Our Roots: Advancing Human Rights and the Tradition of Serving Our Nation

By Mariyam Cementwala
Foreign Service Officer at U.S. Department of State

Mariyam Cementwala has been serving in the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer for over a decade. On July 17, 2020, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) held its 80th Annual Convention where Mariyam was called upon to deliver a speech to an audience of approximately 8000 people present virtually. In a wide ranging address covering topical themes such as challenges faced by blind people to how they overcome them, Mariyam shares insights from her experiences as a human being, a citizen, and a diplomat, whilst laying stress on the fact that blindness is not an impediment for those who espouse a higher vision in life.

United States Senator Dick Durbin introduces her towards the end of his remarks, followed by an introduction by NFB President Mark Riccobono. 

President Riccobono introduced Mariyam with the following words:

“Our speaker is a policy advisor in the United States Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom. She has many distinctions, including having worked for Senator Durbin. She advances religious freedom in United States government foreign policy, working at the intersection of promoting religious freedom and conflict prevention, including countering violent extremism. She speaks four South Asian languages as well as Arabic, and she has a wealth of experience in several international contexts. Again, there’s a lot we could say about her. If you have been around the Federation for a while, you have probably met her before. She is a lawyer by training who has received her JD from the University of California at Berkeley in 2007. She, among other achievements, is the first blind Muslim American woman to receive the prestigious George J. Mitchell Scholarship. She has been one of our national scholarship winners, which you know is a distinction, and she served for a time at various levels of our student division. I’m really pleased to introduce – literally to our podium because she’s in the building, so I’m grabbing the NFB mask to put on — here is Mariyam Cementwala!”

Mariyam Cementwala speaking virtually at the National Federation of The Blind Video Conference
Mariyam Cementwala speaking virtually at the National Federation of The Blind Video Conference

Thank you, Mark, and thank you, Senator Durbin, for your kind words, and to your staff, particularly your Chief Counsel Joe Zogby, who gave a young blind lawyer a chance to enter the field of government affairs a decade ago. I’ve been honored and privileged to work for two incredible public servants, Senator Durbin, and the person who leads the US Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom, where I work now and which we’ll talk about a bit later.

If you pluck up a shrub, a plant, even a full-grown tree and try to replant it somewhere else without its roots, that shrub, plant, or tree will not survive. It will wither. It will die. But if you pull up even a budding plant or shrub—let alone a tree or even its branch—by its roots and take them along, then replant it anywhere else, that shrub will blossom and bloom. That tree will bear fruit. It will thrive.

Now, I didn’t come here to talk about botany, but we’re not that different from plants in this way—like them, we too need our roots to survive, to thrive.

So what are our roots? Let me come back to this question.

On a sunny morning in early 2012, I hailed a taxi outside my apartment building to go to work, expecting an ordinary 20-minute drive. I was an officer in the Political Section at the US Embassy, and I explained to the driver that, when he approached the American Embassy, he should pull up at the first guard entrance rather than the second one. In conversation, I discovered that the driver was Pakistani, spoke Urdu, and was unusually curious.

We began with a game I would often play with expat taxi drivers. They’d ask in Hindi, Urdu, or Arabic, ‘So where are you from?’ And I’d ask them to tell me where they thought I was from, believing that the obvious clue was that they were dropping me off at the staff entrance of the American Embassy. This particular driver became exasperated with the game—naming every country in South Asia, proceeding to Iran and the ‘stans,’ and finally bellowing: ‘Why don’t you just tell me where you’re from?’

So I asked: ‘Where am I going?’

He said, ‘The American Embassy, but I thought that’s because you need a visa.’

‘No,’ I explained, ‘I asked you to stop at the first entrance—the staff entrance—not the visa entrance.’

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘but that’s because I figured you didn’t know which entrance because you’re blind.’

I chuckled and said ‘Yes, I’m blind, and I’m also American, and I work there.’

‘You work there? They let you work there? But how…? I mean, you’re Muslim, and you wear a hijab, and you’re … blind!’ He was incredulous, like he was looking at a ghost.

I replied, ‘Yes, I work there, and they don’t let me work there—they want me to work there, they need me to work there because I help make their understanding of foreign cultures, foreign peoples, and foreign policy better.’

At that moment, I didn’t quite realise the magnitude of his incredulity and of my immense privilege. I didn’t realise how much I just took for granted in my daily life. What this taxi driver was questioning in 2012 was what the National Federation of the Blind’s founder and first president, Jacobus tenBroek, had written about in the California Law Review in 1966: ‘Whether and how we, as blind people, as people with human differences, abilities and disabilities, have the [human] right to live in the world; the right to work in it and to influence the course of human destiny rather than allowing charitable actors to influence ours as wards of others. Don’t we deserve the right to belong in the world and out of it; the right to privacy; the right to enjoy full and equal access to the modes of transportation, communication, information, and public accommodation; and the right to contribute as full and equal citizens to our communities and our countries?’

