Rózsa’s desk adapted with arm rest and roller mouse © R. I-V. archives

Reflecting on disability inclusion at the United Nations
Rózsa Illés-Valette shares her reflections in honor of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, held on 3 December
1 Dec 2023

To mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), Rózsa Illés-Valette offers her reflections on her over five-year tenure at the United Nations (UN). Drawing from her experiences at UN offices such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the World Health Organization, she sheds light on the challenges faced as a wheelchair user, the strides towards inclusivity, and the UN’s pivotal role in advancing this cause.

Rózsa’s life took an unexpected turn in 2011 when she became paralyzed – during her pregnancy – while on vacation. This left her facing motherhood and adapting to life as a wheelchair user simultaneously. She describes the rehabilitation process as far from easy, yet with the support of her family and friends, it ignited her desire to become a voice for positive change, ultimately leading her to work for the UN.

Balancing full time work as a person living with a disability and the responsibilities of motherhood wasn’t easy at the beginning of Rózsa’s UN career. She initially held a position at WHO but found it lacked the flexibility she needed in terms of hours and teleworking options pre-COVID-19. Nevertheless, she felt supported and began to share her lived experiences on disability inclusion and accessibility with other colleagues.

Rózsa emphasizes the different needs and the diversity within the community of persons with disabilities based on age, gender and type of disabilities. “While impairments, like a wheelchair or a white cane are clearly visible, not all disabilities are visible. Even visible disabilities can have an invisible side”, she says. “Many colleagues silently endure their struggles and do not seek reasonable accommodation. However, I would stress that reasonable accommodation is not a favor. It’s a right that all individuals with disabilities should enjoy”.

As an example, she cites parking and fire drills. Both can present a significant source of stress for individuals with disabilities. “When you are not able to walk, hear or see, imagine the extra stress that a potential fire or an emergency can mean with elevators being blocked”, says Rózsa. She also highlights that few organizations get accessible parking rights. “An accessible parking space parallel to the walkway can be very dangerous: either because of the high curb, or because of the danger of an active road. If the parking isn’t covered, you can get soaked in bad weather”. She stresses “ticking boxes” is not enough; organizations must ensure safety and practicality through a participatory approach.

Rózsa’s challenges are not unique. Many of her colleagues have shared frustrations regarding the implementation of reasonable accommodation. She underscores the crucial role that managers play in creating an inclusive and supportive workplace, emphasizing the need for understanding and accommodation. Rózsa appreciates her current supervisor’s support, and OHCHR’s commitment to disability inclusion that she experienced in WHO and UNOG as well.

Despite the challenges, the UN has made positive strides in supporting employees with disabilities. Rózsa points to improvements in indoor parking with an automated door or arm rest for better posture, which now works well. Further, the UN’s commitment to flexible work arrangements, including teleworking, remains critical, she says.

Rózsa highlights the creation of peer support groups, which offers a valuable platform for colleagues with disabilities and colleagues with dependents with disabilities to share their experiences. A HR focal point has further improved the support system, making it easier for individuals to seek assistance. The UN’s willingness to collaborate with insurance companies to avoid discrimination against staff with disabilities and colleagues with dependents with disabilities is an important step forward.

Reflecting on her time at the UN, she mentions the UN’s efforts to become a better employer for individuals with disabilities and dependents with disabilities. She says, “The adoption of the UN Disability Inclusion Strategy (UNDIS) in 2019 with 15 performance indicators instilled hope, although I’m aware that the full implementation and visible improvements take time”.

Fostering a cultural shift towards greater inclusivity and sustainability is not only the UN and senior managers’ responsibility but of everyone in the UN, says Rózsa. Training on disability and sustainability, particularly for managers, plays a crucial role in eradicating the stigma associated with disabilities, raising awareness about reasonable accommodation, circular economy and sustainability.

Rózsa’s journey at the UN as a wheelchair user is marked by personal resilience and a commitment to promoting inclusivity and positive change. There are challenges but she highlights the progress made by the UN in supporting its employees with disabilities and dependants with disabilities. “The UN is working toward turning its pledges into action and setting a positive example”, says Rózsa. “The UN should aim to better mirror the diverse population it serves, fostering an equitable global community”.

* Jamie Barclay is a Freelance Writer and Communications Consultant.
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