The chants could be heard echoing off the historical sandstone structures. “What do we want?” “ADA!” “When do we want it?” “NOW!”
On an unseasonably warm day in early spring 1990, over 1,000 protesters gathered outside the Capitol Building in Washington D.C.. They rallied in anticipation of the passage of legislation that would significantly impact them, and the world, for generations to come. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had been passed by the Senate, but was stalled in the House of Representatives for more than a year, due to issues around transportation. Since the 1960s, Congress had passed more than 50 pieces of disability rights legislation; however, the ADA aimed to end segregation of disabled persons and finally view disability as a civil rights issue.
As the rally wore on, in an act of expressing their daily struggles with accessibility, more than 60 brave women, men, and children emerged from the crowd, cast aside their wheelchairs, walkers, and other mobility-assistive devices and crawled up the stairs in front of the House of Congress; a journey of 83 steps that moved the rights of people with disabilities miles ahead.
The event, later known as the “Capitol Crawl,” pushed lawmakers to act, and four months later, President George H.W. Bush signed the historic civil rights bill into law. On July 26th, 1990, with 3,000 people gathered on the White House lawn to witness the end of their decades-long fight, the president proudly exclaimed, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion, finally come tumbling down!”
While America celebrated equal opportunity for the disabled community, an eight-year-old Rwandan was beginning primary school and his own fight for inclusion.
The oldest of seven children, Jean Baptiste Murema was born with a physical disability in both legs. With his home country on the brink of a genocide, his parents had fled to Uganda prior to his birth. “I didn’t face the same challenges as others who were in Rwanda,” he says. However, as refugees in Uganda, his family experienced their own challenges of discrimination and segregation. In addition to his nationality, Jean Baptiste knew his physical abilities were different from those of his peers. To assure he was never limited by his disability, his parents encouraged education and self-advocacy.
Jean Baptiste was called on to demonstrate these skills early in primary school. After experiencing daily bullying by his classmates, and receiving no support from teachers or staff, the eight-year-old took initiative. He went to the headmaster and threatened to withdraw from school if the behavior persisted. Recognizing his potential as a student, the headmaster implemented guidelines to ensure a safe and inclusive learning environment.
This experience of igniting change inspired Jean Baptiste to be an advocate for people with disabilities. With dreams of creating policy, he set his sights on becoming a human rights lawyer.
After moving back to Rwanda at the end of the genocide, Jean Baptiste continued to thrive academically. In 2008, he achieved a significant milestone on his career path when he was accepted into Law School at Kigali Independent University. It was during his first year that he also became interested in sports. With the desire to be a part of a collective group, working together toward a common goal, he was drawn to the team sport of sitting volleyball. “I wanted to work together with others to promote sports,” he explains. “I felt that I could contribute on the court, while also helping my teammates off the court on issues relating to legal rights.”
In 2010, after just two years of playing organized sports, Jean Baptiste was selected to the National Sitting Volleyball Team. That same year, he began volunteering with the National Paralympic Committee (NPC) of Rwanda as a Legal Advisor, protecting the rights of athletes with disabilities.
Competing at the international level allowed Jean Baptiste to see first-hand how sports can unify communities around the world. This ignited his passion for using sport as a tool to empower those who had been marginalized in his country for generations. Around this same time, NPC Rwanda also decided to use sport for social integration in order to raise awareness and build confidence for people with disabilities.
As a Paralympian, Jean Baptiste was provided a platform to showcase his ability and establish deeper roots in the disabled community. By sharing life experiences with his teammates and developing relationships with elite athletes abroad, he was advancing the mission of empowering his country through sport. He began mobilizing more athletes with disabilities to join sports from different parts of the country to help heal the wounds of discrimination as well as the genocide.
In February of 2016, Jean Baptiste’s dream came to fruition when he began his professional career as a lawyer with the National Union of Disability Organizations in Rwanda. Specializing in legal rights advocacy, he began working toward policy change for the disabled community. Along with his legal work, he was elected committee president of NPC of Rwanda in 2017. Attending general assembly meetings with top decision-makers from the African Paralympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee has given him a broader network to advance his cause.
For his work as an athlete and advocate, Jean Baptiste was selected as one of 15 international leaders for the 2019 U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP). The five-week leadership development initiative, which is implemented by the University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace, and Society, matched Jean Baptiste with Larry Labiak, and his team at the Chicago Park District. Larry served 12 years in the Chicago Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and was appointed the District’s Disability Policy Officer in 2005. He was the perfect mentor for Jean Baptiste to gain valuable insight into the culture of America for people with disabilities.
His first time in the U.S., Jean Baptiste was inspired by the advancements of human rights in American society. In his country, people with disabilities are seen as incapable of contributing, which is magnified by their inaccessible sport facilities and lack of adaptive equipment and programming. Seeing the inclusivity of American schools, and the protections in place for students, inspired ideas for how he could improve the lives of children back home.
During his time with Larry, Jean Baptiste learned about the changes the U.S. has made in order to promote and protect the rights of people with disabilities. “I learned about the process of how laws and policies are adopted in the U.S.,” he says, “even how the mindset of society is advanced in terms of human rights.”
Another inspirational moment came during his time in Washington, D.C. Knowing the historical significance of the ADA, and those who fought to get it passed, Jean Baptiste was deeply moved by his visit to the Capitol Building, where he saw the very steps the activists ascended.
Jean Baptiste benefited from the GSMP in every way it was intended: learning from and staying connected with fellow delegates, gaining a new perspective on disability rights, and developing even more motivation to make a difference is the GSMP’s driving mission. Upon returning home, Jean Baptiste wasted no time organizing his ideas into action. Inspired by his experience, he began working towards establishing an NGO, which will provide legal aid to people with disabilities, as well as educate them on their rights as Rwandan citizens. One of his main goals prior to the GSMP was to engage the media in bringing about awareness of the rights of people with disabilities. Jean Baptiste has since organized a number of seminars with multiple media outlets to help mainstream their message of advancing disability rights.
Thanks to Jean Baptiste, significant progress has been made in Rwanda. The government has put disability policy and laws in place and ratified the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Jean Baptiste played an integral role in the process of presenting the state report to the UN, showing the progress of the government in implementing the UNCRPD. “I really appreciate that the voices of the disabled are now being heard,” he says. “Decision makers are finally paying attention during the policy and law-making process.”
Along with his continued fight in the courtroom, he also continues to compete on the volleyball court. NPC of Rwanda organized the African Championships of Sitting Volleyball in 2019, and both women’s and men’s teams qualified for the Tokyo Paralympic Games in 2021.
Without the bravery and fortitude of the activists who climbed the steps toward equality, the ADA may not have passed in its current form. The impact of the “Capitol Crawl” created ripple effects across the globe, and inspired other people with disabilities to act. Jean Baptiste Murema has been setting an example for his community since he was a young student, and he continues forging a path towards a better future. “I feel very happy and confident in the progress my country has made since I started to work in human rights,” he proudly states.
The Americans with Disabilities Act had a significant impact on international human rights laws, which led to the expansion of adaptive sport opportunities across the world. In May of 2008, Article 30, section 5 of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, enabled people with disabilities in Rwanda to participate on an equal basis with others in recreational, leisure and sporting activities.
Center for Sport, Peace, & Society
Global Sports Mentoring Program
National Paralympic Committee of Rwanda