THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Good afternoon and welcome, everyone, to this afternoon’s Foreign Press Center briefing on U.S. policy and current issues in international disability rights. My name is Doris Robinson and I am the briefing moderator. This briefing is on the record, and our briefer today will make opening remarks and then we will take your questions.
With that (inaudible) our briefer. Sara Minkara is a special advisor on international disability rights appointed by President Biden in October 2021. Special Advisor Minkara leads the U.S. comprehensive strategy to promote and protect the rights of persons with disabilities internationally and across the globe. And with that, I will turn it over to Special Advisor Minkara.
MS MINKARA: Thank you so much, Doris, and it’s nice to meet you all that are here virtually. I am going to first introduce myself, then I’m going to talk a little bit about our strategy and our priorities, and then I’ll talk a little bit about our upcoming trip.
So I’m a daughter, I’m a sister, I’m a friend, I’m a colleague, I’m a neighbor. I’m a traveler, I’m an introvert, I’m a troublemaker. I love math, I love nature, I love horses, I love coffee, I love mystery thriller audio books, I love to eat chicken, I love to hang out with friends. I am a woman, I’m a Muslim, I am blind, I am a person with a disability and proud of it.
And it took me a journey, it took me time to come to this path and this point in my life where I’m saying I am proud to be a person with a disability. I lost my sight when I was seven years old, and my sister as well, she also became visually impaired. But because we were surrounded by a narrative of value, that allowed us to live our full lives, and that’s because of my mom and my parents and my support system that really pushed us to see our true potential and our true value. They did not allow society’s expectations our lack thereof to ever enter our home surrounding disability, because what’s the narrative surrounding disability across the globe? It’s this charity narrative; it’s the pity narrative – I feel bad for you, you’re a burden, you’re an add-on, you’re different, you’re less than, and so much more.
But instead the narrative at home was you’re going to live your life, you’re going to have dreams, you’re going to have ambitions, you’re going to advocate for yourself, you’re going to tackle every obstacle that comes your way, and you’re going to bring value to this world. So we continued going to the mainstream school systems in our town. I was able to go to college and grad school. I was even able to hike and slide down a volcano in Nicaragua. That’s not because I had more potential, but because I had the privilege – and I call it “privilege” – that I had the privilege of being seen, being heard, and being allowed to be my true self.
Value is the core aspect that we’re trying to bring forward into our work at the State Department and across the globe. The inclusion of persons with disability is a value for all. It’s not just the right thing to do, but it brings value to every single person in this world, and I’ll give you an example. And this was a turning moment in my own life.
I was in grad school. I was in a classroom full of 100 students. There were name cards for each student, and so it allowed people to really interact with one another. So at the beginning of the semester I told the class, “Hey guys, can you please say your name when you speak, because it’s going to allow me to really access the class.” And the professor was like “No.” And I was like, “What do you mean, no?” He was like, “The way you phrase it is by them saying their name and making the class more accessible to you, they’re – as if they’re doing you a favor. It’s the other way around. By saying their name, by making the class more accessible to you – by you being able to access the class and you contribute – they’re benefiting from your contribution.”
Making this world – the system, society – accessible for persons with disability is not an add-on and it’s not just the right thing to do, it brings value to all of us. And yes, at times I do feel like I’m a burden, because the narrative surrounding disability, which is ableism, is so strong.
So as the special advisor on international disability rights, we are committed to advancing the rights of persons with disabilities across the globe, bringing forward this value-based narrative. From an external perspective, that is working with governments and countries across the globe to really help them provide technical assistance and provide knowledge and expertise to really work on bringing forward these disability policy commitments through a value-based narrative.
We have four strategic priorities. One, as I mentioned, really it’s focusing on disrupting the narrative, moving from a charity lens to a value-based lens. Number two, it’s promoting disability-inclusive democracy. It’s the year of action. We’re all working towards really democracy commitments. Let’s make sure disability-inclusive democracy is part of this conversation. Let’s make sure persons with disabilities – not only are they able to access voting and access polls (inaudible). They should also be part of the political landscape, creating policies, running for office. Their voices should be not only recognized and heard but also valued.
