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Toward the Full Inclusion of People with Disabilities: Examining the Accessibility of Overseas Facilities and Programs Funded by the United States

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Overseas Report (PDF, 994K)

Executive Summary

The overarching aim of this report is to advance understanding and to promote accessibility and inclusion of people with disabilities in foreign assistance programs funded by the United States. The report reviews U.S. federal disability laws, the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Disability Policy, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and discusses their application to U.S. foreign assistance programs. The report examines the work of USAID, the U.S. Department of State (DOS), and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), and provides recommendations that will strengthen the operation of these agencies by ensuring U.S. Government funding is used in a manner that is accessible to and inclusive of people with disabilities.

More than one billion people, 15 percent of the world’s population, have a disability. The number continues to grow as a result of aging populations, poverty, armed conflict, and AIDS. Postconflict and developing countries have a significant proportion of people with disabilities. Although people with disabilities make up a large segment of the population in many countries, they continue to face horrific forms of discrimination and segregation throughout the world.

The United States has been a leader in advancing the rights of people with disabilities and must continue to promote disability rights through its international development work. The United States invests billions of taxpayer dollars each year into foreign assistance programs that foster international diplomacy and development. Notably, these programs develop economies, promote democracy and governance, provide humanitarian assistance, build new infrastructure, and advance and protect human rights. The United States cannot effectively accomplish the goals of foreign assistance programs unless it undertakes measures to ensure that the programs are accessible to and inclusive of people with disabilities.

To ensure effective and sustainable economic development and poverty eradication, people with disabilities must benefit from economic development programs. Micro-level interventions aimed at income generation and macro-level interventions designed to create legal and regulatory frameworks must be accessible to people with disabilities.

Further, it is important to ensure that people with disabilities are included in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief programs. Armed conflict and natural disaster increase the number of people with disabilities by causing injury, impairment, and trauma. Additionally, people with disabilities are disproportionately affected during disaster and armed conflict owing to inaccessible information dissemination and transportation procedures.

The goals of democracy and governance programs cannot be achieved without the inclusion of people with disabilities. In many countries, domestic law contains blatant discriminatory provisions for people with disabilities that undermine access to justice and full participation in society. The provisions that discriminate against people with disabilities include arbitrary exclusions in electoral codes, sweeping plenary guardianship laws with no due-process protections, discriminatory banking practices, and inaccessible court proceedings. National disability legal frameworks remain underdeveloped throughout the world.

The failure to build infrastructure that is accessible to people with disabilities results in exclusion from physical premises as well as denial of equal access to services and resources. The barriers have a negative impact on other development work as people with disabilities may not be able to access voting centers, courthouses, administrative agencies, schools, and embassies. Improved access to embassies and missions can facilitate the employment of Americans with disabilities in the Foreign Service, as ambassadors, legal advisors, political officers, and development practitioners. Accessibility to federal buildings and U.S.-Government-funded infrastructure projects for people with disabilities will foster important linkages between the United States and foreign governments.

In 2010, DOS released the inaugural Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), which articulates the future diplomatic and development goals of DOS and USAID. The QDDR underscores the importance of disability inclusion in both the programs and policies of DOS and USAID. The reform agenda set forth in the QDDR presents an opportunity and a challenge for including people with disabilities in the work of DOS and USAID.

The United States has in place the legal framework to ensure access to and inclusion of people with disabilities in foreign assistance programs. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits federal agencies from discriminating based on disability and requires that reasonable accommodations be provided in programs under contract with the Federal Government and recipients of federal financial assistance. Significantly, Section 504 of the act protects qualified individuals with disabilities employed by programs that receive federal financial assistance. In 2003, the National Council on Disability (NCD) underscored that Section 504 applies to conduct outside of the United States. Accordingly the United States is obligated to comply with Section 504 in its foreign-assistance programs. The protections set forth for federal employees in Section 501, to federal contractors in Section 503, and to federal electronic information technology in Section 508 likewise extend to foreign assistance programs. U.S. Government agencies should comply with these sections of law and relevant regulations in operations overseas.

