UNITED NATIONS -- To mark the International Day of Persons With Disabilities, the United Nations has appointed the acclaimed American singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder as a Messenger of Peace.
Though the designation is largely symbolic, Wonder, who was born blind and has won a record 22 Grammy Awards, vowed to use his new status to help make the world more aware of the challenges faced by people with disabilities.
At the appointment ceremony, he also promised to compose a hit song for the cause.
"And this challenge is like writing another song," he said. "At the end of the day if I'm challenged to write a song that's a hit, it's going to be No. 1. So we are going to win on this one, too."
Wonder rose to fame in the 1970s, and as he used his soaring popularity as an African-American musician to work for numerous civil rights causes. He was also a strong supporter of Barack Obama's presidential campaign. And the affection is mutual. When President Obama was asked by "Rolling Stone" magazine to name his biggest musical influence, he named Wonder.
Wonder was also one of the most popular Western performers in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union long before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He was among the very few American popular artists whose songs were played somewhat regularly on the radio in former communist countries.
And his 1976 double album, "Songs In The Key Of Life," was even issued in limited vinyl editions in the Soviet Union and Bulgaria in the mid-1980s.'Signed, Sealed, Delivered'
Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon presented the award to the acclaimed singer at UN headquarters in New York on December 3 and told the musician he was a great fan.
"He's also a great humanitarian who has campaigned against apartheid, for children in need and for persons with disabilities," Ban said. "We are very lucky to have him to join our fight for disability rights. All of us at the United Nations look forward to work with Stevie Wonder."
Ban said that he would be delighted if Wonder would allow his 1970 hit song, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" to be played at the UN's upcoming climate summit in Copenhagen. Ban said it would be the "perfect soundtrack" for negotiators.
Also at the ceremony was Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN. She described Wonder as a man with the dream of a world where every child, no matter their ability, can get a good education, where people apply for jobs without fear of discrimination, and where people live in their communities without fear.
"Through songs of romance, of heartache, of injustice and heroism, through songs of soul, songs with funk and songs of hope, Stevie Wonder has encouraged all of us never to lose sight of our dreams of a better world," Rice said.
"I think Stevie Wonder captures the significance of this day best with his words when he said, 'Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn't mean he lacks vision." 13 Percent Of Population
Wonder himself said in an age when humans travel in space, it is unacceptable that people with disabilities are discriminated against or not accepted as equally productive members of society.
"It is beyond my ability to fathom that 10 percent of people of this world don't matter to the other 90 percent of the people in the world. I'm not able to believe that," he said.
"And the only way that we can show our caring about that 10 percent is by doing something to make the world more accessible and for people to be accepted with disabilities by committing ourselves to opening all the doors and all the possibilities for those who are physically challenged in any way."
Wonder's figure of 10 percent is actually low. According to the UN, 800 million people -- or approximately 13 percent of the world's population -- live with a permanent disability.
Ban said those 800 million are among the most disadvantaged, poorest, and ostracized members of society. He urged all UN member states to implement the landmark UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
In the last 30 years, the United States and several European countries have passed laws that protect the rights of people with disabilities.
Too many other countries have not.