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No Barriers Podcast Episode 69: Celebrating the ADA with Sofija Korać

Continuing with our Alchemy Series, sponsored by Wells Fargo and Prudential, we interview Sofija Korać, a senior human rights adviser at the United States Mission to the UN covering a range of issues including the human rights of persons with disabilities.

Sofija previously worked on human rights issues for the bureau of democracy, human rights, and labor at the State Department. Originally from Belgrade, Serbia, Sofija and her family immigrated to the United States in the mid-1990s. Sofija started her career off working on disability rights in the Balkans both with the United Nations and civil society during the time when Serbia and others in the region ratified the Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD). Sofija is fluent in five languages including her native Serbian and English, an avid theatre-goer, and theatre director on the side.

Sofija also grew up playing a variety of adaptive sports including wheelchair basketball, track and field, swimming, weightlifting, and currently does adaptive rowing. Sofija has a Bachelor of Arts in international relations and Spanish from the Johns Hopkins University and a Master of Arts in international law from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Additional Resources:

Learn more about the ADA
Learn more about No Barriers
Sofija Korac’s Article on Removing Barriers: https://statemag.state.gov/2020/07/0720feat02/




“Vocal support for inclusion matters, and, as a result of our action, U.N. officials are making the simple adjustments needed to ensure that all members of the U.N. community can participate on an equal basis.”




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Episode Transcript

Sofija I think it's the humanizing factor, right? That people tend to see the chair or to see the guide dog or walker or you name it. I think it makes it seem like we are completely different. And then when you show people no, my life is not that much different than yours, I think attitudinal change kind of starts on a very individual level.

Erik : It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is

Erik . I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit exists a map. That map, that way forward is what we call no barriers.

Dave S : In honor of the Americans with Disabilities Act's 30th anniversary, we interviewed Sofija Korac. Sofija is a Senior Human Rights Adviser at the United States Mission to the United Nations, covering a range of issues, including the human rights of persons with disabilities. Sofija previously worked on human rights issues for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the state department.

Dave S : Originally from Belgrade Serbia, Sofija and her family immigrated to the United States in the mid 1990s. Sofija is fluent in five languages, including her native Serbian and English. She's an avid theater goer and is a theater director on the side. Sofija also grew up playing a variety of adaptive sports, including wheelchair basketball, track and field, swimming, weightlifting, and currently does adaptive rowing. Enjoy the conversation.

Dave S : Welcome everybody to another episode of the No Barriers podcast, where we continue to explore this extraordinary moment in our lives, where we're all facing barriers and trying to learn how to break through them. Today's conversation is going to be a fascinating exploration once again, and really timed appropriately because we have the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act coming up here on July 26, and our guest today has incredible amount of domestic and international experience working with people with disabilities. And we're going to explore that topic as well as many others. Erik, welcome back. Another exciting conversation do up.

Erik : Thanks,

Dave S . Yeah. And thank you Sofija for joining us. It's really exciting having you from Manhattan.

Sofija Thank you so much for having me. I look forward to our conversation.

Erik : Cool. So I just want to dive into the obvious, Sofija, and that is you are a senior human rights advisor at the United States Mission, at the UN. That's a mouthful. So what does that day to day job and role look like?

Sofija Sure. Yeah. In government we always have quite extensive titles.

Erik : Yeah.

Sofija That's actually, I would say even one of the shorter ones compared to others. On a practical day to day, so we here at the US Mission engage across the UN and all of its bodies. So for example, the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Economic Social Council. And so there's three of us at the mission that work on human rights issues. Now, what that means is anytime there might be a resolution or a statement, for example, in the General Assembly, the third committee does human rights issues every fall.

Sofija So there's over 70 resolutions on a whole host of human rights issues, anything from the situation in Syria to the rights of persons with disabilities and implementing the convention to internally displaced persons. And so we negotiate all of those resolutions. We also represent the United States and speak at meetings with the secretary general, other UN officials covering a whole range of issues. And for me, I specialize, I work on all the marginalized populations. So including persons with disabilities, women, LGBTI persons, indigenous peoples, and anything that has to do with promoting and protecting their rights, I'm engaged and I speak on behalf of the United States at all of the relevant meetings.

Dave S : Given that we're coming up here on the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, can you provide our listeners some perspective from your own opinion about what that act did positively for the country and perhaps the world, and also where there's still a lot of work to be done?

Sofija I think it has implications on a day to day basis that no other piece of legislation both here in the U.S. and around the world has. I think that that has what not only changed our country, but I think the world. And of course, we always talk about the fact that the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities is based off of the ADA. So, that's also its legacy as well.

