Woman in wheelchair speaking from stage (D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)
Grace Jerry speaking at the 2015 Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit (D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)

When the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, it fundamentally changed the way people with disabilities live in U.S. society and participate in the U.S. economy. In the years since, its promise of equal opportunity for everyone has spread further.

Here are two activists who visited the U.S. on Department of State-sponsored exchanges. During their programs they shared ideas with disability rights leaders and immersed themselves in American culture, experiencing firsthand the access made possible through the Americans with Disabilities Act. See what they’ve done after returning to their own countries to embolden people with disabilities to participate in all aspects of school, work and community.

Juan Angel de Gouveia

Woman and man making sign language gesture (Giulliana Gandullia/U.S. Embassy, Caracas)
Juan Angel de Gouveia (right) and former Miss Venezuela Vanessa Peretti co-host a Beisbol y Amistad (Baseball and Friendship) event for youth of the deaf community. (Giulliana Gandullia/U.S. Embassy, Caracas)

In 2015, Juan Angel de Gouveia came to the U.S. to participate in an International Visitor Leadership Program called “Access for All.” During the program he experienced the benefits of the Americans with Disabilities Act and examined how he could move his native Venezuela toward the same level of accessibility.

According to de Gouveia, who is deaf, useful laws for people with disabilities in Venezuela exist at the national level. But on the local level, “there are not people who assume the responsibility to fulfill what the law says. I learned in the U.S. that we need to start change in the areas where we live.”

Working at a municipal level, he and his team wrote a city ordinance called “Accessibility for All,” modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act. So far it has been adopted in two municipalities and is under debate in 16 others.

Grace Jerry

Since visiting America as a Mandela Washington Fellow in 2015, Nigerian gospel singer and activist Grace Jerry has used partnerships with two U.S. organizations to amplify the work of her own group, Inclusive Friends Association.

With help from the National Democratic Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy, Inclusive Friends Association has:

  • Launched the campaign “Leave No One Behind: Disability Votes Count,” increasing the participation of Nigerians with disabilities in the political process.
  • Provided nets treated to fight malaria to more than 500 children with disabilities.
  • With support from UNICEF, undertook a menstrual hygiene and sustainable health project for girls and women with disabilities in the Plateau state of Nigeria.

Jerry, who lost the use of her legs in an automobile accident in 2002, said she admires the American goal of “giving members of society with disabilities the opportunity to participate equally in society. Access is inclusion.”