Beyond the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, federal disability law provides other guarantees applicable to foreign assistance programming. Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) protects Americans with disabilities who work for American-owned companies overseas. Title III of the ADA requires that reasonable modifications be made for people with disabilities to enjoy full and equal access to public accommodations funded by U.S.-controlled companies. The U.S. Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 (ABA) requires that all federal buildings, including buildings financed by the Federal Government and U.S. military construction programs be accessible to people with disabilities.

In addition to the federal disability rights laws that apply to foreign assistance programs, USAID has a Disability Policy that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and requires inclusion in all programs and activities. Two Acquisition and Assistance Policy Directives (AAPDs) require all Requests for Applications (RFAs) and Requests for Proposals (RFPs) that involve new construction to include a provision on the Disability Policy and provide accessibility guidelines.

Finally, the United States has signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The research goals of this report closely correspond to one of the core mandates of the CRPD, that international development projects be inclusive of and accessible to people with disabilities. Article 32 of the CRPD requires States Parties to integrate people with disabilities into all aspects of their assistance programs, from the design stage through implementation. The CRPD provides the United States with a tool to promote nondiscrimination and equality for people with disabilities worldwide through its foreign assistance programs.

Summary of Methodology

This report provides a comprehensive overview of the current state of knowledge, attitudes, and practices toward people with disabilities in U.S.-funded overseas facilities, programs, and employment opportunities. The study was designed to elicit information from a range of stakeholders working in the field of international development. The research methodology for this report included key informant interviews, focus groups, in-country assessments, and extensive desk-based document review. The research also included a legal analysis of the extraterritorial application of U.S. federal disability laws and the implications of the CRPD for U.S. foreign assistance programs. The three primary U.S. Government agencies that were reviewed for this report were USAID, DOS, and DOD.

In the early stages of research, 20 countries were selected for in-country assessments of U.S. Government-funded facilities, programs, and employment practices. Local advocates of disability rights visited U.S. embassies and USAID missions in 14 of the 20 countries, where they conducted interviews and accessibility assessments. Accessibility assessments covered, among other things, the accessibility of entrances, hallways, and bathrooms; the availability of sign language interpreters; and whether information and materials were provided or available in accessible formats. While a limited number of countries were selected for the in-country reviews, the more general, sector-specific analyses included desk-based document review of many additional countries. The research was conducted with the intention of generating as broad an overview of current policy and practice as possible.

The study examined four major sectors of international development funded by the U.S. Government: (1) humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; (2) democracy and governance; (3) economic growth; and (4) cultural exchange programs. In-country interviews of USAID personnel were specifically geared toward democracy and governance programming. The other sectors were reviewed through extensive desk-based research, as well as interviews with federal employees and government contractors with headquarters in Washington, DC. Additionally, a roundtable event for key stakeholders who work in the field of disability rights and international development enabled participants to share their opinions on inclusive development.

