Last week, at the invitation of Governor Tom Ridge, Chairman of the National Organization on Disability (NOD), I had the opportunity to attend a hearing of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations committee, which was considering U.S. ratification of the international Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). CRPD promotes the fairness and equality of access—including education and healthcare—for people with disabilities worldwide.
The U.N. adopted CRPD as a global agreement designed to protect people with disabilities in 2006, and the treaty was signed by the U.S. in 2009. Since 2007, when it was first opened up to signatories, the treaty has been ratified by 137 countries, including China, Pakistan, and most of Europe. Though the treaty was modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Senate voted down U.S. ratification in December of last year, falling five votes short.
Nearly 58 million Americans live with a disability, including 5.5 million military. Worldwide, a billion people live with a disability, 80% of whom are in the developing world. In too many places, those with disabilities are housed in institutions separate from their families, without access to the outside world. In some countries, the disabled are denied the most basic rights such as a birth certificate or a name.
Despite the claims of some opponents, this treaty would do nothing to change America's domestic laws. Rather, CRPD would advance America's high standards for the treatment of people with disabilities to other nations and provide a venue for discussions on disabled access policy internationally. That's a discussion Americans must lead.
The issues underlying this discrimination are systemic and will require systemic reform. And while the treaty doesn’t affect U.S. domestic laws, the issues hit home for Americans with disabilities. Global accessibility standards — which would be encouraged by the disabilities treaty — are essential for veterans and other people with disabilities to safely travel, study and work abroad. That is why some of the most respected veterans’ organizations in America — including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and the Wounded Warrior Project — support the treaty's ratification. According to the U.S. Department of State, "the treaty embodies, at the international level, the ADA principles of non-discrimination, equality of opportunity, accessibility and inclusion. The treaty is consistent with American nation's interests and values.
It was a great honor to join the following CRPD supporters who testified in favor of U.S. ratification at last week’s hearing: The Honorable Kelly Ayotte, The Honorable Mark Kirk, The Honorable Richard Thornburgh (Former Attorney General of the United States Of Counsel), and Iraq war veteran The Honorable Tammy Duckworth (Congresswoman from Illinois and Lieutenant Colonel Illinois Army National Guard). Duckworth argued that the U.S. must reaffirm itself "as a leader for fairness and justice"and The Honorable Thomas J. Ridge (Former Secretary of Homeland Security and current Chairman, The National Organization on Disability) reminded us of the power and value of the American brand. Senator Johnson, who is hesitant about the treaty, asked former Secretary Ridge what the treaty offers for Americans. Ridge responded that he feels it enhanced the ability of the United States to build its "brand" of standing for good values, without the cost of wars or foreign aid. In addition to joining these leaders, I was thrilled to see both the hearing chamber and two overflow rooms filled with CRPD supporters!
Senator Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reduced the fears of parents who home school by the statements he made. Senator Corker urged the opponents of the CRPD to help in drafting the package of Reservations, Understandings, and Declarations (RUDs) that would accompany U.S. ratification. Senator McCain, Duckworth and others focused on the fact that vets who use wheelchairs cannot travel in many parts of the world for business or pleasure because other nations do not have on ramps or wide enough doorways. The treaty is supported by NOD and I want to recognize Mr. David Morrissey who leads an organization (USICD – the U.S. International Council on Disability) that has pulled together hundreds of groups into a coalition to support ratification. I also thank the Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, whose deep understanding of the document pleasantly surprised me.
I strongly believe the United States ratify CRPD this year, and send an important signal to the international community. It will be a welcome battle victory, but not the end of the war for equal rights and opportunities. That will come when we trust each other, use our best strengths and never give up. We hope in Georgia the treaty will be ratified this year too. We held presidential elections weeks ago in the Republic of Georgia and, for first time in Post-soviet space, we have seen the democratic change of power--and it was Big America’s influence. American democracy and approaches strongly affect developing countries like mine. The treaty embodies "equality" and "inalienable rights" in the best tradition of U.S. ideals. The United States has already been the trailblazer for the rights of people with disabilities around the world. Now is not the time to step away, but the time to step up and continue to lead by ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Friends and allies will breathe a sigh of relieve. America's detractors will know you are fully engaged in the business of promoting disability rights everywhere. Our credibility, commitment, and energy will be on display. I am honored to be here, on the ground to see American Democracy at work, as a fellow this year through the McCain Institute for International Leadership. And I will take the lessons on human values from it back home to Georgia next year.