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4 May 1999

Press Briefing



Anyone could join the "silent crisis" of disability in an instant, but it was the populations of developing countries who had been most severely affected, the Chairman of the World Committee on Disability, Alan Reich, told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference today on the occasion of the presentation of the third Franklin Delano Roosevelt International Disability Award.

The award -- sponsored by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and the World Committee on Disability -- will be given tomorrow, in a ceremony at Headquarters, to the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, for spearheading meaningful legislation aimed at allowing people with disabilities to lead an independent life.

Mr. Reich was joined at the press conference by: Under-Secretary- General for Economic and Social Affairs, Nitin Desai; the Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations, Richard Ryan; and the President of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, William J. vanden Heuvel. Marian Awwad, Chief of the Development and Human Rights Section of the Department of Public Information, moderated the discussion.

Mr. vanden Heuvel said the purpose of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute was to perpetuate the legacy of those two great Americans. If there was any single American who could be described as a founder of the United Nations, it would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the thirty-second President of the United States. Among his many great accomplishments, which included leading that nation through its two greatest crises -- the Great Depression and the Second World War -- was the fact that Franklin Roosevelt was a disabled person.

At the age of 39, Mr. Roosevelt was disabled by polio and never again was able to stand or walk alone or move without the assistance of others, Mr. vanden Heuvel said. Nine years after his disabling illness, he was elected President of the United States. The Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, together with the United Nations, sought to implement the United Nations programme for the disabled, which was adopted by the General Assembly in 1982. One result of those endeavours had been the establishment of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt International Disability Award, presented to a nation that had shown considerable progress in terms of the United Nations programme. The award was accepted by the head of State of that nation, and a $50,000 prize was given to an instrumental non-governmental force within that country.

He said the Institute's trustees recognized the establishment in Ireland of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, which had defined the direction of the country in ensuring equality for all people with

disabilities. The Commission was now called the Irish Council for People with Disabilities. The Institute had taken particular interest in the fact that the Council was led by people with disabilities themselves, through county networks. It had also taken into account the Government's appointment of a Minister of State for disability and equality issues, as well as its commitment to equal employment, and eventually to a comprehensive disabilities bill.

Continuing, he said that Ireland had played a major role in related efforts undertaken by the United Nations and had been a significant partner on the European Union. Especially impressive was the fact that Ireland was not satisfied with its own considerable progress in that regard, but had diligently compelled the Union to include provisions in its agreements to protect people with disabilities.

Mr. Reich said there were 500 million people with disabilities in the world, and when the people living with them on a daily basis were counted, there were easily 1 billion people directly affected by disability. Disabilities were the result not only of wars, but of landmines, accidents, malnutrition, substance abuse, and environmental damage. No one was immune. The United Nations proclamation of 1981 as the International Year of Disabled Persons, followed by a United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons, was really a global wake-up call. Libya had initiated that resolution in 1978, thereby focusing world attention on that silent crisis.

The purpose of the subsequent programme of action, adopted unanimously by the General Assembly in 1982, was the realization of the full and equal participation of people with disabilities in their respective societies, he continued. Much had been done, but the realization that 85 per cent of the people with disabilities worldwide were from developing countries -- where they were doubly disabled by disability and poverty -- was particularly disturbing. Those were the real sufferers. The United Nations' call to all countries to take steps to ameliorate their condition was a "beacon of hope". Both the United Nations and Ireland should be commended for their success.

Mr. Ryan said his country was greatly honoured to receive the Award this year. The decision of Ireland's President to personally accept the award in New York tomorrow was a testament to the importance it placed on the honour. Indeed, the Award had placed Ireland in the forefront internationally in recognizing the needs of people with disabilities. It had also reinforced the Government's endeavours to advance those interests at a higher level. The award would further raise awareness of the needs of people with disabilities and the possibilities for meeting those needs.

