VOA Interview: Special Adviser on International Disability Rights Mikara

US STATE DEPARTMENT — VOA News Center TV reporter Julie Taboh spoke with Sara Minkara, special adviser for international disability rights at the State Department, in advance of International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Saturday. The interview focused on U.S. efforts to advance global human rights for persons with disabilities through the use of diplomacy.


The following transcript has been edited for clarity.


VOA: Thank you so much for inviting us for this special opportunity, if you could please just let us know your name and your title.


STATE DEPARTMENT SPECIAL ADVISER FOR INTERNATIONAL DISABILITY RIGHTS SARA MINKARA: Yeah, my name is Sara Minkara, and I’m the U.S. special adviser on international disability rights.


VOA: And can you please describe that for our audience? What exactly is it and how did the idea for this come about?


Minkara: So, this role as special adviser on disability rights was established under President [Barack] Obama, who at that time appointed Judith Heumann, that amazing legend. And I have the honor to have been appointed by President [Joe] Biden this past November 2021. And it is a role that showcases to the U.S. government and also the international community that when we talk about foreign policy, when we talk about national security, peace and prosperity, we need to also be talking about the rights and inclusion of persons with disabilities. We need to make sure we’re integrating disability policy into our foreign policy.


VOA: What is the current state of disability rights and accessibility for people with disabilities around the world and how is this helping to address that?


Minkara: So, it’s estimated that 1 billion — and it’s probably a little bit more than that, one seventh of the world’s population — are persons with disabilities. But unfortunately, if you look at the statistics when it comes to education and employment and including persons with disabilities, we’re far from achieving full inclusion. Most countries have had and have ratified the CRPD, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, or have implemented and adopted disability policies. We have the American with Disabilities Act, there are disability legislations and policies out there. The convention is an amazing example of that. But when it comes to actualization of the laws and policies internationally, when it comes to implementation, there’s still gaps because, if you think about it, society still sees in many cases persons with disability from a lens of charity, from a lens of less than, from a lens of there’s something different, they need to be fixed, a burden. Or the other extreme lens, as we call it, “inspiration porn.” Oh my God, they’re so amazing. Why? Because I’m a person with a disability. We need to come to a point in the global community society that we expect persons with disabilities to be out and about, integrated into the educational system, employed and living their life and being able to tap into their full value.


VOA: You mentioned of course the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was launched more than 30 years ago here in the states. And many gains have of course been made since then and of course we still have aways to go. But are there any countries that you can think of that are close to living up to that ideal? And how far do you think we need to still go with these initiatives to bring it as close to what’s happening in the United States?


Minkara: In traveling the world, there’s so many different great examples of amazing efforts. And each country has this journey when it comes to, you know, the inclusion of persons with disability. But one common theme that still exists across the board, and this goes back to the narrative, how do we really change the narrative when it comes to disability inclusion? How did that change the narrative with how society sees persons with disability? Because who implements policies? It’s the people. So that is something really important that we’re also trying to really promote across the board in doing engagements like with you guys, right, with media. That really can shift that narrative. Beyond narrative change, we also focus on disability-inclusive democracy. We focus on persons with disabilities during moments of crisis because that’s when a lot of times they’re left behind in in multiple multilayered ways. We also focus on persons with disability during climate change, during COVID, during different crisis aspects. So there’s so many different technical challenges and adaptive challenges, but, ultimately, we really need to make sure we shift the narrative towards disability.


VOA: Tell me about your efforts to, and I’m quoting here, “to advance global human rights for persons with disabilities through diplomacy.” What exactly do you mean by that? And can you provide some examples?


Minkara: Yeah, definitely. So we have these four main priorities, which include fostering accountability and building capacity, promoting disability-inclusive democracy, advancing human rights in moments of crisis for persons with disability and changing the narrative. So those are priorities. But what does that look like in actuality? So this past year, we’ve traveled to 17 countries in our diplomatic engagements across five different regions. We focused on Ukraine, the rights of persons with disabilities for Ukrainian refugees with disabilities in Moldova and Romania, for instance. We helped Lebanon ratify this year, or on a process of ratifying the CRPD. We just came back from Mozambique and really were supporting on this disability law draft and making sure that it’s aligned to the CRPD values and principles. So we will focus on pro-democracy efforts in Thailand, for instance. So each country, we really hone-in on certain objective aligned to one of those four main priorities.