Number three, advancing human rights in countries of crisis, conflicts, and disasters. We’ve been dealing with the pandemic for the last couple of years, which is a global crisis. There’s conflicts and crisis going across the globe, for example right now with Ukraine, and so much more. Let’s make sure during those moments of crisis persons with disabilities, who are usually marginalized on many layers, are part of the solution; they’re part of the process. They’re not only people that we need to make sure we’re protecting and recognizing and bringing forward, but let’s also make sure that they’re part of the negotiation and peace process; they’re part of every single aspect when it comes to this moment of crisis.
Number four, building a policy of accountability and building capacity. We need to make sure that this work of disability inclusion, which is hard work – it’s not easy work – but the work of disability inclusion is carried forward. We need to be able to build capacities across our embassies and across governments. And we need to make sure that the work is shared and the work is sustained and systematically changed.
So I’m going to wrap it up with a few things. One is the way we want to do the work is through a few different values that we hold dearly to our hearts. One is we need to make sure we’re having difficult conversations around disability. We need to have these conversations. We need to talk about why is disability not part of the conversation at times. Why is it so hard to make sure persons with disabilities are recognized and protected and valued?
Two, we need to make sure we that we are building capacity, as I mentioned earlier, to carry out this work and sustaining work. Third, create shared responsibility; and fourth, mobilizing existing resources, partnerships, and expertise. So those are the things that we’re going to be focusing on.
Tomorrow, I’m actually headed off to my first official trip. I’ll be headed over to Geneva first, to the Human Rights Council, where I’ll be delivering on a couple of interventions, one around the importance of making AI accessible for persons with disabilities, not only in terms of the programming of polices, but in terms of the decision making, the design, the testing, and the implementation. And then second intervention’s around sports and disability inclusive sports.
And then also in Geneva we’ll be hosting a roundtable at the U.S. mission along with the special rapporteur in – UN rights of persons with disabilities with implementing partners, ICRC, OIM, and other organizations and disability organizations around how do we make sure we’re addressing the challenges for persons with disabilities in Ukraine.
Then we’re headed over to Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, and Kuwait. And in all of these countries we’ll be meeting with government, civil society, individuals from the private sector and media sector to make sure that we are focusing on these four priorities that I have laid out.
I’m going to stop here so that we can open it up to questions. Thank you so much.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Special Advisor. So with that, we will start our question and answer period. If you’d like to ask a question, please hit the raised hand button at the bottom of the screen, and I will call on you in turn.
And I see our first question is from Bangladesh and it is from Mushfiqul Fazal and he is with Just News BD, Bangladesh.
MS MINKARA: Nice to meet you.
MODERATOR: Go ahead and unmute yourself. Oh, it’s not letting you do that.
QUESTION: Hi. Can you hear me?
MS MINKARA: Yes.
MODERATOR: Yes. Thank you.
QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you, Special Advisor, for your great work and thank you for this briefing. Doris, thank you as well.
In Bangladesh, disability rights also vulnerable like the country’s human rights situation, as you know. Estimates indicate 10 percent of the population, 16 million people, are living with a disability, and these are one of the most vulnerable groups as they receive little or no assistance. Ruling government is not that much giving attention on this issue.
So what would be your – what will be your priority to support for this vulnerable group in Bangladesh, in terms of disability rights and assistance? Thank you very much, again.
MS MINKARA: That’s a really good question. So in countries like Bangladesh, we’ve – first of all, we’ve laid out certain countries that we’ll be focusing on, right? And in countries like Bangladesh, similar to other countries across the globe, persons with disabilities are marginalized, right? And they are not integrated into the education sector, the employment sector, and so many other ways.
And for us, the first and most important aspect is there’s two levels to the work. We need to make sure, first of all, policies within government, when it comes to disability, are adopted, they’re upheld, they’re created in a way that they’re streamlined across all the different policies. It shouldn’t be a separate disability policy, it should be when we’re talking about health policies, we’re talking about education policies, we’re talking about employment policies, disability is part of that conversation. It’s streamlined, right?