When the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities was founded some years ago, Irish society was not sufficiently including people with disabilities in all aspects of its economic, social, political and cultural life, he continued. The Commission's report marked a major watershed

Disability Award Press Conference - 3 - 4 May 1999

in their struggle to become valued members of society, and it transformed the Government's agenda to a "rights-based" approach. Arising from that report, his Government introduced an action plan for the millennium, including, among others: additional funding for the Council for People with Disabilities; the introduction of meaningful legislation; and a provision in the national agreement between Government and private sector employers and trade unions that the three per cent quota in public service for hiring people with disabilities would be met during the lifetime of the three-year partnership of those groups.

Irish policy drew heavily from the United Nations standard rule on the equalization of opportunities for persons with disabilities, he went on. Indeed, his country had worked to secure non-discriminatory clauses in the treaties and documents of the European Union, to which it had belonged since 1973. Moreover, the staging of the summer olympics in Ireland in 2003 would further raise the profile of people with disabilities.

Mr. Desai said he welcomed the initiative taken by the Institute to establish the award. In many ways, it had crystallized several elements of the United Nations work. The work programme on disability and standard rules on equalization of opportunity, for example, had focused on creating conditions by which the disabled could lead normal lives in society. In many ways, Franklin Delano Roosevelt symbolized that particular urge. Clearly, the effectiveness of the work being done in the United Nations depended on achievements at the national level. The United Nations had a special rapporteur who went from country to country, and had been reasonably successful in getting the standard rules translated into national legislation or action programmes.

Mr. vanden Heuvel added that there had been more than 30 nominations for the award this year. The Secretary-General was expected to participate in tomorrow's ceremonies, as well as Christopher Reeves, a spokesman for the World Committee on Disability. Mr. Reeves was a well-known American who had himself suffered an accident. He symbolized the notion elaborated by Mr. Reich that anyone in an instant could become a member of the disabled community. He also symbolized courage, for the way in which he had led his struggle for independent living.

That was the objective about which Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke more than 70 years ago, Mr. vanden Heuvel went on. President Roosevelt had worked with the Ford Motor Company, for example, to develop a mechanism by which people whose legs were not useful could drive an automobile. Previously, such problems had been ignored in the national context. Mr. Roosevelt's ultimate victory, however, was the March of Dimes. Every year on his birthday, Americans sent millions of dimes to the White House. That money financed the research of Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin, which resulted in the polio vaccine.

Disability Award Press Conference - 4 - 4 May 1999

Asked by a correspondent for further details about the forthcoming Special Olympics in Ireland, Mr. Ryan said he would provide the correspondent with additional information.

Another correspondent asked if any special programmes were being contemplated by the United Nations and the Institute to confront the terrible mutilation of children.

Mr. vanden Heuvel said the Institute did not have any special programmes specifically targeting that population. On Friday, in Hyde Park, New York at the historical site of the FDR Library, the Institute was honouring awardees of the four freedoms designations, and the Freedom From Fear designee would be Robert Muller, the founder and President of the Viet Nam Veterans of America Foundation. Mr. Muller had been the inspiration for the landmine treaty effort. For many countries of the world, injury and mutilation were so often due to landmines. The Institute was, therefore, trying to raise awareness of the problem and encourage accession to the landmines treaty by the United States.

Mr. Desai added that the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) had taken a particular interest in children with disabilities, including in the context of the impact of landmines, which was really quite disastrous in many countries.

Saying that every deaf child had a right to education was not enough, he went on. Facilities were needed for those children in schools. So, it was not just a matter of putting a statute on the books, but of ensuring that governments allocated resources to allow people to exercise those rights, in schools, in the work place, on public transportation, and elsewhere. That was a "fairly long haul", particularly in developing countries.

Mr. Reich added that applications for the award from several African countries had demonstrated their motivation to place disability at a higher level of concern. The radiating impact of the United Nations was indeed felt throughout the non-governmental community. Indeed, his own in the United States -- the National Organization on Disability -- would not have come into being without the original United Nations call for the International Year of Disabled Persons. Much of the grass roots activity around the world was happening merely because the United Nations had issued that call and had deepened its commitment over time. Even national budgets were being applied to that very critical, but rather silent, crisis.

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For information media. Not an official record.