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Virginia Knowlton Marcus: U.S. can lead on rights for those with disabilities

The U.S. Senate hit a new low on Dec. 4, 2012, when 89-year-old Bob Dole, disabled war veteran and former Republican leader, was wheeled into the chamber to urge passage of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), only to have it fall five votes short of the requisite two-thirds majority. Disability advocates, who had worked relentlessly to line up the necessary votes, watched in utter dismay as the coordinated misinformation campaign led by former Sen. Rick Santorum culminated in the shocking derailment of the CRPD.

The outcry was widespread and immediate:

“How those senators could look individuals who are disabled, whether by war, birth or accident, in the eye and justify their position is a mystery” (Washington Post).

“The Senate’s failure to ratify the UN Disability Treaty is a shame” (New York Times).

“The country had a solid opportunity to reclaim a position of leadership and moral authority in the world, and it lost it because of a misguided paranoia of a conservative minority” (U.S. News & World Report).

Then-Sen. John Kerry, who as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee had successfully shepherded the treaty to the Senate floor, said: “This is one of the saddest days I’ve seen in almost 28 years in the Senate, and it needs to be a wake-up call about a broken institution that’s letting down the American people.”

This fight is not over. As CRPD supporter Sen. John McCain said after the December vote: “There are too many Americans and too many veterans’ organizations and too many people who are committed to this cause, that over time we may have every chance and every opportunity to succeed.”

With the world watching — including the 133 nations that have already ratified the CRPD — disability rights advocates, accustomed to adversity and long odds, are pressing for another vote on ratification when Congress reconvenes.

The first comprehensive human rights treaty of the 21st century, the CRPD was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 13, 2006. The fastest-negotiated human rights treaty in history, the CRPD received 82 signatories on the day it opened for signature — the highest number ever for a U.N. convention.

The CRPD is inspired by and modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark bipartisan framework signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. The CRPD sets forth the rights of people with disabilities and obligations of “States parties” to ensure those rights. It also establishes the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to monitor and the Conference of States Parties to consider matters regarding its implementation.

This international treaty that identifies disability rights as human rights is the product of decades of work to create awareness and change attitudinal barriers that are holding the hundreds of millions of people with disabilities back from achieving their full potential. It is aimed at moving our societies away from considering people with disabilities as needing pity, protection or medical treatment toward recognizing people with disabilities as capable individuals with rights and abilities to make decisions and contribute meaningfully to society.

An all-star team of U.S. disability advocates was involved in the treaty’s development, yet U.S. leadership has notoriously lapsed in the face of this momentous opportunity, another casualty of the current political dysfunction — so far.

Last year, as the CRPD moved from Foreign Relations toward a vote before the Senate, false claims about the treaty’s impact on parents that homeschool their children created a tidal wave of opposition in conservative areas. The disability community was caught off guard and unprepared in the short run to counter the spreading fallacy and deluge of constituent contacts from homeschool educators that blanketed the Senate and caused a wavering of tenuous support, despite the fact that the CRPD does not affect these parents’ rights.

Other arguments in opposition to the treaty are similarly unfounded and largely addressed by the Reservations, Understandings and Declarations that accompany the treaty package before the Senate. The CRPD does not impinge upon U.S. sovereignty, create new opportunities for lawsuits or put a U.N. committee in charge of U.S. law.

Any guidance provided by the CRPD Committee and Conference is nonbinding; these bodies cannot compel the U.S. to take any action or change its laws. The Federalism Reservation explicitly provides that the CRPD cannot impact state laws, and pursuant to the “non-self-executing” declaration, the treaty’s provisions cannot, absent implementing legislation, be enforced in courts.

In fact, to the chagrin of those who take exception to U.S. exceptionalism, it has repeatedly been explained — very recently, in a statement issued by Secretary of State Kerry — that the purpose of the treaty is not to change U.S. behavior, but rather, to help other countries become more like us. Ratification and U.S. participation will help ensure humane treatment for people with disabilities abroad who languish in grossly substandard conditions and teach the benefits of an inclusive society.

Ratifying the CRPD is essential to asserting U.S. leadership and values, promoting equality of access and opportunity and advancing the inclusion of people with disabilities worldwide. It will protect Americans overseas, as people with disabilities and their families will be able to work, study and travel abroad assured of accessibility and dignity.

Some 660 veterans, disability and other domestic organizations support ratification of the CRPD, including business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The treaty will help create markets as other nations rise to U.S. standards, and we will benefit from increased entrepreneurial opportunities.

In his recent speech before the Disabled American Veterans’ convention, President Obama stated: “We’re going to keep fighting to ratify that treaty because the United States has always been a leader for the rights of the disabled. … It’s the right thing to do. We need to get it done.”


Ratification would reaffirm disability rights as a U.S. priority and re-establish our influence, leadership and credibility. A strong U.S. will not avoid the call to lead the global community of nations on human rights. Our ratification of the CRPD and ongoing leadership is crucial to eradicating disability discrimination worldwide.

Virginia Knowlton Marcus is the executive director of Maryland Disability Law Center and leader of the Maryland Coalition for the Rights of People with Disabilities.