Remarks by Ambassador James F. Entwistle International Day of Persons with Disabilities Program (December 3, 2015)

Abuja | December 3, 2015

(as prepared for delivery) 

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.  I’m delighted to speak with you today about the Americans with Disabilities Act—known as the ADA—and the lessons it may hold for those seeking to pass similar laws.

This year, the United States celebrated the 25th anniversary of the ADA, a comprehensive civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.  Before its enactment into law in 1990, the bill that became the ADA went through two years of debate in the U.S. Congress.  However, its story started well before that, over the course of the 1970s in cities and towns throughout the United States where people with disabilities began to challenge social barriers excluding them from their communities, and parents of children with disabilities began to fight the exclusion and segregation of their children.

The disability rights movement made the injustices faced by people with disabilities visible to the American public and to politicians.  In one famous example, a paralyzed Vietnam War veteran testified before Congress in 1989 that when he got home in his wheelchair, he found that he couldn’t get in and out of his housing project.  He couldn’t get on or off the bus because of a lack of proper access, and he couldn’t find work because of discrimination among employers.  He said it was then that he realized he had fought for everyone in America but himself—and he vowed to fight tirelessly for passage of the ADA.

In the lead up to the ADA’s passage, there were many concerns in the United States about its potential impact.  But people came together to hash out their differences and found a way forward.  Since the ADA became law and accessibility requirements in public accommodations have become the norm in the United States, disabled persons and other grassroots organizers have demonstrated that the problems faced by persons with disabilities were not the inevitable consequences of disability itself, which is what many people had supposed.  Instead, those problems were the result of the inferior social and economic status imposed on the disabled by social barriers and prejudice.

The ADA has worked because it is based on the common-sense proposition that people with disabilities want to work and are capable of working.  People with disabilities want to be members of their communities— and are capable of being members of their communities.  We know this to be true because any one of us could become disabled at any time, and who among us would want to be sidelined as a result?  Just take a look around this room, and you will see people who have overcome some form of disability and are making an impact in the community.

Let me tell you about a few of them: Lois Auta, the convener of this event, was affected by polio at a very young age, but she did not allow that physical challenge to limit her abilities.  Through her Rags to Pads project, Lois is helping young girls from rural areas by providing them with affordable hygiene products made out of recycled materials.

Another example is Freky Andrew-Essien, who uses a wheelchair as a result of an accident she suffered in 2002.  She runs an organization that provides education, health, and psychological development services to vulnerable communities.

Here at the U.S. Embassy, we have demonstrated our commitment to disabled persons in Nigeria through empowerment programs such as President Obama’s Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, of which both Freky and Lois are alumni.  We also provide support to Nigeria’s Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities and the Disability Rights Advocacy Centre.  We provide this support because we believe that the full integration of persons with disabilities into our societies is not a matter of charity but a basic issue of civil rights.  Therefore, I encourage all Nigerians to think about issues of disability in that context and to work to make tangible changes in how Nigeria addresses the many obstacles faced by persons with disabilities.

The World Health Organization estimates that there are about 25 million persons living with disabilities in Nigeria, which represents about 15 percent of this nation’s population.  Twenty five million is a number larger than the entire population in more than 100 countries in the world.  Imagine the social and economic benefits of empowering these millions of Nigerians to be fully integrated into their communities.

Speaking from the American experience, I can tell you that disabilities rights legislation can bring a better future for all of us.