Remarks by U.S. Ambassador Natalie E. Brown at Premier of Disability Inclusive Feature Film ‘When You Become Me’
U.S. Embassy Kampala | March 15, 2023
(As prepared for delivery at premier of Ugandan feature film ‘When You Become Me’ at Arena Mall movie theater in Kampala)
I am honored to be here today to attend the premier of the Disability Inclusive Feature film, When You Become Me.
Throughout history, people with disabilities have often been portrayed negatively or stereotypically in the media, which has perpetuated stigma and discrimination against them. As a result, they have faced difficulties in accessing education, health, and sports facilities, places of employment, cultural sites, and other physical infrastructure. And it’s not just the portrayal of people with disabilities. Throughout the world, people with disabilities have faced discrimination in the workplace, in educational institutions, in the law, in every aspect of human engagement. One person who faced such challenges is Judith Heumann.
Over the past couple of weeks, I and many others in the United States and around the world have mourned the loss of an American champion of rights for people with disabilities. Judith Heumann, who died on March 4, 2023, spent more than 50 years fighting for disability rights. In 1990, she finally saw the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, legislation for which she had lobbied for many years. This law protects millions of American with disabilities from discrimination in all areas of life, including work, school, and transportation. And the enactment of this law in the United States has inspired many other countries to enact similar laws.
Judy Heumann was an inspiration, and she became who she was because she had supportive parents and allies along the way. She was denied early childhood education in New York City because the principal of her local school felt she would be a fire hazard in her wheelchair. Her parents mobilized other parents to force some of the local secondary schools to become accessible to students with disabilities. She later battled successfully to be the first person in a wheelchair to teach in New York and then moved to California where she became a leader in the disability civil rights movement. Years later, President Bill Clinton nominated her to be assistant secretary of education in charge of special education. In 2010, she was appointed the U.S. State Department’s special advisor for international disability rights, and it was here where I had a chance to get to know her. While in this position, keeping true to her mission to uplift others, Heumann hosted a conference that brought 50 people with disabilities from around the world to the U.S. to learn about American disability laws.
Judy Heumann’s focus was on reframing the disability rights movement as an issue of civil rights. She understood that doing so would require years of dedication and perseverance. In her memoir she wrote, “Change never happens at the pace we think it should. It happens over years of people joining together, strategizing, sharing, and pulling all the levers they possibly can. Gradually, excruciatingly slowly, things start to happen, and then suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, something will tip.”
In her memoir, Heumann further noted that “Part of the problem is that we tend to think that equality is about treating everyone the same, when it’s not. It’s about fairness. It’s about equity of access.” So, for example, it is about a school building having a ramp and accessible bathrooms to accommodate a student in a wheelchair. It is about a workplace providing speech to text options for hearing impaired employees. It is about providing materials in Braille for people who are blind. It is about reserving a space in a parking lot close to the entrance. It is, ultimately, about providing to all people equal access to education, employment, and quality of life.
Today, with this film, we celebrate a new beginning, a positive change, a groundbreaking moment for the representation and inclusion of people with disabilities in Ugandan society. The When You Become Me feature film seeks to demonstrate the diversity of Ugandan society, including people with disabilities, and ensure that they can participate in all spheres of life, including the performing arts.
The U.S. Embassy and all U.S. government buildings in the U.S. and abroad are built to accommodate people with disabilities. We recognize the importance of disability inclusion and the challenges faced by people with disabilities in Uganda, and we strive to be inclusive in all that we do here. We have included people with disabilities in many of our programs. Victo Nalule is a perfect example. Victo is an alumna of our Mandela Washington Fellowship and YALI Regional Leadership Center program. We selected Victo for these programs for one reason only: her incredible work to promote disability inclusion here in Uganda. She was recently nominated by her peers and won a U.S. Alumni Impact Award for civic leadership. We are committed to inclusive selection of exchange program participants. We are committed to improving access to people with disabilities at our American Center in Kampala. We are committed to ensuring that sign language interpreters are available when needed and that the videos we produce are close captioned. Moreover, the U.S. Mission in Uganda is committed to inclusive hiring for Embassy positions. And we know we can still do more. For example, when I was in Tunisia, Judy Heumann visited and we realized that our buildings were accessible, but our vehicles had to be retrofitted to accommodate her wheelchair. And while many of our facilities here in Kampala are fully accessible, sadly, parts of the Ambassador’s residence, my residence, are not. But I am pleased to inform you that State Department engineers are working to remedy this.
As a society, we must acknowledge, embrace, and advance the fact that people with disabilities have unique talents, abilities, and perspectives that enrich our communities. They are agents of change who can and do contribute to the growth and development of our society. In fact, while some people are born with disabilities, any one of us in an instant could become a person with a disability. We must ensure that all people, no matter their race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, or physical ability, have equal access and protection under the law and are treated with respect and dignity throughout society. In the end, we all benefit.
This film we are here to celebrate tonight is an effort to destigmatize people with disabilities and inspire us as a society to treat them with respect, support their equal access to all aspects of society, and start to see them not only as people with disabilities but as the unique individuals they are with many different talents, thoughts, experiences, and opportunities to offer society. And on the subject of films, I also hope you watch the Oscar-nominated documentary “Crip Camp” about Judy Heumann’s advocacy. It’s on several platforms; I saw it on Netflix.
Back to tonight’s film. I would like to express my appreciation to Light for the World and Reach A Hand Uganda for co-producing this groundbreaking film, and to the directors and writers, for their excellent work. I hope that this film will serve as a source of inspiration for all those facing challenges in their own lives, and as a tool for advocacy, education, and awareness-raising.