sendai to say, when we think about disaster risk reduction, this is what we need to focus on for persons with disabilities. And so they outlined a whole series of components that are specifically related to persons with disabilities in national disasters and were able to get a lot of that content into the globally accepted framework. So I would like to see everybody maximize the use of the Sendai Framework and the Dhaka Declaration. I would say the New Urban Agenda, I would like that to be more fully implemented as a global policy framework to make sure that cities are as accessible as possible. And I think that the last one, I would say that the SDGs, there's 17 SDGs, all of them are critically important for me. Two of them, the SDG that focuses on cities and the SDG that focuses on education are both absolutely critical for me. And so I think that if we can start to identify, as we said earlier, what's working and what's not working in the SDGs and put additional emphasis on those, I think that that would help accelerate a beneficial approach to persons with disabilities globally.

20:23      KS: Wonderful. Thank you. That's a good pivot. Let's shift to that, that tech accessibility, Derek, because policy surrounding online accessibility for people with disabilities is an area that's been discussed more frequently in recent years, not only in academia and in the inner tech world. It's definitely something that is a broader, there's broader awareness around this. We're talking about things like screen readers and image alt text for people who cannot see, and video captions for people who cannot hear in addition to other types of adaptations. So Derek, what are some policy shifts in the realm of online accessibility over the last decade? And I'm thinking just about basic consumer websites. Where does the US currently stand in making our web websites more accessible to everybody?

21:17                DC: So on that front, I'd like to say a little bit about the US and then a little bit about globally. So in the US, again, we have this rich collection of legal and policy frameworks that address that as well. So the ADA has a number of components related to accessibility. There's Section 508, which focuses on web accessibility as well, and really helps us to be able to point out when something is not accessible, there are legal remedies to push back and make sure that it is accessible. So in universities, for example, when we think about encouraging more persons with disabilities to come to the university and we're doing online learning or we're having digital resources, you can't invite a person in or admit a person into the university and then they not be able to access their resources like everybody else.

22:18                DC: So you have to make sure if you're going to have a video, there's closed captioning. If you're going to have face-to-face meetings, to the degree possible, you'd like to have sign language interpretation. If you're going to have digital materials, you'd like to make sure that those digital materials are designed in a way that they can be read by a screen reader. So each of these areas, the US has this framework that allows us to say, if my content is not accessible, I have legal remedies. So if you look globally, there's a standard called WCAG, which is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. I like my acronyms, so-

23:04      KS: I know that one. I'm familiar with that one.

23:06                DC: You know that one, good. So WCAG, I believe it's WCAG 2.1 or 2.2 now, lays out a set of expectations for what web content should look like and how do you make it accessible. So you need to have the ability to resize the webpage or fonts and have better color contrast and so forth. Now, in addition to that, and this has just been, I've slowed down my traveling the last several years, but when we were doing so much traveling internationally, particularly in Southeast Asia, some of the technologies that we came into contact with have just been amazing. So imagine, Kay, I'm going to mention two quickly if I can, so imagine you are a person who's blind, and remember, one of the goals is to try to live as independently as possible, and so persons with disabilities like their independence and the ability to move around a city or town or whatever.

24:04                DC: So imagine somebody, a merchant or a vendor is giving you change. You buy something and you give them some bills and they give you change and they're telling you that this is $5 or five euro or whatever the case may be, but you're blind and you don't really have any way of assessing, "Are they really giving me five euros?" So there are technologies that let you hold your iPhone up, scan the bill, and it'll tell you audibly what currency it is and what denomination it is. So that kind of, I mean, it's just amazing when you see things like that. Some of the new technologies for mobility, both inside a building, so let's say you are in a department store and you want to be independent in that department store. So you can use these apps that use things like iBeacons and so forth, to tell you where you are in the building can help navigate to where you want to go.

25:08                DC: And then when you want to go to another, you want to go through the city to another location, they've mapped that as well. And when you marry that with, there are some mapping technologies, and when we were in Ecuador for the Habitat III, this became really, really exciting. So if restaurants and social gathering spots and so forth are all mapped for accessibility, a person can look at the app and say, "Well, where can I go to have a meal that I can still see, that's bright enough for me to still see my sign language interpreter?" With all that data coming in, it adds to the independence of a person with a disability. It's really, really exciting.

25:54      KS: It is. And I think, obviously for the communications team, for the school, we manage a lot of the web content and the website and how it looks. And I know that the university for the pieces of design that they're responsible for, there's a lot of thought that goes into these different aspects that you've been talking about for Section 508 and WCAG, that you have the proper contrast on images, that the text be set up for screen readers, that the alt text be the right kind of alt text. Because when you're putting together a webpage and you're putting alt text on a photo, it needs to accurately tell someone what is in the photo. It needs to be, and as quickly as possible. You don't want to have to listen to an entire paragraph just to understand what's in a photo.

26:40      KS: And different pieces, particularly scholarly types of pieces, PDFs for example, they can be made accessible, but it has to be thought of on the front end. It's very difficult to reverse engineer those types of documents. And sometimes the argument that I have heard when we've had to say,

27:00      KS: ... "That's not accessible," is, "Well, you want to keep it from the majority of people because you're letting the perfect be the enemy of the good." And I think that argument makes me angry at this point. And I'm guessing, I wonder, Derek, what would you say to people who have a similar argument that it's better to have the information out there, even if everyone can't access it?

