Ratify ‘Disability Treaty’

Disability rights leaders from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Tajikistan and Uganda worked with NGOs, universities and government offices in the United States to address challenges facing persons with disabilities in their home communities. In this photo, Parkhat Yussupjanov from Kazakhstan claps during the Washington, D.C., Empower Access Program Orientation. (U.S. State Dept Image)

This January could be the critical month for the U.S. Senate to do the right thing and ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), sometimes called the “Disability Treaty.” First adopted by the United Nations in 2006, the treaty is intended to promote dignity, human rights, and inclusion for people with disabilities worldwide.

The Rev. Jackson Day

The treaty “sets fundamental rights for the disabled, including education and health-care rights equal to those enjoyed by able-bodied people.” It “invokes freedom from employment discrimination and access to transport and public buildings, committing signatory nations to uphold such principles.”

When ratification was attempted last year, the Senate failed by six votes to achieve the two-thirds majority required to ratify a treaty.

Strong United Methodist support

The United Methodist Church’s strong support of persons with disabilities is expressed in its Social Principles:

We urge the Church and society to recognize and receive the gifts of persons with disabilities to enable them to be full participants in the community of faith. … We call on the Church and society to protect the civil rights of persons with all types and kinds of disabilities.” (Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” ¶162 I, Book of Discipline)

The General Board of Church & Society strongly expressed this support during the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

Designed in many ways to extend the principles of the ADA globally, the Disability Treaty has already been ratified by more than 138 countries around the world. In the United States, the treaty has received widespread bipartisan support from veterans’ service organizations, the business and disability communities, and faith, human and civil organizations.

Why It’s Important

When the United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s highest policy-setting body, met in Tampa in 2012, it adopted Resolution 3002 that supports “United Methodist Implementation of the United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities & the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

[United Methodist] resolution calls for ‘full implementation of the provisions of the United Nations’ Standard Rules and the Americans with Disabilities Act.’

The resolution calls for “full implementation of the provisions of the United Nations’ Standard Rules and the Americans with Disabilities Act, including Title I, which states that employers ‘may not discriminate against qualified individuals with disabilities’ and will ‘reasonably accommodate the disabilities of qualified applicants or employees unless undue hardship would result’” (2012 Book of Resolutions).

The resolution points out that Jesus Christ set the example of ministering to those with disabilities as a priority of his ministry. It also states that people around the world are affected by disabilities caused by land mines, war, disasters, and natural causes, and “one in five Americans has one or more disabilities.”

Reasons for supporting

The United States International Council on Disabilities identifies these reasons for supporting the CRPD:

  1. Ratification exports U. S. leadership. “A broad coalition of over 600 disability, civil rights, faith, business and veteran organizations supports the U. S. ratification of the CRPD … absence of U.S. leadership … [denies] … an opportunity to play an important and expansive role in the development of disability rights around the world without having to change any U.S. laws or add additional costs fo the budget.”
  2. Expand opportunities for veterans. “Major veteran service organizations support the ratification of the CRPD … [recognizing] that our 5.5 million American veterans with disabilities will have greater opportunities to work, study and travel abroad as countries implement the CRPD with leadership from the U.S.”
  3. U. S. business supports ratification. “Many accessible products are engineered, manufactured or sold by U.S. corporations that can meet the new demands for the world’s population of 1 billion people with disabilities.”
  4. Ratification improves global accessibility. “Four out of every 10 American travelers are estimated to be people with disabilities and their companions, yet they still face constant barriers and discrimination abroad.”
  5. Ratification ensures humane, moral treatment. “Without laws like the ADA abroad, millions of children and adults are housed in institutions without enrichment of a family life, community resources, or access to the most basic civil rights like a birth certificate or even a a name. Until it ratifies the CRPD, the U.S. is a bystander on these critical matters.”
  6. U. S ratification has strong bipartisan support. “Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and John Barasso, R-Wy., led the treaty ratification effort with John Kerry, D-Mass., Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in the 112th Congress under shared values of independence, respect and dignity for all people with disabilities.”

Support improved circumstances

In a recent statement from the “Arizona Bridge to Independent Living, Vice President of Advocacy Amina Kruck said:

The CRPD will support improved circumstances for millions of people with disabilities around the world and support the travel, study exchange and work opportunities for veterans, their family members, students and other Americans with disabilities. We have had the Americans with Disabilities act for over 20 years and our country is a model of accessibility.

We have a moral duty to share this expertise with other nations where conditions for children and adults with disabilities is inaccessible, inhospitable and some cases very dangerous. CRPD is good for the U.S. economy and businesses that develop and manufacture assistive devices, too. We urge Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., to join Sen. McCain in supporting the passage of CRPD before the end of the year.

Opposition exists

Opposition to the treaty reflects various concerns. Perhaps the most significant concern is whether ratification of the treaty would subject the United States to outside monitoring.

This can be countered with the observation that the treaty extends the principles of the American ADA, which are already law here. Former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, an advocate of the treaty, assessed that it will not conflict with U.S. law because it is “non-self-executing,” meaning it cannot create a legal cause of action or be the basis of a lawsuit.”

Other opposition comes from the American home-schooling community. Opponents have seized on a clause that stipulates “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration” as constituting opposition to home schooling.

Supporters of the treaty reject this interpretation. They say it contains no provisions related to home schooling, which is legal in all U.S. states.

Some opposition also comes from some who claim the convention would open the door toward expanded abortion rights. This is despite clauses in the treaty that assert a right to life on the part of persons with disabilities is equal to that of able persons.

Supporters of the legislation have sought to overcome these objections through a process called “RUDs”: Reservations, Understandings and Declarations added to the legislation adopting the treaty that specifically address these concerns.

Passage remains challenge

Nevertheless, passage of the treaty remains a challenge. Former U.S. senators have unsuccessfully encouraged their present counterparts to support the convention. Frist stated Dec. 25 in The Tennessean that he disagrees with decisions by the state’s current senators, Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, not to support the U.N. treaty on disability rights. “Voting no to this treaty is saying that we do not think the global community deserves an ADA of their own,” Frist said. “U. S. leadership matters. We should be at the table.”

Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, a military veteran who lost both legs in Iraq, told The Express Tribune she had egg on her face because she could not tell disability-rights advocates in Asia that the United States was leading on the issue. “We have what should be the gold standard in disability access,” she said, “yet our legitimacy to lead other nations is weakened, because we have not yet ratified the CRPD. … We should be at the head of the table, and we’re not.”

Before coming to the floor of the Senate for a vote, the treaty must have majority support of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. IF the committee’s members represent your state, I encourage you to call their office and express your hope that they will support ratification. Committee members are the following:

  • Democrats — Barbara Boxer, California; Chris Murphy, Connecticut; Christopher Coons, Delaware; Richard Durbin, Illinois; Benjamin Cardin, Maryland; Edward Markey, Massachusetts; Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire; Tom Udall, New Mexico; Tim Kaine, Virginia.
  • Republicans — Jeff Flake and John McCain, Arizona; Marco Rubio, Florida; James Risch, Idaho; Rand Paul, Kentucky; Ron Johnson, Wisconsin; John Barrasso, Wyoming.

I strongly urge you to call your U.S. senators at (202) 224-3121 and share with them your support for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. You also can send a message to them at Take Action.

Editor's note: The Rev. Dr. Jackson Day is Consultant for Health Care Advocacy with the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society’s work area on Alcohol, Other Addictions & Health Care.

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