Erik : It talks about reasonable accommodation, right? I think that's in the language of the ADA and isn't that a really tricky area where you're like, what's reasonable? That's so interpretive, right? Like, if a company has to spend a ton of money to completely change their technology so that it's accessible to someone who's blind, let's say, they can kind of hide behind that.

Sofija Yeah. I think those that do hide behind it, what we always come back with is actually most costs are not as high as you think for many types of reasonable accommodations. I think you bring up a good point of technology, that that is expensive generally. But what I think also, the point that we make and even some of the work I've been doing at the UN on physical accessibility is that it's not just benefiting the one or two or 10 employees, but that a lot of these changes are good for everybody. The concept of universal design, you make the change once it's not ...

Sofija It is person specific that everybody should be able to do their job with no barriers, but once you've done it once, it's kind of like, you have the legacy and it might be an expensive cost in some cases at the outset, but then you're set and then you can just for tech and you can advance the technology. But it's kind of like once you build the house properly once, then it's much easier than trying to make little modifications and cutting costs.

Erik : Yeah. I just had an experience last night that was like, I was sitting there, I wanted to watch a TV show or listen to a TV show. A lot of times these websites are not that accessible for the blind. I went on this PBS website and wanted to watch a show and I navigated it. I found play. I listened to the docu-series. And it was really like uplifting because I didn't have to ask anybody. I could do it myself. I know that that's just a tiny thing, but it really affects your self-esteem and your sense of independent and your power, your strength. It kind of affects your identity as a human being to be able to know that I can navigate the world relatively independently, right? So, we're talking about like mental health and people growing and producing and being productive in society, I guess, right?

Sofija Yeah, exactly. I mean, you also ask kind of, from a personal perspective, what the ADA, how it's impacted my life. I'd say we have it on the books, but then my version of that being a wheelchair user is I'm in Manhattan. I mentioned I live a block from work. That's largely because the subway is not accessible at all. It's sad that I get excited when I go see friends in the East Village or in Brooklyn, and I'm excited that a stop actually has an elevator or that the elevator is working, whereas it should be the opposite where they work, or they exist and maybe they sometimes break. And this is New York city. This is not a small town. So I think that's a great example too, that while we have the ADA, there's still a lot of challenges that remain even in some of our largest cities.

Erik : So Sofija, how is that possible? I mean, you're in New York city, one of like the greatest cities on earth, and the transportation system is not accessible for somebody in a wheelchair. How is that possible?

Sofija I mean, I think what I have heard is that to go back to your point about costs, the city keeps saying ... And they get sued annually, I mean, by people with various types of disabilities. But they say that paying off the lawsuits is actually less expensive than just building the elevators. So, I mean, I think they are on the new stations, they have to build the elevators. And of course, the city got grandfathered in. I mean to your point about self-esteem, it's not only that.

Sofija Before COVID, I had a friend's farewell that was on a rooftop in New York city. And I guess people assume that they all have elevators, but they didn't. So my friends carried me up, which is not ideal because while of course they'll do anything to make sure I'm there, it's a self-esteem thing, right? To be carried by your friends and colleagues. I mean, in New York city, again, we're not ... Being from Eastern Europe, this isn't small village in Serbia. This is a bar in Midtown Manhattan.

Dave S : I'd love to hear a bit more. Sofija, you just mentioned this isn't Serbia, you grew up in Belgrade and speak five languages, have this global job. So tell us more about your personal story and what got you into this line of work.

Sofija Sure. So, I mean, I think all of us are a product of our identities and our lives kind of are shaped by them. I'd say for me, it was both being born in Serbia, living through the conflict there, I think that drove me to want to do conflict resolution, international relations. And then we immigrated when I was 12 being born with a physical disability, I knew that from the barriers and the challenges I faced both in Serbia and then here, and by the way, some of them are surprising. For example, you would think the school system in Serbia had more challenges than in the U.S., and it did. But we had the principal at my school there built a classroom on the bottom floor and turned a janitor's closet into a bathroom for me. And so for five years, I actually had a relatively accessible school.

Sofija Then we moved to D.C. in the nineties, which was a challenging time for D.C. But initially they wanted to send me to a school just for children with disabilities, which we had not heard of, again, coming from Serbia. And then the school I ended up going to, I had to walk upstairs and just use my crutches for the first full year. And so again, you would think that the natural assumption is moving from Serbia to the U.S. that kind of accessibility got better, but I think it kind of goes back to our point that even here, and that was right after the ADA in '96. So, I mean, it was new and it was still being implemented and things have changed. But I just always like to tell that story, because I think there's still things that we can improve even here while we are at the same time a leader on the issue.

