U.S. Consulate’s Bermuda international exchange visitor returns

The U.S. Consulate’s first participant in a Multiregional Project through the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), Mrs. Kelly Madeiros, has returned from a Department of State-funded visit to the United States looking at disability rights. Mrs. Madeiros is a Coordinator at the Department of Court Services and was instrumental in developing and implementing the Mental Health Treatment Court Pilot Program.   She has been appointed by the Bermuda Government to sit on the Disability Advisory Committee (formally known as the National Accessibility Advisory Council) since 2010 as well as assisted in writing the National Policy on Disabilities which was approved by the Legislature in 2007.

Mrs. Madeiros’ intense, three-week exchange, “Access for All:  Enhancing the Lives of People with Disabilities,” took place March 28-April 15, 2016, with meetings in Washington DC, Vermont, Illinois, and California.  She was part of an international group of 21 representing 20 different countries who explored U.S. efforts to advocate, uphold and enforce the rights of persons with disabilities; design and construction to assist individuals to overcome barriers that prevent full participation in community life; methods to advocate for increased access and institutional capacity to serve people with disabilities; and health, educational, and social support services for people with disabilities.

U.S. Consul General Mary Ellen Koenig noted, “Kelly and the other exchange participants looked at services and facilities at multiple centers for independent living; visited schools and universities to discuss support for full access and integrated design in admissions, academic support, and training of staff; and saw sports, arts, government and local community facilities to observe their accessibility. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Kelly to focus on programs for people with disabilities and to share best practices here in Bermuda with her global colleagues.”

The group met with Judith Heumann, who is an international leader within the disability movement and currently is the Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the Department of State.  She provided an overview of the history of the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as current disability rights challenges in the U.S. and worldwide.   While in Washington, the group also met with representatives of the U.S. International Council on Disabilities, a non-profit organization committed to building bridges between American and international disability communities and cultures.  They also met Maria Town, Advisor on Disability Issues at the White House, where Mrs. Madeiros presented several Bermuda gifts for President Obama, including a bottle of Bermuda’s infamous pink sand, prepared by the clients of the Vocational Rehabilitation Program at the Mid Atlantic Wellness Institute.  Traveling to Vermont, the exchange group looked at efforts by government, civil society, and the private sector to protect the rights of and empower people with disabilities.  The group visited the Bellcate School, an accredited high school that serves youth who have a wide range of physical, emotional and behavioral disabilities and the Vermont Center for Independent Living, a nonprofit organization directed and staffed by individuals with disabilities.

The group traveled to Middlebury College to hear about ways the university is making efforts to enhance the lives of students with disabilities and how the school is embracing Universal Design for Learning.  The group had an inspiring visit to Rachel’s Cookies, meeting with its CEO who, in spite of having Down’s syndrome, founded and operates a widely-known and successful cookie business.

The focus on the Chicago leg of the journey was on municipal government and non-profit initiatives that support people with disabilities. There were visits to the Mayor’s Office of People with Disabilities and to Special Olympics Chicago and meetings with representatives of Chicago Public Schools.  They finished their meetings in Chicago with Access Living Chicago, an NGO that  actively works on  advocacy, reasonable accommodation, enforcing the laws, universal design and freeing people of disabilities from institutions.

The exchange program concluded in San Francisco, where participants focused on legal assistance and policy initiatives for people with disabilities and architectural design for access for the disabled.  At the University of California – Berkeley, the group met with Mr. Paul Hippolitus, Director of Disabled Student’s Program who had previously worked as the Senior Disability Employment Advisor at the U.S Department of Labor.   Mr. Hippolitus’s key message was that the world needed to build a new perspective about disability, stating “disability is normal”.  He referred to employment as the truest measure of equality and described disability as an asset in the workforce.

The IVLP group concluded their three-week program at the Ed Roberts Campus. The Ed Roberts Campus is a nonprofit corporation that has been formed by disability organizations that share a common history in the Independent Living Movement of People with Disabilities.

Mrs. Madeiros remarked, “This was a once in a life time opportunity which offered three weeks of intensive learning, establishing meaningful relationships, appreciating cultures of 21 different countries, receiving impeccable hospitality by the United States of America, motivating the advocate in myself, appreciating the important role of civil right movements, determined to engage with various disability communities and to ask Bermuda some very uncomfortable questions.  A very humbling experience which challenged assumptions, fears, the dynamic description of accessibility, reasonable accommodation for Bermuda as well as introducing the concept of universal design for learning. A reminder that 20% of the world’s population has a disability which any one of us can be born with, acquire or develop in our lifetime. We met with international leaders of the disability rights movement throughout the country and in each instance we were asked to “DREAM BIG” encouraging us in our journey of trying to enhance the lives for people with disabilities within our respective countries to remind decision makers both nationally and internationally that for the differently abled population who possess ‘extrabilities,’ there is ‘Nothing About Us Without Us.’ I hope that more Bermudians will be offered the opportunity to participate in this life changing leadership program and want to thank the U.S. Consulate in Bermuda, the U.S. Embassy London, and the U.S. Department of State for this experience.  I look forward to sharing my new found information, connections and experience with Bermuda as well as working with everyone on enhancing the lives of people with disabilities in Bermuda.”