My conversation with the taxi driver triggered my memories of teaching a course on the blind civil rights movement at UC Berkeley in 2002, where tenBroek had once taught as a law professor, and from where he had founded this organisation that celebrates its eightieth birthday this year. It also triggered my memory of the gentleman I met at the 2002 NFB convention and an unfinished story that I had always wanted to hear.

For those of you who never met him or only knew of him through his obituary and writings, let me share our collective story, and with it, the story of this organisation’s role in changing our nation’s diplomatic history. Avraham Rabby, known to his friends as Rami, was going off to the American Embassy in New Delhi to serve our country as a diplomat managing public affairs—our outward messaging, public outreach, and programming within India.

I’m of Indian descent and speak several South Asian languages. So on one of those typical convention evenings, when groups huddle in conversations in corners of hotel lobbies or hotel rooms, Rami peppered me in his distinctive British accent with questions I was completely ill-equipped to answer about the host country where he would soon be posted. His job traveling all around the world, living in and learning about different cultures and places, and building or strengthening relationships with foreign governments and peoples on behalf of the United States sounded intriguing and even glamorous to a twenty-something who had studied international relations and just completed her bachelor’s in political science.

That night, Rami planted a seed in my mind, but I was destined for law school and a lifetime’s practice of law, or so I thought

The story Rami didn’t tell me that evening and that I subsequently spent some time researching was how, despite graduating with degrees from Oxford University and the University of Chicago and speaking several languages fluently, he had struggled—back in the 1980s—to join the US Department of State’s Foreign Service and how the National Federation of the Blind had given him the support and stood with him in the fight to open the doors of the diplomatic corps for aspiring diplomats with disabilities.

Even though he had passed the written and oral assessments, some leaders in our government, including the then-Director General of the Foreign Service George Vest, questioned whether he could understand and interpret the nuances of diplomatic negotiations, such as body language and facial expression, without sight. Could he protect classified information and reside safely in foreign countries where he would be asked to serve?

But Rami, who had grown up as a leader in the National Federation of the Blind working with Dr Kenneth Jernigan to organise the Illinois affiliate and fight for civil rights and equal employment opportunities, refused to go away or back down, be bought off by a financial settlement, or cower even before the United States Congress, which held hearings in 1989 on his ability to serve as a foreign service officer. Confident in his own skills and abilities, Rami stridently made the case that ‘No international treaty has ever been decided on the basis of a wink or a nod!’

He and leaders and members of this organisation, many of whom worked with him to convince state department bureaucrats and piled into the halls of Congress to support his bid to join our country’s diplomatic corps, changed the department’s policy through concerted collective action, never caving to complacency with the world as it is. Over thirty years ago, they pushed the department to take a case-by-case approach to allow individuals with disabilities to serve in the United States Foreign Service. Today people like me are the beneficiaries of those important advances in our country’s quest for human rights.

So I come back to the question: What are our roots?

Our roots can be found in our history, in our philosophical and attitudinal architecture, in our faith and values that keep us grounded, and in the people who remind us of and help reinforce those values in our lives.

Like Rami, I grew up in the blind civil rights movement and am glad that I developed some of my leadership skills and policy chops there—organising state student division events, advocating for myself and others to have the right to make our own choices about the rehabilitation programs we attended, and even walking out in protest from a camp with fellow blind colleagues because the camp’s administrators decided to segregate blind camp counselors from sighted camp counselors so as not to influence young blind campers to think it was okay to be ‘too independent!’

If you haven’t read Dr tenBroek’s parable of the organisation of the bald ‘malcontents’ or ‘pariahs’ in his 1956 banquet address, ‘Within the Grace of God,’ now’s a good time to catch up on it. The stuff of the late 90s and early 2000s wasn’t all that different from 1956, I discovered, and perhaps we’ve still got a way to go now.

One of the turning points in my life was choosing to go to the Louisiana Center for the Blind and fighting with California’s Department of Rehabilitation to get there. Unfortunately, this remains an age-old struggle. After getting through layers of bureaucracy, I finally told the district administrator that he could deny me the right to exercise my choice, and if he did, I would appeal; or he could grant my request—but either way, I was going. He decided that he wouldn’t bother denying my request. In my teens and twenties, I was learning how to be a ‘malcontent’ or ‘pariah’ well—from people like Joanne and Harold Wilson, Rosy Carranza, and Nathanael Wales, people who knew me before I was a diplomat, who keep me grounded, and who still shape and enrich my life today—along with that guy who told me to go to the center in the first place (on our first date, no less!), my husband Ali, known to many as ‘Chris’ Foster. Ladies, if your guy tells you to go to a training center, he’s a keeper!

