Celebrating the International Day of Persons with Disabilities at the United Nations

Global leaders and advocates gathered at the United Nations December 3rd to celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This annual observance was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1992.  This year’s theme focused on “comprehensive inclusion” for people with disabilities as part of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. As an above-knee amputee, I was heartened to hear that this is an international priority, and was pleased to attend the session with my colleague Danny Perry, Director of Community Engagement at ICS.

The event, entitled “Art of the Possible,” featured a panel of leaders in the global disability community, along with remarks from United Nations leadership. Ambassador Kelley Currie, the U.S. representative on the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, discussed how U.S. laws have influenced others around the world. She also spoke about the United Nations’ goals to become more accessible itself as an institution, from structural adjustments to its buildings to “voice to text” technology for its online documents.

Xian Horn, a Forbes contributor and disability advocate with cerebral palsy, opened the panel discussion, sharing how her parents focused not on limitations, but possibilities.

“Make your mistakes into art. Each of us has a paint brush and can add color and beauty to the world. We never fully know what we’re capable of until we have that opportunity to grow,” she said.

Transformative technology benefits everyone

Rodger DeRose, President and CEO of the Kessler Foundation, moderated the panel, and noted the pioneering work of Kessler Center for Rehabilitation founder Henry Kessler, a surgeon who believed in treating the whole person, not just the physical ailment. To help illustrate what advances in rehabilitation technology make possible, a woman with paralysis in her upper limbs and lower extremities demonstrated how she can walk with the help of an exoskeleton. It was a demonstration of how far transformative care has come, and a vision into what future technology could be capable of.

Rodger discussed how disabilities are the drivers of innovation, and how much of the technology we’ve come to know – Google Voice, Google Call, and closed captioning, for example, were all built for people with disabilities but can benefit the whole population.

Focus on strengths

Susan Robinson, a TED resident who advises on health policy and administration and is legally blind, believes the word “disability” has unintended consequences that focus too heavily on limitations.

“All people have different abilities and strengths – but no one has it all,” she says. “My disability allows me to stay open to possibilities of what people can’t see. We are all uniquely experienced. Everyone is well-deserved of opportunities based on their strengths.”

She urged the audience to “think of the totality of what’s needed in order to be successful,” and work towards it by focusing on strengths, not weaknesses.

Disabilities push fashion boundaries

Accessible fashion is limited only by one’s imagination, as Christina Mallon’s story illustrates. She is a member of the Board of Directors for Open Style Labs, a 10-week research program (founded by Grace Jun) at Parsons School of Design that teams designers, engineers, and occupational therapists to create stylish and wearable solutions for people with disabilities.

As someone who lost the use of her arms and fingers, she has collaborated with Open Style on solutions that help with her daily living – like socks with a conductive thread that allow her to type with her toes. With the help of a “metro machine” necklace, she can use her neck muscles to swipe her card in the NYC subway – which enables her to get to work at a job that matters to her.

Creating a hiring culture of disability inclusion

Another big topic of discussion was employment for people with disabilities. Panelist Jim Sinocchi, Head of the Office of Disability Inclusion at JP Morgan Chase & Co, said the attitudes of hiring managers is one barrier, and it’s a matter of creating a sense of normalcy so that employers feel comfortable hiring people of all abilities.

“People ask me all the time, ‘What do I say when I meet someone with a disability?’ I say, ‘How about ‘hello’?

Jim suggested incorporated accessibility into company budgets to remove barriers for hiring people with disabilities.

“We’re not feeling sorry for people with disabilities – we’re hiring them as qualified people to do the work.”

Dreams don’t have to change

Closing out the session was special guest Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, an actor on NCIS New Orleans and Fear of the Walking Dead. Daryl refused to let paralysis from a motorcycle accident derail his career.

“I never stopped walking – I just stopped physically taking steps.”

He noted how his on accommodations on set have been an asset to others – when a ramp was built for him, the camera crew found it very useful for loading their equipment. He’s starting to notice more networks casting people with disabilities.

He’s witnessed this same sense of inclusivity with his son, who has autism, and works as a Production Assistant on set.

“The [crew] had no idea. They love and respect him.” He said.

It was yet another reminder of why disability inclusion is not about “giving permission” – but rather recognizing the assets and possibilities of what people with disabilities can bring to the table.

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