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Autism at the UN High-Level Meeting on Disabilities and Development

“Working together, we can create a world for persons with disabilities with no limits.”
- United Nations Messenger of Peace Stevie Wonder


Posted by Amy Daniels, Autism Speaks assistant director for public health research

How often do world leaders come together to discuss disabilities? Not often. So when the United Nations General Assembly convened the first high-level meeting on disabilities – immediately prior to the opening of this year’s general assembly – the world’s leaders took notice!

I was honored to attend this week’s high-level UN meeting, entitled “The Way Forward: A Disability-inclusive Development Agenda towards 2015 and Beyond.” Its goals were to support the aims of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This includes forming plans to improve the lives of individuals with disabilities throughout the world.

Clearly Autism Speaks has an important role to play as a global advocate for the rights of individuals with disabilities and their families.

When I arrived at the UN headquarters Monday morning, I felt the excitement. The meeting had drawn such a response that representatives of advocacy organizations were guided to overflow rooms to watch the proceedings on overhead screens. There I sat down with advocates who had travelled halfway around the world to attend!

I felt so encouraged to see many autism champions in the crowd. Among them, I spotted Lynda Borromeo. Ms. Borromeo, whose grandson has autism, co-founded the Autism Hearts Foundation. This Filipino-American foundation is an active member of Autism Speaks Global Autism Advocacy Leadership Network. Just last week, Lynda and her colleagues attended the World Health Organization’s first meeting on autism and developmental disabilities, co-hosted by Autism Speaks.

UN Secretary General, General Assembly President and Stevie Wonder open meeting
The newly sworn-in president of the General Assembly, John William Ashe of Antigua, opened the high-level meeting.

“People with disabilities, with their unique abilities and challenges are the world’s largest minority,” he said. Indeed, our world is home to more than a billion individuals with disabilities, 80 percent of whom live in developing countries.

"The international community has now come to the realization that achieving our goals without incorporating the rights, well-being and perspective of persons with disabilities will be impossible," he added.

Next, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on member states to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. “Disability is not inability,” he said.

United Nations Messenger of Peace Stevie Wonder closed the opening session by describing how the people in his life helped him not only overcome but embrace his disability. “I was blessed to have a mother who allowed me to discover the world,” he said.

His comments made me think about the incredibly important role played by parents of children with autism. They are truly the power that shapes their children’s growth and success.

Comparing and coordinating global efforts
Next came a roundtable discussion calling for international coordination of efforts. Chairing the discussion were representatives of Spain and the Philippines – who also helped organize the day’s meetings.

The many speakers highlighted the advocacy work they were doing in their countries for individuals with disabilities. We heard from representatives of China, Chile, Morocco, Uruguay, India, South Africa, Greece and Thailand to name just a few.

US Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the progress being made through the US Individuals with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  "All of our societies are stronger when every single one of our citizens, able bodied and disabled alike, get to live up to their full potential," he said.

Other speakers included Saima Wazed Hossain, daughter of the Prime-Minister of Bangladesh. Saima described the important work being done through Autism Speaks’ Global Autism Public Health Initiative in Bangladesh. She also described the leadership role her country played in passing the UN Resolution on Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

Again and again, I was struck by the prominent place that autism played in the day’s historic agenda. We heard autism addressed from both human rights and health-and-development perspectives.

I left the meeting feeling encouraged that the world was, indeed, hearing the many voices of individuals with autism and other disabilities. In part, I think this is due to the vitally important role being played by advocacy organizations such as Autism Speaks.

Editor’s note: For more international autism news surrounding this week’s opening of the UN General Assembly, also see “Autism Speaks Presents the 6th Annual World Focus on Autism."

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.