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Disability Diplomacy: Raising Awareness to Make the Invisible, Visible

At some point in your life, you have probably been asked, “If you could have one wish, what would it be?” Some people might answer the ability to relive one day; others desire to win the lottery; and some wish to have an unlimited amount of wishes. Then there are people who might have more modest wishes such as simply to be accepted and understood by others. This would certainly be the case among individuals who have invisible disabilities, such as one of the many types of mental health illnesses. One of the ways to help these individuals feel more accepted and understood is to raise awareness of invisible disabilities at the government level.


The State Department does a great job on their website promoting different initiatives for people with visible disabilities. However, they need to focus more on initiatives for people with invisible disabilities, such as mental health illnesses. One in five adults experience a mental health condition every year, affecting family, friends and communities. According to new estimates released by the World Health Organization, depression, an invisible mental health disability, is the largest cause of disability worldwide. The State Department website might consider creating more programs and social media campaigns to ensure more awareness and acceptance of mental health disabilities are seen in the US and thus, around the world.


The United States signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, becoming the first country in the world to adopt legislation condemning discrimination against people with disabilities. In 2008, the US expanded the depth of this act to reach around the globe, creating the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the United Nations. In 2014, an excellent blog was written identifying a gap in mental health diplomacy awareness. Nonetheless, the same gap remains three years later, and this gap is especially visible on the State Department website.


Currently, there are many different initiatives for programs including people with disabilities on the State Department website: #withoutlimits social media campaign, Paralympic sports games, and exchange programs in other countries helping vision impaired and paraplegic individuals. Each program has many accompanying videos or images, some of which are shown below.


Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 2.10.05 PM

Photo Credits: State Department


It is easy to tell that these individuals above have a disability because they are visible. The woman in the first image is blind and is shown hugging her Seeing Eye dog. The second photo portrays a paraplegic man in a wheelchair playing basketball. Finally, the last photo shows a blind person, wearing sunglasses, and somebody in a wheelchair smiling at some type of conference.


What if the images were replaced by images such as the ones shown below?

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 2.10.12 PM

Photo Credits: Flickr


These people do not have visible disabilities, but they do have invisible ones. Will Smith has ADHD, Demi Lovato has bipolar disorder, and the people in the middle have ADHD, dyslexia, and other invisible conditions. Highlighting celebrities and real people with these invisible disabilities in images could help raise awareness and create more tolerance by eliminating individuals from feeling ostracized by others.


Additionally, the State Department could cosponsor programs with NGOs for people with invisible disabilities abroad, such as the World Health Organization and International Medical Corps. The World Health Organization works directly with governments to improve the health of the people that they serve. Their Mental Health Action Plan for 2013 to 2020 outlines the need “to recognize the essential role of mental health in achieving health for all people,” placing an emphasis on the importance of prevention. The International Medical Corps is known for providing aid during humanitarian crises and has enacted mental health and psychological programs in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. A partnership with these organizations and the State Department can help to raise awareness and provide direct help to communities all over the world.


The State Department can also work directly with embassies to raise awareness across the globe in this area. Influential community leaders with invisible, mental health disabilities could sponsor arts or sports programs and the US State Department could incorporate press from these co-sponsored programs into their website. An example of this type of program would be to have singer Demi Lovato, one of the celebrities above, host a music event for people with and without invisible disabilities. In this instance, music would be used as a way to bridge people together and the State Department could document these connections through press on their website. Promoting cultural events can help change the stigma felt throughout a culture and allow people the opportunity to become more tolerant. The culture change needs to come from governments, whom people look to for guidance.


The State Department could incorporate more about invisible disabilities into their #withoutlimits campaign too. Individuals struggling with mental health disabilities can share their stories of perseverance, and have their videos featured alongside the stories of individuals struggling with visible disabilities. On World Mental Health Day, Tuesday, October 10, the State Department could launch a new social media campaign, starting with a webinar series. They could pull together people who have mental health disabilities from around the world and have them speak about how it impacts their lives and what they have done to overcome their disability. The State Department can also work with embassies to create a resource page for people in the US and abroad to highlight resources in their countries. It is beneficial to all countries to have people with disabilities as active members of society.


Finally, the State Department could do more to promote their Deployment Stress Management Program, which is located within the Bureau of Medical Services in Mental Health Services. This program provides information, education, and treatment for Foreign Service officers and their families while they are serving the State Department. Creating blog posts about the program or promoting it on social media could help increase the quantity of information on the Internet, thus helping to raise awareness and normalizing invisible disabilities within State Department employees and their families.


By showing that disabilities come in all shapes, sizes and visibilities, the lack of acceptance associated with mental health disabilities can be reduced. More awareness and understanding can be created throughout the world.


Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.


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