Remarks at the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities Event

Ambassador Chris Lu
U.S. Representative for UN Management and Reform
New York, New York
December 5, 2022


I’m here today as one of the Co-Chairs of the Accessibility Steering Committee, but I’m also here as the former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, where one of my priorities was increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

First, let me thank all the speakers for their insightful presentations. As many of today’s speakers have highlighted, innovative solutions are critical to removing roadblocks to accessibility and inclusion. And technology is one of those solutions.

In the workplace, assistive technology can be transformative in creating real economic opportunities for employees. Technology can also be very affordable. So, we need to do more to encourage its implementation, and we need to do more to adopt best practices already used by the private sector. Because, as you’ve just heard, the world’s most innovative companies know that accessibility isn’t just the moral thing to do. It’s also good for the bottom line.

Even as we mark the progress we’ve made in the area of accessibility, we also need to take stock of the obstacles that remain. And we need to acknowledge when we have fallen short.

In the U.S., despite more than 30 years of experience with the Americans with Disabilities Act, we still have much more work to do. When it comes to economic opportunities, Americans with disabilities are unemployed at more than twice the rate of people without disabilities. And just one-third of Americans with a disability are either in the labor force or seeking employment. In the richest country in the world, two-thirds of people with a disability are being left on the sidelines.

In the U.S., we’ve made great progress in improving physical accessibility in our communities and our buildings. But just try navigating New York City’s sidewalks or streets or taking the subway, and you’ll get a sense of the immense challenges that still face someone with physical impairments.

We also need to acknowledge the work that still needs to be done at the United Nations.

During my time as Co-Chair of the Accessibility Steering Committee, I’ve met with many delegates and UN staff, including several who have spoken at this event, about the obstacles they face every day in trying to do their jobs. They’ve been frank in telling me that too often, the words in the resolutions we pass at the UN don’t match their experiences working in this institution.

Physical accessibly impediments still plague UN offices, including here at headquarters. I applaud the Secretariat for finally creating an accessible entrance to the UN building for people in wheelchairs. I tried it out last week to make sure it works. It does. But let’s remember: just entering the UN building isn’t enough to achieve full inclusion.

Wheelchair users speaking in the General Assembly Hall aren’t able to do so behind the rostrum. Delegates who try to navigate this building’s hallways and corridors face challenges if they are visually impaired. And there continue to remain too many documents, materials and digital platforms that aren’t fully accessible to people with visual and hearing impairments.

UN staff face an additional set of challenges. When I recently met with UN employees with disabilities, they told me about the difficulties in getting their accommodation requests approved. They also told me that more needs to be done to recruit, retain, and promote employees with disabilities, especially at senior levels.

As we’ve heard several times today, a central principle of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is “nothing about us without us.” To truly address the accessibility challenge, the UN needs to listen more to the staff and delegates who work here. I hope discussions like this happen every day, not just once a year.

Accessibility and inclusion aren’t just the right thing to do. They’re the smart thing to do. Because we won’t be able to solve the serious global challenges of the 21st century, unless the UN creates a supportive environment that leaves no one on the sidelines. Thank you.