Good evening and thank you for joining us. I would like to thank the AmCham leadership team for your important work promoting Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility. I am grateful for the opportunity to address what I believe is an important – yet overlooked – part of the diversity and inclusion conversation today: the rights and needs of neurodiverse persons.
Let’s start from the premise that all members of the human family are created as equals, and that everyone has the right to equal opportunities to develop his or her unique talents in pursuit of their dreams. This principle applies as much to disabled persons as it does to all citizens.
To this end, I am proud to note that last year the United States celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which became law on July 26, 1990.
The ADA represented a ground-breaking civil rights law prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the public.
The ADA broke barriers to access and opportunity, enabling millions of Americans to employ their talents and skills, and to contribute to strengthening their country. This law affirms the right for Americans with disabilities to access the same schools, hospitals, jobs, transportation, stores, and recreational facilities as their non-disabled friends and family, and requires that these facilities be accessible to all.
But of course, our understanding of the diversity of humankind – both in the biological and social senses – is not static, and what we in society should do to be inclusive of such diversity, to embrace and harness the unique talents of all, must not be static either.
Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist who has autism, is widely credited with having coined the term “neurodiversity” in 1998. The term refers to variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions, and commonly refers to people with autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other learning disabilities.
Neurodiversity as an approach to learning and disability refers to the idea that all humans have diverse cognitive profiles, neurological abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, which should be accepted, respected, embraced and accommodated. Neurodiverse people are wired differently from “neurotypical” people; they experience, interact with, and interpret the world in different, unique ways.
Sadly, people with neurocognitive disabilities often experience disadvantage and discrimination in the employment process. The way a company recruits for new hires, drafts its position descriptions, and interviews candidates can deter neurodiverse people from applying for jobs.
This is problematic in terms of equity, but also in terms of attracting and retaining talent. Business management experts are increasingly finding that hiring neurodiverse employees can provide companies with a competitive edge that brings measurable benefits – talents, views, and skills that can prove beneficial to a 21st century company.
Businesses increasingly recognize the unique value that a neurodiverse workforce can bring if reasonable adjustments are made to enable everyone’s full professional potential. I am looking forward to hearing during today’s discussion some best practices that we can adopt.
Of course, it takes intent and time for an organization to learn that neurodiversity isn’t something to be “fixed” but rather to be understood, and welcomed.
This takes leadership. Leaders must create an inclusive environment by instilling the conviction across the organization that it will do what it takes, no matter how inconvenient or different from established practices, to hire a diverse workforce.
At the United States Department of State, the ADA and the spirit of ensuring accessibility has manifested itself in many ways to assist those with a wide range of disabilities. These include measures such as providing closed captioning on all of our public video content and deploying sign language interpreters to reach targeted audiences. All of our buildings, including the Consulate here in Mumbai, need to be fully accessible to those with physical disabilities; this includes my residence, which is on the Consulate compound, and has an elevator.
Our Human Resources division ensures we provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, enabling them to perform the essential functions of their job through adjustments to the work environment and the provision of assistive technology.
In December 2020, the State Department opened a state-of-the-art Access Center, a facility that provides cutting-edge solutions to Department employees with disabilities. This center serves as a showcase for accessibility best practices, not just for the federal government, but also for the diplomatic community and foreign missions in Washington. As such, the Department’s Access Center has the potential for global impact on individuals with disabilities.
The Access Center offers a barrier-free environment for employees with disabilities to test, train, and provide feedback on assistive technology equipment and develop personalized solutions in an environment similar to their workspace. Employees’ ability to experiment with equipment prior to installation at their workstation reduces the risk of providing ineffective accommodations that could potentially require revisions or replacements. This measure saves the Department time and resources, but more importantly it saves our employees frustration.
Here in Mumbai, the U.S. Consulate has worked to include disabled persons in our exchange programs. These participants in turn share the benefits of their programs with the disabled community in our consular district. For example, paraplegic swimmer, black belt, and founder of the Para Sports Association Shams Alam participated in the State Department’s Global Sports Mentoring Program, a month-long mentorship experience that provided support and guidance on how to advocate for disability rights among the state sports authorities and federations in India. Since the program, Shams has effectively served the community by promoting increased opportunity for participation in sport, including by developing and leading swim camps and handball tournaments.
Another alum of a U.S. exchange program, Manjushree Patil, used her experiences as an Americans with Disabilities Act Fellow to strengthen the curriculum at the Aatman Academy in Thane, a school she founded to promote inclusive education for children with learning disabilities. Her advocacy to the Maharashtra state government to apply Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a concept she studied at the University of Minnesota, resulted in government support to conduct UDL trainings for more than 500,000 teachers from 36 districts. Under the guidance of the Institute on Community Integrations at the University of Minnesota, Patil continues to lead a Certificate course in Holistic Inclusion of Learners with Diversities. Aatman Academy, it should be noted, has ranked among India’s top ten schools for special needs for four consecutive years.
Meanwhile the consulate and EducationUSA advisors regularly provide information about resources and support available on U.S. university campuses for international students with disabilities. U.S. colleges have adapted the ADA’s principles by creating accommodations for physical, psychological, and learning disabilities. Our advisors provide guidance and share resources for navigating the application process and talk about support services offered to disabled international students at a U.S. university.
In the United States we are proud of all we have been able to achieve in expanding inclusion of disabled people, but of course we also know we have much more to do. We continually reaffirm our commitment to promoting and protecting the human rights of all and to achieving equal opportunity in education, employment, and participation in civic life for persons with disabilities.
We welcome organizations like AmCham showing leadership by addressing this issue through discussions like this and I encourage engagement with representative organizations of persons with disabilities to assure equal access and opportunity going forward.
And while my focus today has been on the rights of disabled persons, and particular neurodiverse individuals, it is important to underscore that inclusion does not stop there. As many of you have heard me stress before, every workforce is strengthened and enriched by maximum diversity, whether we are talking about gender equality, multi-faith representation, or recognition for other marginalized and under-represented groups. I encourage you to support members of ALL segments of society, to explore ways to expand the inclusion of groups who benefit from India’s economic opportunities, and in so doing increase equity by tapping into this country’s rich and varied heritage.