The lessons I learned about life, attitudes about blindness and disability, travel, people, and yes, even home economics are priceless gems I carry with me all around the world. When Joanne Wilson, the Louisiana Center’s founder and first director (and the epitome of a great leader in my view, and someone I’m very grateful to call a mentor) visited me at one of my former posts, I proudly showed her my Freedom Bell and the five-tier spinning carousel bookcase I haul all around the globe from post to post. These stand as daily reminders of my philosophical foundation and roots—that blindness can be reduced to a characteristic, not a handicap, with the right tools, training, opportunity, and attitude; that we can and must compete on terms of equality; and that, if needed, I can use a radial arm saw and table saw again!

Rami began his diplomatic career in 1990. After law school and law firm practice, among other advocacy jobs, I started my diplomatic career in March 2011—long after he had already retired! People had all kinds of questions for him then. What about now?

During one of my early tours, I arrived at a charity reception on behalf of the Embassy, and a bunch of women suddenly encircled me! ‘We want to hear your story! We want to know how you got here!’

I was confused. ‘Here? In a car…’

‘No, how did you get here—to this country!?’

‘On an airplane…’

‘No, no!…to this country, representing the American Embassy and the American government! We want to know everything! You are so amazing!’

When I returned from this reception, I shared the exchange with my then-deputy chief of mission, who channeled Michael Bailiff when he advised, ‘It could be worse if they thought you weren’t amazing! If you’re going to have extremes, you may as well have their positive impression. And use it to build the connections and trust. Use it to your advantage.’

So I did. Candidly, my disability has been a huge advantage in building relationships of trust with contacts and working on sensitive issues of human rights and religious freedom, because one of my perceived vulnerabilities is on display for all to see. Seeing that I have a vulnerability makes others more comfortable to open up—which is critical because I learned early in my diplomatic career that the currency of diplomacy is reliable and accurate information.

I’ve used what others in society might continue to perceive as a vulnerability as an advantage in every posting. For instance, in one of my recent tours I was given an incredible opportunity and an impossible task—I had eighteen hours (as I was packing out of my post) to get in a car and go to a far-flung region of the country in which I was posted, then organise meetings there, return two days later, and produce a draft cable about the political landscape and people’s attitudes. I knew no one there but had a strong network of people with disabilities in the capital city I knew, so I contacted a couple of its leaders—both blind—and asked them to help me organise meetings with their professional and social networks. They didn’t just help me because I am an American diplomat; they helped me because we had built a relationship driven by our commonalities of human difference, and in my success was their support and their success!

Today, in my current posting, I work in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom under the leadership of Ambassador-at-Large Sam Brownback, who has a legacy of championing the rights of persons with disabilities in his distinguished political career. Supported by him and office leadership, I again brought my disability experience to bear in recognizing a policy gap and working to address it. Our office works to promote and protect the right of religious freedom of people around the globe, including minorities.

But when houses of worship are inaccessible, when faith leaders organising religious pilgrimages gently turn people with disabilities away, when faith leaders preach that albinism or other physical disabilities are results of witchcraft and evil, when virtual worship services and activities are not on accessible platforms, persons with disabilities are once again left behind in exercising their fundamental freedom of religion or belief, from participating in community with others, and from enjoying freedom from stigma and their ‘right to live in the world.’

I’m blessed to come from a faith community in which my spiritual guide, and before him, his father, have been incredible pillars of strength, support, open-mindedness, and inclusion. When there were plenty of naysayers, they have been my champions, never limiting me on account of disability.

But every community of faith has those not so enlightened. Once someone who clearly disregards the concept of reasonable accommodation said to me that I use my blindness like a ‘sympathy card.’ Ironically I was on a religious pilgrimage abroad without family or personal assistance and was essentially requesting to be close up, to touch and be touched, since I don’t experience it by sight like others. Another time, when I was being guided amidst a throbbing crowd to the sacred black stone at the Kaaba, someone taunted loudly from behind: ‘If she’s blind, why is she even here? Why are you bringing her!’ disregarding that, as a human being and a Muslim, I have the same right, obligation, or desire as anyone else would to kiss the sacred black stone known as the Hajr-e-Aswad.

You can’t expect everyone to be enlightened, wise, or inclusive. But when people try to shun, exclude, or belittle you, don’t recoil or allow yourself to be distanced from your community and your faith. Confront ignorance, indifference, and injustice by calling it out because, if you don’t, you enable its perpetuation not only toward you but countless others who may not have your strength or conviction.

