~ Submitted by Lee Vorderer
In the United States, there has been lots of talk about disability rights and the importance of equal access and inclusion, and it is encouraging that some of the time, positive change happens. Institutions that set individuals with various disabilities apart from the regular population are mostly gone.
Most cities and towns have a limited supply of accessible, affordable housing so that some people with disabilities can live in the town. In employment, some people with disability who are ready to work get jobs, but most do not. The unemployment rate for those of us with disabilities is about 20%, well above the average rate in the United States.
When you think about data that say the average percentage of people with disabilities in any population is about 15%, it’s clear there are a lot of people whose lives are affected by disability, and not always in a good way. The attitude change that is needed to bring about full participation and dignity for people with disabilities is happening much more slowly than is needed.
In other countries, the details are different, but the overall picture is the same, or worse. In Kenya for example, where a government-issued ID card is needed by everyone, people with disabilities don’t reliably have them, and so don’t have access to whatever services exist. In many other cultures, shame is attached to having a child with a disability; in some cultures, people with disabilities are seen as cursed.
About Rotary International
Rotary is an organization of business and professional people united worldwide who provide humanitarian service, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations, and help build goodwill and peace in the world. This global perspective and network have allowed Rotary to put its efforts into the dignity and human rights of people with disabilities worldwide.
Examples from countries all over the world, including the United States, show that for the most part, people with disabilities experience devaluing in their communities. Their rights are violated; their voices go unheard.
The World Disability Advisors Group of Rotary International
In March of 2021, Rotarians Ken Masson from the Rotary Club of the Merrimack Valley and Ralph Hammond from Bedford’s Rotary Club met to think about how Rotary could take on the global issues surrounding disability. Simply stated, regardless of disability, people should have the right to make choices and to set the directions for their own lives.
Rotary has long been able to help individuals who need a piece of adaptive equipment. Now Rotary intends to create situations where those people can get to the places where their voices will be heard. Masson and Hammond determined that an over-arching focus on Human Rights for individuals with disability might allow Rotary to create local systems where individuals with disability can gain dignity, access to opportunity, and be more able to live the lives they dream about.
In their early discussions, the two also thought about the idea that people with disabilities are an untapped part of the economy. Including in this figure, the families and care providers lifted that number to a point where every country could rethink its inclusion from an economic point of view.
Combining this perspective with the recognition that one of the major obstacles to people with disabilities having a stronger voice in their communities is their lack of presence in their communities. Masson and Hammond met to think about what Rotary could do to enable people with disabilities to have more of a voice. From this meeting, the World Disability Advisors Group of Rotary International was born.
Masson and Hammond used Rotary International’s extensive network to share with Rotary Clubs around the world the idea of disability as a focus and human rights and economic power were drivers.
Outreach about this concept generated instant interest. In two months, the Disability Advisory group had well over 20 charter members, enough to form a new club; as of May of 2021, today more than 300 Rotary Members and non-members are part of the Advisors’ Group. All these people and their respective Rotary Clubs are committed to understanding the problems that people with disability face and to addressing these problems in a systemic way. The Group’s primary focus is on human rights, helping individuals gain dignity, equality, and the opportunity to achieve the life and potential they deserve.
One of the most tangible results of Masson and Hammond’s collaboration is the electronic Rotary World Disability Advocacy Weekly Newsletter. This Newsletter presents and shares information from all the members through articles, pictures, and stories. In addition, the software WhatsApp is being used to enable participants from all over the world to get in personal touch with each other to discuss concerns, problem solve, and collaborate around new efforts.
The Advocacy Group challenges its members to talk and share ideas and then to act on them. In the near future, there will be Rotary Club funding for some projects and the roll-out of these projects throughout the disability network.
The World Disability Advisors Group’s efforts will continue to be driven by Rotary’s commitment to bettering the human rights of people with disabilities around the world. If you have a passion for increasing human rights for those with disabilities, contact the Disability Advisors Group at [email protected]
The group is growing at the rate of about three new members a day, and as Hammond points out, this is a real benefit for Rotary as well as for these members. The Group positions Rotary International as a place where both current and brand-new ideas can flourish, where energy from around the world can be brought together to do great things. It helps the organization reach out to potential new members around the world, (both younger members just getting started and older members established in their various careers), and it encourages all Rotary members to become involved in a work with a disability and human rights focus. As Henry Ford said, “working together brings success.”
Nota Bene: This is the first of four articles. The Second article will introduce readers to some of the international and local leaders who are finding energy and purpose through their involvement in the World Disability Advisors’ Group; the third article will share some of the projects that have developed through the efforts of Rotary International. The fourth article will look at the work of the Rotary Club here in Bedford so readers can appreciate all that is happening right in their own neighborhood.