VOA: And of course this may be a very basic question, but I’m assuming this means working of course with NGOs and also government. You mentioned Ukraine, you mentioned Cambodia, I mean these are countries, for example in Cambodia and Thailand, we know landmines is an issue that’s caused a lot of disability. Is that one of the main initiatives?


Minkara: So really good question. So we want to make sure any of our engagements where we’re working across different stakeholders. Civil society is one of the most important stakeholders. We always engage to hear their perspective, the reality, the landscape that can help us in our engagements with government. Also, engagement with the private sector business leader. So we work with civil society, government, business leaders, individuals and youth with disabilities, universities, across the board. So we want to make sure that in any of our efforts we are hearing the different perspectives and the effort. To give you one example, with this Ukraine crisis that’s happening, which is so sad and unfortunate, we’ve established and this, you know, biweekly call with stakeholders from the NGO community, from the local disability civil society committee, from government agency community, coming together to really focus on Ukraine and disability, and how to make sure we’re coordinating efforts and understanding challenges and gaps.


VOA: The press invitation said there’s a specific focus on the U.S. being a partner of choice to use disability as a bridge issue to address other difficult areas such as economic empowerment, climate change, times of crisis. You have alluded to that and you’ve given some great examples. Anything else you want to say about that?


Minkara: [The] U.S. is experienced in journey when it comes to ADA and disability policy, and inclusion. There’s so much that we can share in terms of our experience, our successes and challenges. And that’s something that when traveling to different countries in the world, you know, governments and civil societies are looking for, you know, to learn from that and to really engage on that front. And I think that’s a beautiful bridge issue. We are able to connect on a human-to-human level, the humanity level when it comes to disability. Everyone agrees that disability and inclusion needs to be addressed, and I think that’s a beautiful bridge issue when it comes to diplomacy.


VOA: And the stigma, right? I mean, I come from the Middle East. My father was Iranian and you just didn’t talk about it, and if you had members of the family like I did in my own extended family, they were shut away. I mean this was not even something that society would even discuss. And that I assume is a challenge also.


Minkara: Yeah, and exactly, and that goes back to the earlier point of narrative change, you know, if society still sees us as individuals that we need to be hidden or ashamed or fixed or charity, whatever it is. Policy is not enough, policy is important, but we need to also get society to shift the perspective, address that stigma, and get society to demand and say we need to include persons with disability because when we don’t, our economy is going to suffer, because to be honest, the GDP [gross domestic product] of a country gets impacted when we don’t include persons with disability. We’re also losing out on the innovation that persons with disabilities can bring forward. And there’s even a more important point that when we make a system that’s accessible and inclusive for persons with disability, we all benefit. And I also share this really simple example: I was a math major in college, classmates would come up to me and say, ‘Sara, what classes are you taking next semester?’ I was like, ‘Oh, why does that matter?’ They’re like, ‘Well, whenever you’re in the classroom, the professor becomes a better teacher.’ So who benefited? Not only me, but my classmates? Why? Because he had to explain things in a more articulate way because I couldn’t access the board, but who benefited? Everyone, that is the point that we need to be sharing across the board.


VOA: Love that story. Love that story. Two more questions: the World Cup Qatar, were there any accommodations, as far as you know, made for visitors with disabilities attending the games? And if so, do you think they were adequate?


Minkara: So, we actually went specifically to Qatar in the beginning of October to actually meet with Qatar on the World Cup and accessibility, and they worked with Mark Dyer [accessibility and inclusivity strategist at Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC)] for the past seven years in making sure accessibility is an important priority and element of the World Cup experience. And it is, so far, the most accessible World Cup to this date. And, in the engagement with (U.S.) Secretary (of State Antony) Blinken and the Qatar accessibility, disability is something that’s being brought forward and something that we want to continue making sure that it’s not just for the World Cup, it goes beyond the World Cup. But, it is, to this date, the most successful World Cup.


VOA: That’s great to know. Last question: What is your main objective overall?


Minkara: To be honest, my main objective in this work that we’re doing is, one that I want us to have a more courageous and difficult conversation on why is disability left behind? Number two is, how can we create more shared responsibility when it comes to disability inclusion, because it shouldn’t just lie on the shoulders of persons with disability. Every single entity, space, bureau, department, what have you, should be thinking about disability as part of their efforts because it helps their work. How do we then build capacity to take that forward? And how do we make sure we’re continuing on that journey? For me, I would love for everyone to be thinking about disability inclusion in their own space.


Source: Voice of America