Erik : So I find that fascinating that you're talking about your principal in Belgrade who transformed the first floor into a classroom and a bathroom and so forth. So, we had Cyrus Habib on, who's a Lieutenant Governor of Washington state and he's blind. And he was saying legislation only goes so far. You can't legislate total change, right? Because change is in the heart, change is in your spirit and your fundamental belief system that everybody has the right to reach their potential. So, how do you go about the heart change, the spirit change and people's minds?

Sofija I think it's the humanizing factor, right? That people tend to see the chair or to see the guide dog or walker or you name it. And I think it makes it seem like we are completely different. And then when you show people, no, my life is not that much different than yours, I think attitudinal change kind of starts on a very individual level.

Erik : I'm laughing at part of what you said, because I've been in your city and Manhattan, and I was going up to do this big interview working on a campaign for blindness. I walk into the lobby with my dog and they're like, absolutely cannot bring that guide dog in here. I was enraged because the thing that enraged me was finally, I got permission. You can take the freight elevator in the back. I was enraged, I have to say, like, making me take the freight elevator, I was like, absolutely not. I will not do that. It was like a big standoff for like an hour. And I couldn't believe that that kind of thing still happens. That's like that attitudinal thing, like in her mind, it was okay for me to go up the freight elevator in the back.

Sofija Yeah. You reminded me. I worked in Geneva very briefly too, when I was doing my masters on the global report on persons with disabilities that the WHO put out, and my boss, who's also a chair user and I went out. It's Geneva, small city we went out for dinner or something. At first, we thought, again, being from the U.S. that they were trying to find us like the most accessible table because they spent about 10 minutes looking. But no, they actually were trying to put us in the back out of the way. And what's even worse is they had no problem with saying, "Well, you might scare our customers. They have not seen people like you before." So, you reminded me of that. I mean, and it's New York and Geneva, right? I mean ...

Dave S : Right. Places you wouldn't expect.

Sofija Yeah.

Dave S : When you look at the global perspective on this, Sofija, how does the U.S. compare to other regions of the world in terms of diversity inclusion, accessibility, how are we doing?

Sofija I think that we are at the forefront. I think again, this country is so big and so diverse in all elements. And so I think it depends on if you look at overall, I think from a federal perspective, certainly on the books, we're a leader. But I think Erik, to your point about your story and again, I think the charity model is still very much alive and again goes back to people are people, right? And so I think there's parts of the U.S. that are very progressive. In terms of legislation, we're a leader. But I think from an attitudinal perspective, I would say we have some of the strongest, but also the best and the worst. But I think that's just, again, going back to humans are humans and you kind of have to enact that heart change on a personal level. And just more exposure I think is key.

Dave S : When you look at your career and your upbringing and what you see in the future, what do you hope in your lifetime we can see happen in the space of full accessibility? What do you think is a reasonable and where do you think we could make the most advances that would make the biggest difference?

Sofija I think in my lifetime, it'd be great if we can have had at least one person with disability in every type of job in very visible roles. I think it's a possible change, and that would be kind of the most significant change if you look at the next 30 years or over my lifetime.

Dave S : We talked about the ADA is a legislation that can take things really far in certain areas, but it's really part of that struggle with employment, which when you look at employment figures for people with disabilities, they're quite shocking in terms of the challenges that people with disabilities have for employment. And what you're pointing out too is diversity of options in all different fields for employment as well. I think a lot of that has to do with the need to shift the mindset, not just legislate the accessibility, but really shift how people look at this topic and how they look at people with disabilities as fully capable of any job. So I appreciate that perspective. Thank you for sharing it, Sofija.

Erik : Didn't you have an experience at the UN, like the ambassador of the UN was giving a speech and they were up on a podium or platform and it was up a flight of stairs and you couldn't get up there. You were supposed to be up there with the ambassador. Is that right?

Sofija Yeah. So in the General Assembly, your country is seated in alphabetical order. And unfortunately, not all the seats in the rooms are fully accessible because you have stairs for the second half the room. So our positioning that year, it was up the stairs, but we had worked with the UN ahead of time to make sure that they switched seats with somebody. And then even though we set all this up the day of when it came time for me to join her for the speech, they still reverted us back to our kind of alphabetical spot.