27:22                DC: Sure. So there's a really interesting concept, which is called universal design. And I'm a member of the board of something called the Global Universal Design Commission, which is led out of Syracuse. And universal design is an architecture term, and it's essentially saying that you want to design so that it meets the most people's needs. So think about this for a second. So it is clearly an accessibility concept, but it's developed in a way that says everybody can benefit from these accessibility components. So if you think about a curb cut in a sidewalk where the sidewalk kind of dips down a little bit and reaches the level of the street, and then you can go to the other side of the street and then it gradually slopes back up. So that's called a curb cut. That's an accessibility feature. It benefits people who are wheelchair users or mobility impaired, or people who are blind and there's some other features that support them as well. But think about how it benefits everybody. A person pushing a stroller or going on a trip and pushing a set of luggage. That helps you, it helps everybody.

28:39                DC: So universal design is something that can meet everybody's needs, and that concept has been applied to learning as well. So the concept of universal design for learning says, "Even though you might think you're providing information for the majority of people, you may not recognize that all adults learn differently." So if you design your learning objects, your websites and digital materials and so forth, from a universal design for learning and what we call UDL, if you design from that perspective, it certainly benefits persons with disabilities. It's an accessibility feature, but it benefits everybody. So by taking that extra step, you are not only making your work accessible, you're making it beneficial to even more of the population.

29:32                DC: t's where that moral imperative and that economic imperative that you talked about kind of pair up. Because if you've ever tried to push a giant stroller into a store that didn't have an ADA required door width, you know you can't get in. So it's like you said, it benefits everyone. Derek, last question. Something that disability advocates point out is that there's a level of untapped potential when people can't give their best due to roadblocks. And as you said, roughly 16% of people in every country have some type of disability. So last question is—and you can take this in the moral, or the economic, or the legal lens, or whatever you choose—what do you personally see as the ramifications of untapped potential when spaces, either physical or online, are not accessible to people with disabilities?

30:30                DC: Oh, wow. So let me answer that in two ways. The first is I believe strongly in the power of diversity. I wrote a paper once, Diversity Matters Even at a Distance. And the ability for diverse ideas, experiences, cultural frameworks to be brought to bear on problems is huge. The more diverse ideas and experiences we can bring to the table to address these problems, the better. The more options, the more things that we see that we wouldn't see otherwise is important. So if you think about designing spaces for persons with disabilities, the disability community developed this mantra called "Nothing about us without us." And what that means is if you're trying to design a space for a person with a disability, you shouldn't take your perspective on it. You should involve them in the process to say, "What would you like and what would be most beneficial to you and your needs?" So that you don't end up with things like the ramp to get into the building, being in the back by the trash cans and not in the front, by the beautiful floral gardens that you have in the front.

32:02                DC: And if you want it to be used, persons with disabilities can tell you what would they use? So that phrase has evolved to the point where it says, "Nothing without us." So not just nothing about us, without us. What they say now is "Nothing without us." That everything should have the active involvement of persons with disabilities to make it better.

32:30                DC: The second part is all of that talent that can be brought to bear on enhancing the university, the workplace, reducing stigma. So if you've never been around a person who's a wheelchair user, when you first encounter them, it may be different to you. You don't know how to react, how to help them, or what should you say? Should you help them and push their chair or not? You don't know what to do. But if you are around persons who are wheelchair users constantly, it becomes second nature. It's just something else that you're used to. And so the more we can have those complete integration of persons with disabilities,and of course you can hear the echoes of the Civil Rights Movement and LGBT rights, but inclusion lets everybody come together and be who they are and get supported in the ways that they need to so that they can contribute.

33:29                DC: And the last thing that I'll say, and I'll take it back to the CRPD. For me, when you say, what's the impact of inclusion? If you think about what it means to be a whole person, and as humans, we need work opportunities, but we need also recreation opportunities and culture and leisure activities to make us whole and well-rounded. You may know I'm a boater, I'm a sailor, and I'm on the board of an organization called Brendan Sailing, which focuses on using sailing to teach self-confidence to children with learning differences. And they have week-long camps, and after one week, the campers are able to take their parents and their siblings out sailing. So imagine the joy and the pride that comes from you accomplishing something to be able to now take your parents and siblings out sailing is just phenomenal. And so that to me, those are some of the examples of how inclusion of persons with disabilities can have so many positive impacts on our society and on our world.

34:42      KS: Derek Cogburn, thank you for joining Big World to discuss disability policy. It's been so great to talk to you about all this. Thank you so much.

34:49                DC: It's been a real pleasure, Kay. You had fantastic questions and I'm glad to be able to talk about all these issues, so I appreciate it. Thank you.

34:58      KS: Big World is a production in the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like finding a forgotten holiday present in the back of the closet in July and treating yourself to it right then and there. Our theme music is, It Was Just Cold by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guests

Derrick Cogburn,
professor, Kogod and SIS

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