But who implements the policies? It’s the people. And this is why one of our main priorities is the narrative change, is focusing on bringing forward the value-based narratives. Because when you have societies and communities that really come and say, you know what, I believe that people in my — with disabilities in my community, they’re not a charity case, but they are people with potential and value, then communities are going to find world-class solutions to really make sure that persons with disabilities are integrated.
But we will never achieve full inclusion of persons with disabilities if we don’t really address the core aspect, which is the narrative. And if societies don’t believe in inclusion for persons with disabilities, we’re always going to find people marginalized in all aspects of society.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: So our next question is from Azerbaijan, and it’s with Alex Raufoglu, and he’s with the Turan News Agency, Azerbaijan.
MS MINKARA: Nice to meet you, Alex.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. You must be able to see me and hear me.
MODERATOR: Yes, thank you, Alex.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Special Advisor Minkara, thank you for being here today. I have been following your work for many, many years, both now and also prior to joining the government as an advocate and as a leading activist. So thank you so much for your tireless service on this.
A couple of questions, if I may, and I want to start with Ukraine, and the conflict in Ukraine, how does the Russian invasion – is affecting people with disabilities in Ukraine.
And secondly, people with disabilities face additional challenges, due to the pandemic, something we have missed. Can you also please speak to that? What are the challenges you would like to prioritize, and how can we address those challenges at this point?
You mentioned Summit for Democracy as an avenue to address over all these problem. The country that I come from, Azerbaijan, is not part of that summit. That is why I am trying to figure out if there are avenues for – other avenues for you to address the problem in those countries that are not involved in Summit for Democracy. Are you planning to visit those countries?
In some poor countries in the world, health care access even – and quality is poor for everyone, of course. But the fight for improved services for people with disabilities is an uphill battle. I am talking about Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, the countries I cover, where health care has not even been in very good shape, to begin with.
So for those countries which might want to just start – starting out on the journey of wanting to become a better place for people with disabilities, where do they begin?
Again, thank you so much.
MS MINKARA: Okay. Amazing. Thank you so much. I hope I’ll remember all the questions, and answer them all.
So starting off with the Ukraine, so yes. I’ll give you a few – illustrate a few examples of what’s happening on the ground for persons with disabilities.
Persons with disabilities in Ukraine are facing challenges with accessing assistance in the country, accessing accessible ways of crossing the border. Bomb shelters and – a lot of bomb shelters are not accessible. Messaging – some messaging are not accessible. Getting to the border, there’s been persons with disabilities and caregivers that are male, between – ages between 18 and 60 have been refused, and then some challenges also when they cross the border, right?
There is challenges across the way, and I think one of the things that we need to continue doing is make sure, whenever there is support or humanitarian assistance and aid that’s going – moving into – making sure we’re protecting people in Ukraine, that disability is part of the process. And I think, thinking about messaging from the get-go in an accessible way, and all that kind of stuff.
So it’s heartbreaking to see this happening in Ukraine for persons with disabilities and beyond as well.
Number two is the pandemic. Yes, it has impacted the disability community in many ways. So we talk about – this is a constant issue when it comes to the disability community. Whenever new systems and solutions are being built, disability is not always part of that conversation. When COVID hit and the pandemic happened, there were new solutions and new ideas and new systems built to adapt to the new world, right? And this is something that we need to continue doing, is whenever a new system and a new – is being built, right, disability is part of the building of the system, part of that, making part of the implementation. It goes back to my conversation, for instance, on the AI, the direction I’ll be going in on Monday. So I think that the pandemic kind of almost, like, shed light and really put visibility on how much – there’s so much work to be done, and really getting the disability community being part of the system building and the solutions and the adjustment and the adaptation of – when a new crisis comes on board.
To your third point, we are working with countries. I’ll be traveling to different regions in the world and to different countries, even countries that are not – were not part of the summit for democracies, and we are continuing to kind of really focus on – as I mentioned, one of my main priorities is disability-inclusive democracy, and that should be part of any conversation that we have, right. We want to make sure persons with disabilities are part of the political landscape and their voices are heard, and they are seen, and they’re recognized. So that’s something that I’m carrying forward in all my trips and travels.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: And I’ll just remind everyone: to ask a question, raise your hand at the bottom of the screen. And I will take a question that was submitted earlier from Egypt. This is from Sahar Zahran from Al Ahram Newspaper. Her question is: “Tell us more about your program in Egypt, and what is your opinion of the efforts Egypt has taken towards people with disabilities?”
