A universal soldier

US State Department official Heumann says Israel still has a long way to go to see full inclusion for people with disabilities.

don't reuse 521 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
don't reuse 521
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
She’s one of numerous special advisers US President Barack Obama employs to keep abreast of specific issues, but Judith E. Heumann, who travels the globe to help develop US foreign policy vis-à-vis people with disabilities, clearly stands out from many of the others who have visited the region on official state business.
Not only does the 64-year-old Brooklyn native advocate for the rights of the disabled and continually push for wider social inclusion for them, she also leads by example and despite her own disability – she has been in a wheelchair most of her life. Heumann makes sure to go out into the field and hear from as many people as possible.
“I see this as capacity building, capacity building, capacity building,” states Heumann, the daughter of German-Jewish immigrants who had polio as a child, as we sit down for our interview in a Jerusalem hotel last week.
“When I travel, my trip is set up by local US Embassy staff and they make sure that I get to meet with government officials and civil society representatives but most importantly, we hold all our meetings outside the embassy building,” she explains.
Heumann adds: “I might have a disability myself, but I feel it is very important for me as a disabled person to go out and see other disabled people; not only is it important for me to be on their turf but it is also important for other, able bodied people, to see what is possible, even if making arrangements for my visits are more complicated than for other officials.”
Indeed, ahead of Heumann’s first official visit to Israel last week, US Embassy staff here went to great lengths to find a suitable hotel that could adequately accommodate her needs, hire specially equipped transportation that could take her around the country and ensure that the numerous stops on her tour – including visits to the Beduin city of Rahat, as well as to Beersheba, Tel Aviv and various government offices in Jerusalem – were suitably accessible for the special adviser’s electric wheelchair. Several locations had to be changed because they were not accessible enough.
“I make them take photos beforehand and I send them specific descriptions of what I need. I know it’s complicated but I think it’s a good learning lesson for everyone, and I see myself as a test case that allows others to understand more about the needs of people with disabilities,” says Heumann, who was appointed to the newly created position in June 2010 and has since traveled to Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan (twice), Qatar, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Canada and several European countries. Later this year she will head to Japan, China and Vietnam.
“I think that the embassy staff learn a lot from my visits, maybe more than they do from other US officials who might not have exposed them to what it’s like for disabled people in the community,” she says, adding the other important aspect of her visits is that the staff are exposed to the challenges facing indigenous people with disabilities in the countries where they are posted.
VISITING here for the first time in this official capacity, Heumann, who is an internationally recognized leader in the disability community and a lifelong civil rights advocate for disadvantaged people, says that Israel is certainly a regional leader in terms of addressing the rights of people with disabilities and is definitely on the right path towards social inclusion for them even though there is clearly still a long way to go.
“In terms of the region, Israel has more laws and an infrastructure that is similar to the US and the Europeans,” observes Heumann, who spent the previous week in Jordan. “However, in saying that, most people would acknowledge that there is a lot more work that needs to be done.”
Part of the problem, she says, is in ensuring that the excellent disability laws Israel has added to its books in recent years are implemented and applicable to all sectors in society, including the country’s minorities such as the Beduin and Arab populations.
Heumann also notes that more needs to be done to address outdated social attitudes towards the disabled, including promoting early intervention and integrated education, as well as challenging old-fashioned stereotypes that people with disabilities cannot live independently.
“I am a big believer that if you have effective laws that are effectively implemented then you will be able to change people’s attitudes,” she says, adding, “I don’t believe that attitudes can be changed miraculously.”
Heumann, who herself endured a legal battle to become the first person in a wheelchair to teach in New York City, continues: “The challenges here are similar to those in the US and other countries – you have the old fighting the new. The new are moving towards inclusion, equity and equality for people with disabilities and the old way is still wanting to protect disabled people.”
In addition, she says, it’s time for Israel to break down and depopulate the old institutions where disabled people once lived and bring them into the community with improved social and health services.
A lot of the problem is due to inaccessibility, observes Heumann, who during her trip here had difficulty accessing some of the old government buildings in the capital. “Lack of accessibility on a daily basis has really created separate groups of people, so that you are only left to your own personal or communal beliefs.”
She adds that the goals should be to bring people of all different backgrounds, able bodied and disabled, together to “break bread.”
“If we improve laws and strengthen enforcement, then attitudes across the board will change gradually,” she says.
WHILE there is clearly still so much to do in addressing the human rights of people with disabilities, not just here but also in a global sense, Heumann remains optimistic and prefers instead to focus on the achievements and changes that she has witnessed worldwide during her more than 40 years dedicated to this battle.
“I started traveling in 1972, and have seen some dramatic changes big and small all over the world,” observes Heumann, who previously served as the World Bank’s first adviser on disability and development and before that as assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the Department of Education for the Clinton administration. In both places she instilled significant changes in attitudes and approach to people with disabilities.
Full of life and full of stories, Heumann tells how she once traveled to a small rural village in Uganda and was surprised to find that even on the most basic level, the African country’s law demanded that a disabled person hold an elected position even in the smallest, simplest community.
“This village had no roads, no electricity and no water but when I arrived there I was greeted by the disabled elected representative of the village council,” she recalls. “He was post-polio and he was a teacher, like me. Something like that certainly would not have happened when I first started out.”
Going back to her belief that laws help to enforce changes in belief systems, Heumann clearly credits the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was ratified in 2008 and today has some 110 countries signed on to it, for propelling today’s successes forward.
“Like with any treaty some countries ratify with no intention of implementing it, some countries have done much of the work that needs to be done to be in compliance with the treaty’s objectives and there other countries that are working hard to do the right thing,” she says.
“It’s a completely different world today,” continues Heumann, recalling another story, this time from her childhood in Brooklyn where, she says, private and public buildings were once rendered completely inaccessible to her and where she was even turned away from the local public school.
“If I lived in that neighborhood today, however, it would not be an issue, thanks to laws passed in the 1970s. The school has been completely renovated and is now totally accessible,” she says.
Spurred by these developments, Heumann is quick to point out that such laws should not be thought of as aiding people with disabilities but also as a universally beneficial even to those who are not disabled.
“It has now become very clear that universal design, which is one of the outcomes of this progress, has universal benefit for everyone,” she concludes.