A roadblock to rights for the disabled

On July 26, 1990, when President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on the lawn of the White House, I was too young be in attendance, or even understand the impact that this monumental law would have on the United States by protecting the rights and freedoms of people with disabilities. People like me.

About two weeks ago, an email popped into my inbox explaining that the Senate had scheduled a hearing to discuss U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Now as an adult, a professional in the field of public health, and a member of the disabled community (I was born without a left arm), I saw my chance to witness disability history. So I took a day off from work, jumped on the MARC train to D.C., and walked over to the Senate Office Building.

The Disabilities Convention is an international treaty championed by the United Nations to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity. Around the world, more than 100 countries have already ratified the treaty, but the U.S., although recognized as a forerunner in disability rights, has yet to get onboard.

Taking my seat at the Senate hearing, it was clear that support for the disabilities convention was overwhelming. The hall was packed with enthusiastic disabled individuals, and senators — both Republicans and Democrats — spoke out in favor of ratification. Many of the senators in attendance have long championed the causes of the disabled, including Democrats John Kerry and Tom Harkin and Republican John McCain.

Of all the arguments delivered at the hearing, here are the four most compelling reasons why the Senate should ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

•If we don't ratify the convention, America will continue to be left out of international forums, silencing one of the leading voices for disability rights.

•By ratifying the convention, the U.S. is sending a strong message to countries where discrimination and exclusion of persons with disabilities still persists.

•If ratified, the convention would require no changes to U.S. law and could not be enforced in U.S. courts. The Americans with Disabilities Act already grants disabled individuals living in the U.S. all the rights and freedoms specified by the treaty. In addition, there's no financial cost to ratifying. Win-win.

•Finally, 50 million Americans, including 5.5 million disabled veterans, deserve to live, work, study and travel abroad with the same rights and freedoms found at home. The U.S. can only make this a reality by fully joining the global conversation as a party to the convention.

Because the disabilities convention has attracted an extraordinary bipartisan agreement that's so unusual in Congress these days, many in the audience were shocked to see a resentful minority oppose the convention, going to extreme lengths to derail ratification.

Leading the opposition is Sen. James DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, who took several opportunities to voice his opinions at the hearing (often out of turn), citing vague, misinformed fears of "entangling alliances" and loss of U.S. sovereignty. Also opposing the convention is the Home School Legal Defense Association, which erroneously claims that U.S. sovereignty is being ceded to United Nations bureaucrats, threatening parental control over children with disabilities.

In fact, the Senate has passed several treaties under similar circumstances before, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Last Thursday marked the 22nd anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This week, the Senate will consider approval of the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Although I could not witness the signing of the ADA, I am exceedingly aware that we are now facing another crucial moment for disability rights.

With support from more than 165 organizations, including 21 veterans and military organizations, President Barack Obama, and senators from both political parties, ratification should be easy. My only question is this: Are we going to let a few kids stamping their feet in the sandbox prevent us from making history?

Daniel Erchick is a Baltimore resident and recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His email is derchick@gmail.com. Twitter: @DanErchick.

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