Volume 3 Issue 13 - July 01, 2005

Society, American or Indian, must regard all citizens as potentially contributing citizens: Avraham

“I went to the Grand Central Y.M.C.A. in New York to spend the night. But I was told at the desk that they could not have me because their insurance company did not allow it. So there was discrimination on the very first day I came to the U.S.:” Avraham Rabbi, Assistant Information Officer, Electronic Media, and the first blind person to be employed by the U.S. State Department in the Foreign Service, in conversation with Anjali Sen Gupta.

Would you give our readers a short background about yourself?

I was born in Israel, went blind when I was eight years old. At the age of 10, my parents sent me to England for my studies. I went to a school for the blind, and then to Oxford University to study French and Spanish. During my degree in Oxford I spent a year in Paris and Madrid, improving my spoken French and Spanish. Then I got a management traineeship with Ford Motor Company. While I was there, I decided to get a Masters in Business Administration (M.B.A.) and I emigrated to United States of America (U.S.A.) to do my M.B.A. at the University of Chicago. I worked in the private sector, for a consulting firm and also for Citibank in New York. I also did my own freelance consulting in the area of personnel, administration and in the area of employment of people with disabilities.

In the mid-1980s, I started to look for a new career and since I had always been interested in international relations, in travel, geography and history, the Foreign Service was an obvious choice.

What inspired you to sit for the Foreign Service?

A lifelong interest in the kind of subjects that go to make up a Foreign Service career - news, travel, history, geography, other cultures. So, in 1987, I applied to the American Diplomatic Service and was rejected because of my blindness. Then I campaigned to get their policy changed, through the media, through Congress, with the help of the National Federation of the Blind, and through the legal route also. In 1990, they changed the policy and started admitting disabled candidates. Since I was the only one at that time who had passed the examination, I was the first one they hired in 1990.

Could you tell us about your postings and the challenges you faced in various countries?

My first assignment was London; second was in South Africa, at the American Embassy in Pretoria. My third assignment was back in Washington, fourth in Peru, fifth at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations (U.N.) in New York. My sixth assignment was in India and I am almost at the end of this assignment. My last assignment, before I have to retire, is going to be in Trinidad, in the Caribbean.

The main challenge for a blind Foreign Service Officer is that one has to have some means of reading because there is a lot of reading to be done. This was part of the legal settlement that I reached with the State Department - it was that any blind diplomat should be able to have the use of whatever modern technology that is available for the reading and also should have a full-time assistant. I use a Braille note taker in my work a lot to take notes, to write. But Karen K (my assistant) downloads stuff from the Internet and gives it to me on a floppy disc and I can read it in Braille. I can write on my note taker and put it on a floppy disc and give it to her to format and to do whatever I need done with it.

One of your detractors had once said: “Rabbi would be unable to serve in many assignments needed for advancement.” People rattled off safety, security, terrorists threats, travel, even daily correspondence, as reasons why you should not be given the Foreign Service job.

As is usual, whenever employers want to discriminate, they always come up with the worst case scenarios. But you cannot base your employment policy on worst case scenarios. Their argument at that time was that they had a principle, called the Principle of Worldwide Availability. They wanted to believe that they could pick up a Foreign Service Officer from London and put him in Vietnam, or pick up a Foreign Service Officer from Rome and put him in China and they did not think that a blind person could live by that Principle of Worldwide Availability. They were right. I couldn’t live by that principle; nobody else can, either. Everybody has some kind of restrictions on their availability.

What similarities do you see between your appointment and the recent debate to do with I.A.S. appointments in India?

I do not know very much about the facts of the I.A.S. case, but in my case, the State Department used military medical standards. In their manual, it said that anybody with any serious loss of visual acuity is automatically disqualified. That was the problem.

The real issue is: Why employ a disabled person when you can employ someone who is not. The answer is: Society, American or Indian, must regard all citizens as potentially contributing citizens. And it is socially beneficial for society to employ people of all kinds – which means including people with disabilities.

It also shows the refusal to recognise merit.

Yes, and also talent and potential contribution.

Have you been associated with the disability movement in the U.S.?

Yes, for a long time. I first arrived in the U.S. in 1967 and immediately got involved in the disability movement. As soon as I got off the boat in New York, I went to the Grand Central Y.M.C.A. in New York to spend the night. But I was told at the desk that they could not have me because their insurance company did not allow it. So I immediately came across discrimination on the first day itself that I came to the U.S.

Tell us about your role in the disability movement.

I belong to the National Federation of the Blind, a civil rights organisation. Is has been in existence since 1940. Over the years, it has been very effective in getting more opportunities for blind people, including helping me in my own fight for justice. The high point of my fight was when the Congress held a hearing on the issue of discrimination on the basis of disability by the State Department, and the Federation rallied to gather 20 people into the hearing room. The people representing the State Department at that hearing later said that it was like taking sheep to the slaughterhouse!

We are trying to work out incentives for the private sector, to motivate them to implement the reservations set down in the Disability Act. Is there something like this in America?

Reservations are like a quota. That is the Western and North European kind of system. I am opposed to this because here the system says if an employer does not reach, say three per cent, for instance, he has to pay a fine. Most employers have historically preferred to pay the fine and not employ the disabled person. This beats the very purpose of the rule.

U.S., instead of the quota system, has instituted ‘affirmative action’ for all minorities – for disabled people, women and other minorities. This means that employers are prohibited from discriminating, and the government has investigators. And if someone has been discriminated against, he can complain to the government, which will send an investigator to look into the matter. If the investigation reveals that the company is indeed guilty as charged, then it can be punished in many ways. The most effective way of punishing a company in the U.S. is by barring it from any government contracts.

Tell us about your role as advisor to the U.S. Mission at the U.N.

I was Social Affairs Officer, so I was dealing with subjects like education, employment, health, poverty issues, as well as with various social groups, women, older persons, youth and persons with disabilities. What you do as a delegate to the U.N. is that you spend a lot of time in negotiating rooms, with delegates from 40-50 other countries. And you negotiate the language of various declarations and resolutions that come out of the U.N. A lot of it is talk, that is why a lot of people criticise the U.N., but the U.N. also does some good work. At the moment, it is negotiating a Convention on the rights of disabled persons.

Are you involved with that?

No, since I am not in the United Nations, but I was involved at the very beginning of the process.

Do you think India has a long way to go as far as being disabled-friendly is concerned?

The most important thing is that with a billion people in India, and with 650 million people living on a dollar or two a day, the social problems are so pervasive. Disability is one of many issues. There maybe just aren’t enough resources to deal with the issues.

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