My experiences have inspired me to work with colleagues from our Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor as well as our Agency for International Development to launch the disability and FORB (freedom of religion and belief) interagency working group last October. Our purpose is not only to identify the challenges to religious freedom, persons with disabilities face but also find the champions of inclusion among faith leaders to derive the best practices for community inclusion. Faith leaders play key roles as social and political influencers, and engaging them on disability rights is something we hadn’t done before as a concerted part of our foreign policy. What’s more, we realised that they could have a tangible impact on service delivery and challenging stereotypes about a disabled person’s quality of life during the COVID-19 crisis. So on July 1, we launched a global social media campaign called ‘Every Life Is Worthy.’ It will continue until the ADA’s thirtieth anniversary and will conclude with a virtual roundtable to which I hope you will tune in!

You can learn more about how I do my job, the working group, and the Office of International Religious Freedom during tomorrow’s breakout session at 11:30 a.m. But for those who won’t be up quite that early, what I hope you’ll remember is that your perceived vulnerability is not a disadvantage at all. It’s just part of your humanity, as it’s part of mine. It has made me a sharper, smarter diplomat who is more rooted in and committed to the principles of human dignity, respect for human difference, human rights, and equal justice.

My own background in advocating for the rights of myself and others—at Washington Seminars decades ago and elsewhere—has instilled in me as a diplomat the important recognition of civil society’s value in formulating good policy. Without organisations like the National Federation of the Blind who speak loudly as constituents for themselves, ready for a fight, ready to go to the barricades, can you even imagine what policies and laws would look like for persons with disabilities—not just in the United States but the world over? Our thinking and approach don’t just matter at home—they have a global impact.

Advancing human rights—not charity but opportunity, not compassion but understanding, not tolerance but respect and acceptance, not dependency but independence, not exclusion but equality—is in this organisation’s DNA. That’s in your roots.

So as the leaders and members of this organisation look ahead on this eightieth birthday to your next eighty years, I leave you with a challenge. In 1997, toward the sunset of his life, Kenneth Jernigan harkened that ‘The day after civil rights is fast approaching.” Sitting then in the audience as a young scholarship winner, I thought like many that we had almost arrived! It was imminent. We wouldn’t need to raise voices and signs in protest. The days of confrontation were our past—our future would be communication and public education.

But according to Cornell University’s disability statistics research, between 1997 and 2017 the employment rate for persons with disabilities (or those identifying as having a work limitation) between the ages of 18 and 64 had risen by less than 12 percent, from 25.5 percent to 37 percent. And 63 percent are still unemployed. In twenty years the rate among this group that lived below the poverty line had only dropped by 1.8 percent.

Here’s another snapshot: Looking at the picture just three years ago in 2017, 34.5 percent of non-disabled Americans between the ages of twenty-one and sixty-four had obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher education, as compared to just 14.8 percent of Americans with disabilities in the same age range.

Looking at this yet another way, ask yourself how many blind people you know who work exclusively in the field of blindness or disability, even disability law, because they were pushed to do so to get a secure job.

What I have learned from my experiences, and in reflecting back on Rami’s, is that there’s no doubt that progress toward integration has been paved—with this organisation playing a crucial role. But perhaps as we had optimistically hoped in 1997, we haven’t quite arrived at that day after civil rights.

Hindsight is always 20/20! While it is acceptable, even normal, for civil society organisations to build up communication and public education campaigns to become the recognised expert conveners instead of the outsiders, confrontation remains a necessary tool to combat covert and overt discrimination.

The shape of injustice may have changed, but the root of injustice has not. It still stems from willful or uncorrected ignorance, a belief in the superiority of ability and the inferiority of disability, and unequal access or none at all.

Today, the fights are different. There is access to the buildings perhaps, but not to the technology that helps run them. There is access to millions of books and newspapers, but not equal access to the tangible information and technology that can help persons with disabilities get jobs and keep them.

There’s even the legal concept of reasonable accommodation, but the sighted, non-disabled implementers—in their infinite wisdom and years of experience with disability and blindness—are more than happy to set the policy on what is an effective reasonable accommodation, like how and when to use readers, if you just keep your head down, quietly do your job, and let them push you around.

As Dr Martin Luther King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’

So the challenge is how and when to speak up, how to confront while convening, how to harness collective action once again and fight complacency, and when necessary, how to get back on the barricades and not back down.

But being on the front lines of the barricades is part of the roots of this organisation; Rami Rabby never backed down, and he taught me by example never to do so either. These are my roots, and they are yours. When I move around the world, I thrive because these foundational lessons are always with me. No matter where I go, as long as I have my roots, I know my spirit won’t wither, it won’t die.

No matter where you go, now and over the next eighty years, or eight hundred, hold on to your roots (as Rami Rabby did, as Jerry Whittle did, as Brian Miller did), and you too will continue to thrive.

God bless you, and God bless the United States of America! Thank you.

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