Sofija I mean, the ambassador besides giving her speech also kind of made a point of that, because we were talking about it was for the commission on the status of women. So what a more perfect place than to raise it. She was talking about the rights of women and girls with disabilities and she said, "Oh, and in a very practical way, my colleague who wrote this speech and who is our lead on this issue is over there across the room and is not able to join me." And everybody turned around to look and several months later, we got the idea to actually change the UN's whole seating protocol. So now there's designated seats that no matter what country is asking for, they get switched to the closest accessible seats.

Erik : Yeah. It sounds like in a weird way, that's like a good vehicle for change, right? Because you're there the ambassador, I'm not trying to throw her under the bus or anything, but I mean, it's like she has to go, "Wow, this is not right. Like it's right under my nose. I have a really busy life and I've never really thought about this before, but man, this does not seem cool. This is not the right thing to do." And so because of that change happened, right? I think that's a cool point. If you hadn't been there so instrumental in that speech and so forth, that change may not have happened. So I guess people with disabilities kind of have to be a bit brave and kind of force that change.

Dave S : Well, Sofija, I'd love to ask a few just final, rapid fire questions here and then Erik, he may have some others. But just curious, you're a passionate theater goer. What's a show we should all go see?

Sofija So, well, this is maybe the obvious choice, but Hamilton is one that I had the pleasure of seeing in person one of the last weeks before we all went into COVID lockdown and then Broadway closed for the foreseeable future. I think it's a fun show if you're a history nerd, as I am a bit you'll appreciate a lot of the songs even more so. I also Spring Awakening unfortunately is not on Broadway at the moment, but I mentioned the first Tony winner, Ali Stroker, who's a wheelchair user. That was one of the coolest shows I think I've seen in my whole life because it was integrating deaf actors and hearing actors.

Sofija And so a lot of the characters, it's already kind of a deep and dark show if you're aware of it. But every character had a deaf and a hearing actor playing the same role. So there was a lot of really interesting things that they did both with the language and all the songs were sang and signed at the same time, but also kind of, the show is about self-reflection, and so they were able to reflect off of each other. So if that ever comes back again, I would definitely recommend it. I think it's back in LA. It was a production company in LA.

Dave S : How about a city in the world where if you are a chair user, and I realize that there's a spectrum of what that means, you should go visit because you'll be surprised by how accessible it actually is?

Sofija No, that's a great question. I'd say Berlin. I had the chance to go for the first time as an adult three years ago. I talk about all the challenges in New York with the subway system. There was not a single, from going to the airport all the trains, all the buses, the subway were fully accessible. They all worked perfectly. The sidewalks were really easy, wide, lots of ramps even in the old part of Berlin. Also, what impressed me especially I went to ...

Sofija I was staying with a friend that I also know through theater. And so we went to see again, not one of the major theater shows, but kind of in this sort of hole in the wall, a little black box theater. And even there, they had ramps ready. I mean, they were ready to go. It's like people with disabilities were in every store, every element of Berlin. I don't think I've ever experienced that in any city, even in the U.S.

Erik : All right. I have to jump in with my own Berlin experience because I found it really accessible as well. But it was cold, it was the winter and I was speaking in Berlin. And then I was coming home from that trip, and I was in the airport and the lady in the airport said, "You have to take the elevator." And I said, "No, no, I'm fine taking the escalator. No problem." She's like, "I will stop the escalator because you must take the elevator." I know, again, back to like this, I don't know, just like I hate being boxed in, you know what I mean? Like this kind of accessibility thing can almost backfire because they want you to take the elevator instead of the escalator. It's like, you kind of lose your freedom, you know?

Sofija Yeah, and it's funny you say that. On both experiences we have different types of disabilities, but that's been exactly my experience, too. You know what I mean? When elevators break, I end up taking the escalator because I'm not going to go back two stops to one. And frankly, I like riding the escalator. I think all the boys on my basketball team taught me to be even more independent by balancing. So it's interesting to me that you had that same experience too, and it's crazy to me that again, different disabilities, but the reasoning that they had with you doesn't make sense to me, right? Of course, you would take the escalator.

Erik : Yeah. I guess the message for me was don't box me in, you know what I mean? Don't make me sit in the front seat of the airplane because of my guide dog. Don't make me take the elevator instead of the escalator, you know what I mean? Give people the freedom to make their own choices. Anyway, that's my soap box.

Sofija Yeah, exactly. Or taxi cabs, I don't like sitting in my chair in cabs. I can fold it up. I hop in the seat, but the number of times that the taxi say, "Oh, you have to get the special taxi." Yeah. Don't box us in. Everybody's different. Even the two people with the same disability are different.

