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From Northern Ireland to Vietnam to Japan: Michael Schwartz Advocates on Behalf of People with Disabilities

Posted on Friday 8/17/2018
Michael Schwartz

Early in 2018, Professor Michael A. Schwartz and colleagues received a $200,000 grant from the UK's Big Lottery funding program to study access to justice for Deaf people in Northern Ireland, which, as part of the United Kingdom, is signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD). 

The study is part of the Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning (DRILL), an initiative led by disabled people and funded by the Big Lottery. Joining Schwartz on the study are Professor Brent Elder G'16 of Rowan University, an inclusive education specialist; Dr. Bronagh Byrne of Queen's University Belfast; and Holly Lane and Majella McAteer of the British Deaf Association, which is the lead partner for the DRILL grant.

Work on the two-year study has been ongoing throughout 2018, with Schwartz visiting Ulster during the summer and now preparing to return for the second of five trips in October 2018. "During our visits to Northern Ireland, we are speaking with key stakeholders in the system of justice, including judges, barristers, solicitors, and other court personnel regarding their views of the issues under study," explains Schwartz. 

"The CRPD is a United Nations treaty—which the US has not ratified—obligating signatories to meet certain standards in various milieus, including justice under Article 13," explains Schwartz. "Our goal is to see where the gaps in access to justice are and to make specific recommendations for reform."

Work on the DRILL grant has been just one project in a busy few months for Schwartz's international disability rights advocacy. Schwartz also visited Hanoi, Vietnam, during the last two weeks of May as part of a Mobility International USA training program for disability rights advocates, including Deaf leaders, aimed at preparing them to train others across Vietnam. 

The project—“Training the Trainers—received funding from the US Department of State and took place over seven days with representatives of the Vietnamese government in attendance. As Schwartz recalls, "My wife, Patricia, and I were honored to sit down with the leadership of the Deaf community in Vietnam. Although we are not fluent in Vietnamese Sign Language, everyone was able to communicate well, using universal signs, mime, gestures, and facial expressions!" The trainees have gone back to their communities, adds Schwartz, and are teaching their people what they learned from his team in Hanoi.

Professors Schwartz and Elder also are principals of Tangata Group, a non-governmental organization engaged in international human rights advocacy for people with disabilities. Tangata Group is accredited by the UN and participates in the Conference of State Parties (COSP) to the UN CRPD every June. 

In June 2018, between his trips to Vietnam and Northern Ireland, Schwartz joined Elder to present at the 11th COSP to the UN CRPD, featuring Judith Heumann as moderator. The topic was access to justice for Deaf people from around the world, and the presentation saw standing room only. In addition to Schwartz and Elder, the other Tangata Group board members are Janet E. Lord, an international human rights attorney and a key drafter of the UN CRPD, and Judith Heumann, a Senior Fellow at the Ford Foundation and, according to Schwartz, a legendary figure in the disability rights movement. 

In July, Schwartz presented at the Mobility International USA (MIUSA) Joining Hands Symposium in Washington, DC, a conference that brought together disability rights advocates, government officials, and academic representatives to encourage inclusion of people with disabilities in international education exchange programs. Schwartz spoke of Syracuse University’s leadership in providing appropriate accommodations for students and faculty with disabilities who wish to participate in study abroad programs. 

Finally, Schwartz led a group of Syracuse University students—joined by students from California State University-Northridge—on a 12-day trip to Japan, where the group studied the application of disability law in Japan, including its practices and processes that impact on people with disabilities. 

The group heard from four different lecturers and visited several disability-specific sites, including Hiroshima. “Several students had an ambulatory disability and one had a sensory disability,” observes Schwartz, “and the group learned how people with these disabilities move about in Japan.” Furthermore, according to Schwartz, the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), which assisted in handling the logistics of the program, noted that handling disability-related accommodations was a “learning experience, one welcomed by CIEE as a valuable lesson.”