Ambassador Victoria Reggie Kennedy
February 22, 2023
Good evening and welcome to Amerikahaus. It is so wonderful to have all of you here tonight.
We at the U.S. Embassy have organized this get-together in collaboration with our friends at the Zero Project to recognize and pay tribute to all the invaluable work you do to make the world more accessible and inclusive for all.
I am so proud that both President Biden and Secretary Blinken have made diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility for all — DEIA — a key objective of their administrations. And I want you to know that I too am committed – deeply committed – as U.S. Ambassador, yes, but also personally, long before I was privileged to hold this position.
I am proud to be a member of a family – like the Essls — who have committed themselves to removing barriers and to including everyone in the workplace and in our society.
I hope you’ll allow me, as a matter of personal privilege, to share with you that today would have been the birthday of my late husband, Senator Edward Kennedy.
I think it especially meaning that we are gathering today, on his birthday, to recognize the important and ongoing work to assure inclusion for all.
More than 30 years ago, Ted, or Teddy as we called him, spearheaded the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) in the United States. The ADA became the law of our land in 1990, and in the process transformed for the better the lives of tens of millions of Americans with disabilities. The ADA knocked prohibited workplace discrimination and required public accommodation for those with disabilities in my country.
Many years after the passage of that landmark ADA legislation, at a celebration of the transformation of American society that it had brought, my husband described the passion that motivated the passage of that law. He and his colleagues, he said, were determined to ensure the promise of a new and better life for every citizen with disabilities so their disabilities would not put an end to their dreams.
That same ethos and belief in the possible is what has driven Martin Essl’s work with the Zero Project. What an honor it has been to meet him this evening and bear personal witness to his unwavering commitment to inclusion and removal of barriers for all. Martin, thank you for your dedication to improving the lives of people around the world. And thank you as well, Robin Weis, for all you do. We are deeply grateful.
I also want to offer my sincere congratulations to all 72 organizations from around the world who received Zero Project Awards this year, including eight American and four Austrian organizations represented here in this room. Will all award recipients please raise your hands so we can recognize you? Congratulations!
I’d also like to thank my colleagues from the U.S. Embassy, especially members of our DEIA Council, who helped organize tonight’s ev building by a construction site. While we know there are remaining challenges to address, I am so proud that our staff designed and installed the custom wheelchair ramp you see this evening. Well done, team.
Finally, I cannot let this evening pass without mentioning that this Friday, the 24th of February, marks the one-year anniversary of Russia’s unjustified, brutal invasion of Ukraine. Not only do Putin’s actions threaten the political and economic stability of the international rules-based order, but they also have serious, negative repercussions for people with disabilities.
The U.S. State Department is very focused on this serious injustice, and I want to thank my colleagues from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. DRL does outstanding work to support legal reform as well as advocate for the rights of people with disabilities around the world. We are tremendously grateful to them for all they do.
I’m also so delighted that we are joined this evening by Tetiana Lomankina, the Special Disability Advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Thank you, Tetiana, and our other Ukrainian guests who are here this evening.
As President Biden made clear in Kyiv just two days ago, the United States is proud to stand with Ukraine.
Thank all of you again for being here tonight! Thank you for everything you do to make our world a fairer and more inclusive place. Thank you for never giving in. Your work is truly invaluable.
And now, it my great honor and pleasure to turn the podium over to Martin Essl.