Erik : Okay. So life for a person with a disability. And I know that's like a huge gamut of people, in 1989 before the ADA was passed and today, how is life different? How is somebody who grows up in 2020 different from somebody who grew up in the eighties?

Sofija My old school in DC renovated in the last 10 years. And so now, if somebody with my disability was starting school, they would not have faced any of those challenges. They might face other challenges, but they'd be able to attend the school. Wouldn't have to climb the stairs to their classroom. I'm hoping that I think more and more universities, even the private ones are ... I think people are taking the ADA and using it as a model, even if they don't have to be bound by it. So private universities, companies, I think that it's become ...

Sofija It was a roadmap for how governments should act, but I think now it's a roadmap for everybody across sectors. And so I hope that kids going to high school, college today, or even starting first grade are dreaming bigger and are truly thinking about any type of career that they want to pursue without even asking the question of, "Well, can I do that? How is that possible?" I have some friends that are teachers and they've been sharing a lot with me about accessible playgrounds. I mean, that's something I wouldn't have dreamed of that there's a playground where you can get on the jungle gym from your chair the whole time. There's even slides and swings you can get on with your chair if you want to.

Sofija And so I think it's that in short day to day life, that kids can truly, I think all of us pushed, they won't have to push as much to be included. People with disabilities are included as part of the plan. If somebody is building a playground, they know it's the right thing to do. Whereas 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, it wouldn't have even crossed their mind.

Dave S : Sofija, this has been a really wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for your time. Where can our listeners go if they'd like to learn more about you and your work?

Sofija Sure. So actually, we just put out a article as we're looking at our own ADA 30 celebrations on the state department issues a monthly magazine. And so this month's issue has several articles on the ADA. And actually I can send you the link or if you want to post the link, we just wrote about some of the work that we talked about today that we've done at the UN to promote the human rights of persons with disabilities. So I think that's a great kind of summary of a lot of what we've done and what I do and what we do at the mission.

Dave S : Awesome. Yeah, we will put those in our show notes, so listeners can find them. As always, any of the things referenced in this conversation can be found in our show notes. Sofija, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.

Erik : Thank you.

Sofija Thank you so much. It was great to be here with you today.

Erik : All right. Excellent. Well,

Dave S , despite my ranting about all of my personal situations of barriers in my face, Sofija's conversation does illuminate how much progress has been made in the world and in the U.S. especially since the signing of the Americans with Disability Act. I mean like life has really changed. I take it for granted. You know what I mean? When something bad happens, it's the exception rather than the rule, like elevators are all in Braille and ATM machines are in Braille.

Erik : For the most part, buildings have elevators to take you to the right places and teachers and schools and colleges have accessibility and accommodation built in to the way they function. I'm lucky to have a guide dog that makes me very independent and even mainstream technologies like Uber are relatively accessible for the blind. So when I listened to Sofija speak, it just makes me realize, okay, sure. Maybe we've addressed the low-hanging fruit and there is a lot to do to continue progress, but life is pretty darn good. Not even to say all of this stuff with the entertainment industry like everything's audio described now. And so life is decently good, even though there's a lot to do.

Dave S : And on the flip side, one of my takeaways was the slow pace of change for shifting mindsets. A lot of those things have come over time due to legislation. I think having the courage as Sofija and you talk about Erik to tackle this next phase of evolution of where we can go on this issue, which is really around shifting the global mindset, whether it's about employability or the abilities of people with disabilities, that just seems like monumental work and important work to do. I think shifting mindsets is a tough thing, no matter what issue you're talking about and certainly on this one as well.

Erik : Yeah. Well, we have a couple awesome sponsors that are committed to that, like Prudential and Wells Fargo. So thanks to them for supporting No Barriers and our podcast.

Dave S : Yeah. If you're interested in working on growing your own mindset, developing your own courage, building your own resilience, having some work on improving your hope and optimism in these troubling times, you should check out our new No Barriers membership community, where you can have access to courses, behind the scenes conversations every week with fascinating guests, private community to share your own challenges. It's a great place to join the No Barriers community. You can find it at nobarriersusa.org, and as always, our show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com. Thank you for joining us. Thanks, Erik.

Erik : All right, no barriers.

Dave S : The production team behind this podcast includes senior producer, Pauline Schaffer, executive producer, Diedrich Jonk, sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cottman, graphics by Sam Davis and marketing support by Megan Lee and Karly Sandsmark. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.

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