A step backward in disability rights

This week the United States Senate failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, a treaty that forbids discrimination against people with AIDS, who are blind, who use wheelchairs and the like. The 61 to 38 vote fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to sign on to an international treaty, despite bi-partisan support. All 38 of those no votes were cast by Republicans.

The World Health Organization estimates that there are more than 1 billion people with disabilities worldwide. Eighty percent are living in developing countries and more than 300,000 are women. Regardless of where they live, women with disabilities contend with the double discrimination of gender and ability status. Women with disabilities experience higher rates of poverty and unemployment than men with disabilities. It’s estimated that less than 1% of women with disabilities worldwide are literate. They face forced abortion and sterilization, and a disproportionate lack of access to health care. They are two to three times more likely to experience sexual violence than non-disabled women. 

It is difficult to imagine why the United States senate would not wholeheartedly support the rights of people with disabilities. After all, we like to think of ourselves as leaders in disability rights. According to the United Nations, only 45 countries have anti-discrimination and other disability-specific laws. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed 22 years ago. It was a historic piece of legislation that forced huge leaps forward in everything from public transportation to building architecture. It forbade discrimination in the workforce, and mandated schools to educate all of their children, regardless of ability. In fact, the ADA served as a model for the UN treaty. Infuriatingly , signing this treaty would not have required US lawmakers to do anything.  It would not require us to change a single law. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) explained the proposal simply “raises the [international] standard to our level without requiring us to go further.” It would have simply been a symbolic gesture that said people with disabilities, no matter where they live, deserve to be treated like human beings. And yet, 38 Senators still refused to sign it.

They didn’t have any good reason for this. Opponents said that they did not want to sign the treaty, in part, because they don’t believe that nations who have signed the treaty, such as China and Syria, will actually do anything to improve the lives of their citizens with disabilities. They also believe that the treaty would infringe upon Americans’ rights to homeschool their children with disabilities. These aren’t exactly weighty objections when you hold them up against human dignity and respect.

The message sent to people with disabilities, particularly women, is startlingly clear: We don’t care. We don’t care enough about you encourage others to treat you better, or to acknowledge you. We don’t think it’s important for you to learn or work so that you feel productive and valuable. We don’t care that American citizens with disabilities who travel abroad can face great difficulty and risk to their safety.

This vote could have been a great step forward for disability rights. It could have been a show of support for ending double discrimination all over the world. But it wasn’t. It was a step backwards that makes no sense at all.

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