Summary of Findings

  • USAID has initiated various efforts to promote disability-inclusive development. Although USAID has advanced disability inclusion, many USAID employees have low levels of awareness about disability issues and limited understanding of how to include people with disabilities in programs. Many USAID personnel are unaware of the Disability Policy. Personnel who are aware of the policy are unable to clearly articulate its relevance or impact on their work.
  • The majority of USAID-funded projects that include people with disabilities are stand-alone, disability-specific projects with small budgets. USAID uses a “twin-track” approach to disability inclusion by funding small disability-specific projects and promoting disability inclusion in general development programs. Through this approach, very few general development programs successfully implement disability components. The main goal of inclusive development is to ensure that all U.S. Government-funded programs are accessible to and inclusive of people with disabilities. USAID’s current twin-track approach does not effectively foster inclusion in all programs and in some ways promotes segregated disability-specific projects with no relationship to general development programs operated out of the same USAID mission. NCD found that disability-specific projects have been effective on a small scale in building the capacity of disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) and promoting the rights of people with disabilities, but disability-specific projects have not successfully been integrated with general development programs. NCD emphasizes the importance of ensuring that all foreign assistance programs include people with disabilities.
  • Although USAID’s disability-specific projects have successfully developed monitoring and evaluation strategies, the majority of USAID general development programs do not apply a disability lens in a consistent and ongoing manner to monitoring and evaluation efforts.
  • Many USAID technical publications fail to provide guidance on how to include people with disabilities in projects, thereby undermining the implementation of USAID’s Disability Policy.
  • The Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights show marked improvement in their coverage of country human rights conditions affecting the rights of people with disabilities; however, many reports do not provide consistent, credible information or are seriously limited in their scope.
  • Security and other concerns trump accessibility measures, with the effect that officials at embassies, consular offices, and missions routinely invoke security in response to the failure of facilities and services to be fully accessible to people with disabilities. For example, in many embassies the push-button doors were turned off because of security concerns. A push-button door is commonly found on the side of doorways for people who use wheelchairs to push in order to automatically open the door. Many secure buildings in the United States have this feature, and they are fully operational. It is unacceptable to allow security concerns to trump accessibility for people with disabilities in overseas buildings.
  • Information and materials are not provided in accessible formats at embassies, consular offices, and missions in order to facilitate full access to facilities and services for people with disabilities.
  • Cultural exchange programs do not routinely provide information on programs in accessible formats, including information concerning accessible housing options.

Summary of Recommendations

The following recommendations are based on this report’s findings and focus on the accessibility of U.S. foreign assistance programs for people with disabilities in areas covered in the research. This section summarizes the recommendations, with more detail provided in Chapter 9 of this report. NCD directs its recommendations to the Administration, Congress, USAID, DOS, and DOD. The recommendations also have relevance for other U.S. Government agencies operating abroad, and those agencies should also implement many of these recommendations. These recommendations will advance accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities and will improve the effectiveness and impact of U.S.-funded foreign assistance throughout the world.

NCD calls on the Administration to recognize the extraterritorial application of Sections 501, 503, 504, and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act; Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act; and the Architectural Barriers Act. Measures should be undertaken to ensure that all U.S. Government-funded foreign assistance work is brought into compliance with these laws.

NCD Recommendations Directed to Congress

  1. Congress should instruct USAID, DOS, DOD, and other U.S. Government agencies operating overseas that Sections 501, 503, 504, and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 apply to overseas programs and employment opportunities operated by the U.S. Government.
  2. Congress should instruct USAID, DOS, DOD, and other U.S. Government agencies operating overseas to promote greater comparative knowledge and understanding of local disability law and policy frameworks, including the status of CRPD ratification in countries receiving foreign assistance.
  3. Congress should narrow the waivers and exceptions currently outlined in the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 and regulations for building temporary structures in times of emergency.
  4. The U.S. Senate, upon receipt of the ratification package, should consider and expeditiously provide its advice and consent to ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

NCD Recommendations Directed to USAID, DOS, and DOD

  1. USAID, DOS, and DOD should implement mandatory disability rights and disability inclusion in development training sessions for employees at all missions and embassies. The findings of this report indicate that personnel around the world are unfamiliar with strategies for disability inclusion in facilities, programs, and employment opportunities. Ensuring the participation of people with disabilities, DPOs, and inclusive-development experts should be a core component of any training strategy.
  2. USAID, DOS, and DOD should promote employment opportunities for people with disabilities in missions, embassies, consular offices, and overseas programs. Americans with disabilities have the right to equal access to employment opportunities and are entitled to reasonable accommodations to perform their job duties. This should include the opportunity to work in U.S. embassies, missions, and U.S.-Government funded programs abroad. Further, where local nationals are utilized, local nationals with disabilities should be hired to work in U.S.-funded overseas programs and facilities to promote greater inclusion of people with disabilities in U.S.-funded foreign assistance programs.

