Stephanie Ortoleva, Esq.

President and Executive Director | Women Enabled International

CV in brief:     Career:   U.S. Department of State    Education:   Hofstra University School of Law    Exclusive interview by Lucie Goulet, December 2017

CV in brief: 

Career: U.S. Department of State

Education: Hofstra University School of Law

Exclusive interview by Lucie Goulet, December 2017

What do you do?

I am an international human rights lawyer. About seven years ago, I founded an organisation called Women Enabled International. We engage with international and regional human rights mechanisms to advance the rights of women and girls with disabilities and we work at the intersection of women’s rights and disability rights and in collaboration with disabled women’s rights and women’s rights organizations around the world.

Why did you decide to setup your own thing?

Prior to this, I had worked at the United States Department of State as an attorney and human rights officer. One day I would work on women's issues and another day I might work on disability issues, but there was rarely an intersectional approach to work on the two human rights issues. As a result, in activities at the United Nations on women's rights, disabled women's issues were not considered and similarly, the disability rights work focused in a more general way without a focus on disabled women in particular.

What does fighting for disabled women’s rights look like?

There are various UN human rights treaties that address aspects that reflect women’s rights in general and the rights of disabled women in particular. We interact with those treaty bodies. 

When a country ratifies a treaty, every four years or so that country needs to appear before the mechanism (i.e. treaty body) that monitors compliance with that treaty. At that point, non-governmental organisations have an opportunity to submit “shadow reports” that analyze the government's reports and point out to the discrepancies on the ground. We partner with organisations of disabled women or women's rights organisations interested in disabled women's rights to prepare these shadow reports that talk about the particular situations on the ground for women and girls with disabilities in the country.

There are other ways that we engage with those treaty bodies. For example, treaty bodies do General Comments or General Recommendations. These are their interpretations of what particular treaty provisions should be interpreted to mean and we engage with those as well. 

One of the most important aspects of our work is our partnership with organisations on the ground to jointly prepare these submissions and to provide training on how to do advocacy. The ultimate goals is for the organisations to be able to do their own advocacy without our assistance, because we can't assist everyone and self-advocacy leads to longer, more successful results on the ground.

Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

In the earliest stages of my career, I did work on United States civil rights law. I decided to become a lawyer because that was one of the strongest ways to vindicate people's rights. I enjoy talking, raising the important issues, writing, and doing research and analysis, so it seemed like a good way to go about it.

What's been the biggest challenges for you as a woman with disability in terms of career?

There are some instances where I really got wonderful support and encouragement, and there were other instances where that wasn't as strong as it should have been. Some people made assumptions about a disabled woman being a lawyer, although that has dramatically changed as the number of disabled lawyers and disabled professionals increases.

What would your advice be to a young woman who has a disability looking into a law career?

The first bit of advice would be to work really hard in high school and college. To become a lawyer, you can major in anything in college as long as you do well in it, and as long as it's a field that involves a lot of writing and thinking. When I was in law school, some people had studied science, other politics, etc. 

The second thing is to get to know other women lawyers and other disabled women lawyers who can guide you and advise you as to how to pursue your career and help you figure out how to address certain challenges that you might face.

The third thing that I would always suggest to women who are thinking about entering the field of International Relations is to attend events. Go to free talks about foreign policy issues. They are great opportunities for networking and meeting other women in the field.  Also join international legal organizations, such as the American Society for International Law and attend their events and conferences.

What kind of accommodation did the Department of State do to support your visual disability? 

I'm blind, and sometimes there were hand-written materials that I couldn't read. Some technologies that the State Department used weren't accessible to blind users. The Department was rather good at providing the assistance of readers: we would hire someone who could assist me with reading the hand-written materials or working through the computer systems that weren't that accessible.  One thing which is important regarding hiring of readers is to be part of the hiring process, not leaving it to someone else.  Working with a reader is a very personal thing and the employee needs to be comfortable working with the reader hired.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there is a requirement to provide “reasonable accommodation” to employees with disabilities. Most of the accommodations are fairly inexpensive and they can be accommodated through the provision of appropriate technology.

What is the one thing you think has been most useful in your career?

Stand-up for yourself. If you’re working with someone who isn't treating you with respect, you need to point that out and not allow it to continue. I have had circumstances where I didn't feel that I was treated well and for a while I just kept trying to do better. Finally, I told this person off. By standing up for myself, there was a dramatic change in this person's behaviour in a positive direction. Standing up for yourself not only achieves the goal you want, but it might also make someone respect you more and that's an important thing to do.

The other thing is that you shouldn't stay in a job where you're not appreciated because there are many opportunities out there where you will be appreciated. There is no point in going somewhere to work several hours per day and being miserable every day.

The feminist movement now still has some issues with including disabled women in the movement and does not always incorporate an intersectional approach to the work. It isn’t very good at this stage at including disabled women.  However, recently this is improving and more organizations are addressing issues of concern to women with disabilities and welcoming disabled women into the movement.  We saw this in the Women’s Marches worldwide following Trump assuming the Presidency in the United States.

What can non-disabled women do to take into account the problems of disabled women better?

One of the things to recognise is that at some point in life, all women will have a disability. If we want to think about the personal being political that might be one thing to do. 

Disabled women have the same interests, needs and concerns as non-disabled women. All women want to be free from sexual harassment, all women want to be free from gender-based violence, all women want to have an opportunity for education, all women want their sexual and reproductive health rights, all women want equal opportunities in employment. When you think about these issues, remember that women with disabilities are women too. That’s a very important first step.

The other thing is for non-disabled women to do outreach to disabled women to work together on particular causes of concern, for instance if in your country you need a stronger law on sexual harassment or rape. Working together to make the laws better and ensure that they include all women is a good opportunity to work together and to get to know one another personally. 

It's important that the women's rights movements supports the issues that are of concern to disabled women. Women should stand together on the issues that are particular to a sub-group of women. The movement needs to work to be more inclusive.  But disabled women also need to join with the general women’s movement when the movement calls for action as well.

The Women's March Movement that started around the inauguration of Donald Trump brought together a great diversity of women. From what I understood, there were a lot of disabled women at the march in London and at the march here in Washington D.C. and elsewhere globally the leadership of that particular movement has done a lot of outreach to disabled women. It's a model that hopefully won't end. They held a conference this fall and there were a lot of disabled women involved as well.

Another important part of the feminist movement this year has been the #metoo hashtag. You mentioned sexual harassment earlier, and it doesn't seem that there has been a lot of disabled women speaking around #MeToo.

Women Enabled International did a few posts around the #MeToo tag , trying to encourage disabled women on our Twitter feed to tell their stories. I told a couple of my personal stories to get other people to tell their stories as well. We haven’t received a lot of response yet from that, even though many disabled women are concerned about these issues. 

A couple of years ago, a journalist went to Gallaudet University, the university here in Washington D.C which focuses on students who are deaf. She documented extensive cases of sexual harassment at that university. So, it's not like that doesn't happen to disabled women, either from non-disabled men and disabled men.

You mentioned Donald Trump earlier and as a civil rights lawyer and a woman with disability I can assume that it's an extra stressful and worrying time for you. How do you deal with it?

I get out and vote! I organize!  We just had a senatorial election in Alabama where the democratic candidate won for the first time in 40 years. That was due to strong organising and strong coalition organising: a strong coalition of African-American and Latino voters. There was a strong engagement by a variety of people to bring that positive result about. We can’t presume that that result is going to carry through in other places, but as a friend used to say: “She who organizes, wins." We have to think about being organized and working together in a collaborative way to affect change.