MS MINKARA: Amazing. Thank you so much. So in Egypt, we’ll be meeting with members from Governments, civil society organization, religious leaders, local DPOs, and individuals from the media sector. One of the things we’re focusing on is that the – it’s the year of civil society, so how do we make sure the civil society and DPOs are part of kind of that conversation. The human rights strategy – the National Human Rights Strategy that’s – Egypt has put forward, we are kind of – we’re in conversations in terms of making sure the disability strategy is further developed, and provide any support that we can in terms of technical assistance support that we can in terms of that disability strategy.
So our focus in Egypt, along with the other countries is – one of them is that narrative change. So for instance, in meeting – we’re meeting with (inaudible) religious leaders, and one of the goals is to make sure that in spaces, faith-based spaces, that disability is – narrative is actually from a value-based narrative, not a charity narrative. And that can really go far to build a community that shows the inclusion of persons with disabilities is a value for all. So that’s something we’re focusing both kind of across civil society, faith-based leaders, and then also government with its Human Rights Strategy and focusing on the disability aspect of the Human Rights Strategy.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I don’t see any other hands raised. I will to do one more call for questions. If you do have a question, you can either post it in the chat box – oh, I do see a question raised – a hand raised. We have Nour Braidy with L’Orient le Jour, and she is from France. And if you can go ahead and unmute yourself, we will take your question.
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you, Special Advisor. I have a – or a couple of questions, if I may. Could you share the dates of your trip in Lebanon? And being yourself Lebanese, you probably have an idea of the country’s needs. What are you planning to do during your time in Lebanon? Thank you.
MS MINKARA: Amazing. Yes – definitely. Thank you. So my dates in Lebanon is landing there on the 15th and leaving on the 19th, so I’ll be there for three and a half days kind of. And we’re – in Lebanon, we’re focusing on – yes, Lebanon is a country that I have personal, professional kind of experience – and one of the things we’re focusing on is how do we make sure persons with disabilities are addressed through the value-based aspect when it comes to the crisis. Lebanon has dealt with the port explosion crisis, COVID, and the economic crisis.
And in those moments, again, persons with disabilities are marginalized on many layers. And we are there to kind of making sure that, in meeting with government officials or meeting with the prime minister – we’re meeting with different ministers – to make sure that they are thinking about disability from a value-based aspect and not seeing it as a burden and saying, like – it’s not an additional kind of burden, but it brings value to the community.
We’re also meeting with local DPOs. We are meeting with organizations that are focusingd on elections. We’re meeting with NGOs that are not thinking about disability, but we’re talking to them about how to make sure we integrate disability into their work. So it’s a wide range of kind of meetings, but one of the things that we’re also doing is we’re using disability rights as a bridge issue to really help the U.S. Government also reach communities in Lebanon in a more intentional way. So —
MODERATOR: Thank you so much.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: And it looks like we have one more question from the Kuwait News Agency, Sherouq Sadeqi. Sherouq, can you hear me? I know she’s on the phone. And you can dial * 6 to unmute yourself. It looks like she’s having a little difficulty doing that. What we’ll do is we will take her question and send it to your office to answer. And I will do one more round. If you have a question – a final question, we’ll be happy to take your question. Well, no other hands are raised, so I will turn it over to you, Special Advisor Minkara, for any closing remarks.
MS MINKARA: Awesome. Thank you so much Doris and thank you to all that have joined us. And thank you for your questions, and I look forward to further conversations. And my only thing – my only ask always is taking forward this value-based narrative to your – our own work when we’re talking about disability and engaging in disability. Thank you guys. I really appreciate it.
MODERATOR: Wonderful. And I’d like to thank our journalists for participating today, and of course, Special Advisor Minkara, who will definitely be coming back to brief with us again. And with that, this briefing is concluded.