NCD Recommendations Directed to USAID

  1. USAID should review and update its Disability Policy. The current policy, drafted in 1997, is outdated and provides minimal guidance on how USAID programs can be made inclusive across all sectors of its development portfolio.
  2. USAID should provide adequate resources for the Coordinator on Disability and Inclusive Development to accomplish the goals of the USAID Disability Policy.
  3. USAID should ensure that all of its programs are accessible to and inclusive of people with disabilities. To this end, USAID should undertake measures to advance inclusion beyond disability-specific projects. Disability-specific projects should be integrated into large-scale general development programs. Further, organizations with expertise to develop disability-specific projects should participate in the design and implementation of large general development programs.
  4. USAID should issue a policy directive that requires meaningful disability inclusion in the statements of work and program descriptions of RFPs and RFAs.
  5. USAID should include people with disabilities in the technical approach section of evaluation criteria for RFAs and RFPs. Such an approach will compel applicants and offerors to emphasize their technical approach to disability inclusion and implementation of the Disability Policy.
  6. USAID should apply a disability lens to its monitoring and evaluation efforts. To this end, USAID should require applicants and offerors to develop and outline disability indicators and outputs in result frameworks and performance management plans. Given the commitment to strengthening USAID’s monitoring and evaluation, as underscored in USAID Forward and the QDDR, such an approach is timely and readily achievable.
  7. USAID should provide specific instructions for applicants and offerors in the preparation of the budget proposal in all USAID solicitations for costing reasonable accommodations and modifications for people with disabilities. A line item in the cost proposal for proper budgeting of reasonable accommodations should be specified in these instructions and in accompanying charts or spreadsheets.
  8. USAID should fund capacity building for DPOs as a part of its civil society-strengthening program within the Democracy and Governance sector. Consistent with USAID’s work to mobilize constituencies for reform through civil society organization (CSO) development, USAID should redouble its efforts to provide funding to DPOs to build their capacity to undertake disability law and policy reform, collaborate with partner organizations, manage funds, research funding opportunities, and draft proposals, among other skills that are essential to sustain inclusive development programs.

NCD Recommendations Directed to DOS

  1. DOS should issue an official policy statement on compliance requirements for Sections 501, 503, 504, and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. DOS must make it clear to all federal employees that Sections 501, 503, 504, and 508 apply to all U.S. programs, facilities, and employment opportunities overseas.
  2. DOS should provide adequate resources for the Office of the Special Advisor on International Disability Rights to effectively promote disability inclusion in all aspects of DOS work.
  3. DOS should ensure that all embassies, consular offices, and missions are fully accessible to people with disabilities. Entranceways, meeting rooms, bathrooms, and other areas must be accessible to people with disabilities. Information and materials must also be accessible and available to people with disabilities. This includes visa applications, websites, and informational pamphlets and brochures, among other materials distributed to the public by embassies, consular offices, and missions. Additionally, DOS should ensure that where accessible architectural modifications already exist in buildings, they are made fully operational and are not disregarded owing to security or other concerns.
  4. DOS should strengthen its disability rights coverage in its Human Rights Reports. Human Rights Officers should be encouraged to consult with local DPOs when drafting Country Reports within its Human Rights Reports.
  5. DOS should support trainings for staff of cultural exchange programs on the inclusion of people with disabilities and consider adopting specific disability-inclusive mission statements or policies that encourage qualified people with disabilities to apply. DOS should ensure that all information on programs is available in accessible alternative formats (website materials, print, and in person) and that accessible housing options are available for participants with disabilities, along with individualized accommodations.

NCD Recommendations Directed to DOD

  1. DOD should limit the number of waivers and exceptions permitted under its newly adopted ABA Accessibility Standards for DOD Facilities. Waivers and exceptions have been used throughout the world to build inaccessible infrastructure that later must be retrofitted to provide accessibility at a high cost to American taxpayers.
  2. DOD should provide clear guidance to contractors on the application of the ABA Accessibility Standards in developing countries. At present, the standards state that they apply “worldwide,” but there is a gap in the standards that allows contractors to apply for waivers or argue for an exception in developing countries. These standards must clearly indicate that DOD infrastructure projects in foreign countries are subject to the same provisions as other DOD infrastructure projects.

Read the Full Report (PDF, 994K)