The Disability Rights Movement — Keeping the Momentum Going!

Disability Rights Movement Protest for the Rehabilitation Act 1973, Courtesy of Tom Olin

Nearly 45 years after Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was signed into law, it is time for us to revisit the achievements of the Disability Rights Movement. As we strive to accelerate the progress made in championing the rights of persons with disabilities, we must draw inspiration from the determination of both activists of the past and activists of today from around the globe.

Current Advocacy Needs

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) represent two of the earliest and greatest legislative accomplishments of the Disability Rights Movement in the United States (US). These two pieces of civil rights legislation are paramount to safeguarding equitable access to employment and education for people with disabilities. Despite their gravity, on October 2, 2017, the US Department of Education (ED) rescinded 72 memos from these two critical pieces of legislation. Their justification for this action was that the memos were outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective. These memos provided guidance and clarification on regulations developed to meet the needs of students with disabilities in public education, vocational programs, and independent living centers that receive federal funding.

While the World Health Organization estimates that 15% of the world’s population is living with a disability, estimates of the US population living with a disability are slightly higher at 19%. In light of the fact that legislation regarding people with disabilities directly affects nearly one in five people in the US, these policies must be clearly defined.

In 2016, 17.9% of persons with a disability were employed in the US. Although the unemployment rate among those without a disability reached an extraordinary low of 4.6%, the unemployment rate among persons with a disability caused for less celebration at 10.5%. As we honor the incredible achievements of the Disability Rights Movement, these statistics remind us that there is still much work to be done.

What can we do to amplify the progress made from the disability rights movements of the past?

Drawing Inspiration from Rwanda

In this small, East African nation, widely recognized for its innovations and success in the health sector, Rwandan youth with disabilities often face obstacles similar to individuals with disabilities in the US and throughout the world, namely barriers to education and employment. For example, primary school attendance in Rwanda is lower among children with a disability (68%) in contrast to children without a disability (89%). This disparity extends to adulthood, evidenced by the far fewer people with disabilities engaged in economic activities (56%) than people without disabilities (75%).

As the 2012 Population Census conducted in Rwanda estimated that 182,338 children and young adults between five and 34 years of age (4%) were living with a disability, advocates in Rwanda saw an urgency for championing the rights of this ample portion of the Rwandan population. In concordance with other disability rights activists in Rwanda, Bahati Satir Omar was troubled by these statistics. He decided to take action and consequently founded Uwezo Youth Empowerment.

(L-R) Uwezo Youth Empowerment’s Projects Manager, Issa Katabarwa, and Global Health Corps Fellow, Valencia Lyle, discussing volunteer opportunities at the Uwezo Youth Empowerment Office in Kigali, Rwanda.

When Bahati lost his sight a few years ago as a university student, he feared his employment prospects post-graduation. He asked himself, Will I get a job? What about others?

These questions motivated Bahati to mobilize his peers to collaborate with both government and non-government actors to secure employment for Rwandan youth with disabilities.

Adhering to the sentiment, “nothing about us, without us,” Uwezo Youth Empowerment has proven time and again that effective advocacy bridges the gap between grassroots activism and national policy making. As an advocacy group, Uwezo is committed to ensuring greater inclusion in professional development and employment opportunities for Rwandan youth with disabilities.

One example of Uwezo’s advocacy at the grassroots level is the Connect Project, Uwezo and VSO Rwanda’s collaborative program that provided internships to 45 university graduates with disabilities. Completion of the program led to nearly 60% of participants receiving paid positions with their respective placement organizations.

In addition to working with non-governmental organizations, Uwezo has also benefited from working in conjunction with the Government of Rwanda. This collaboration led to the inclusion of a much larger percentage of Rwandan youth with disabilities in employment and professional development opportunities.

From providing the Government of Rwanda’s Kigali Employment Service Center (KESC) with disability inclusion trainings to linking youth with disabilities to internship opportunities through the Capacity Development and Employment Services Board (CESB), Uwezo is an exemplification of effective disability rights advocacy at the national, policy making level.

Uwezo’s advocacy at KESC resulted in several institutional changes to better accommodate people with disabilities. Two examples of these modifications include: 1) the installation of Job Access with Speech (JAWS) software in KESC’s computer labs to assist job seekers who are blind, and 2) ensuring the presence of sign language interpreters at KESC sponsored job fairs. In addition to Uwezo’s success at KESC, their cooperation with the CESB has resulted in CESB providing interns with disabilities additional support to guarantee a smooth transition to their new internship positions.

As Uwezo currently serves as a mobilizer at the community level and an advocate at the national, policy making level, their success in collaborating with the Government of Rwanda provides a superlative model for effective collaboration between advocates of people with disabilities and policy makers.

Uwezo Youth Empowerment Founder, Bahati Satir Omar, (third from the right) with fellow staff members, volunteers, and program beneficiaries.

Milestones and Future Collaboration Opportunities for Disability Rights Activists

Disability rights groups in the US such as the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the National Disabilities Rights Network are awaiting further analysis of the full impacts of the ED’s rescindment of the 72 policy memos. During this time, it is essential that the ED consults these advocacy groups to guarantee the 72 policy memos are revised and rendered up-to-date, necessary, and effective. The rescindment of the memos provides the ED with a great opportunity to make improvements to those memos through seeking advice from disability rights activists. Effective collaboration between disability rights advocates and the ED will ensure the memos protect the dignity of and endorse equitable lives for people with disabilities.

“We have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation, and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock the vast potential of people with disabilities.”
— Professor Stephen W. Hawking

Following Uwezo Youth Empowerment’s motto, “nothing about us, without us,” disability advocacy groups in the US must be provided opportunities to continue to work with policy makers to make historic and far-reaching progress for all people with disabilities. Disability rights advocates and organizations throughout the world have worked tirelessly to safeguard inclusive policies and environments for people with disabilities. I am hopeful that these champions of disability rights will prevail in advocating for effective legislation that encourages all educational institutions and employers to understand that disability does not equate to inability, and people with disabilities must be provided opportunities to shine.


Valencia Lyle is a 2017–2018 Global Health Corps fellow in Rwanda.

All GHC fellows, partners, and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. There is a role for everyone in the movement for health equity. Join the movement — applications for our 2018–2019 class open December 6.

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