Elevators, entrance ramps, Braille in public places.
The U.S. deserves a good deal of credit for helping to popularize these innovations for the disabled. Over the last few decades, America has been a leader in fighting discrimination against the disabled, and arguably inspired the global movement for disabled rights.
But this month the Senate voted against ratifying a United Nations treaty on disability rights that was based on American legislation passed 22 years ago.
Why? Because the bill – which bans discrimination against the disabled – would threaten U.S. sovereignty, putting us at the mercy of anti-American, internationalist organizations, according to some members of Congress and the former presidential candidate Rick Santorum.
It’s the same mindset that led various politicians to claim the UN designed a different treaty on environmental sustainability in order to destroy American “golf courses, grazing pastures and paved roads.”
The treaty’s defeat was particularly disheartening because of America’s pivotal role in making disability a matter of civil rights, not charity, says Geoff Adams-Spink, a former BBC reporter on disability issues.
Adams-Spink, who is disabled, also helped lead a push for recognition of the dangers of the pregnancy drug thalidomide. The drug, administered to pregnant women between 1958-1961, caused serious physical disabilities in children. The UK government recently pledged to set up a $129 million fund that will help thalidomide survivors maintain an acceptable quality of life.
“I think those of us in northern Europe who enjoy a reasonably well-supported existence,” argues Adams-Spink, “have to remember that concepts like the right to independent living were conceived in places like Berkeley, California. The whole philosophy that people have impairments, but are actually disabled by barriers in society, that whole approach came from the U.S.”
Adams-Spink tells Latitude News his reaction to the Senate’s decision was “disappointment, but also a complete lack of surprise.”
“The U.S. has a long and not very honorable tradition in thinking that it doesn’t need to be part of the UN,” he explains. “There’s a lot of fear, or shall we say paranoia, about intervention from foreign or supranational bodies in the same way that you see here [in Britain] a debate around membership of the European Union, about ‘taking orders’ from bureaucrats in Brussels.”
Adams-Spink believes the Senate’s failure to ratify will undermine the U.S.’s reputation as a “beacon of good practices” on human rights. He called it a “massively missed opportunity.” Having said that, Spink adds that the U.S. is a world leader on disability law.
“You could equally argue,” he says,” given that countries [with poor records on respecting the rights of the disabled] like China, Iran and Syria have signed the treaty, it’s surely better to walk the walk, than to talk. Actions speak louder than words.”
And Adams-Spink says his own personal experience in the U.S. – where transportation and “step-free environments” are easy to find – has demonstrated America is serious about helping the disabled, more so even than some parts of Europe. While the UK and Scandinavia have taken a rights-based approach to disability – like the U.S. – Adams-Spink says many countries in southern Europe see disabilitiy as a matter of “charity.”
“In places like Spain and France and Italy,” he says, “disability is seen more as a ‘curse from God’ or something to be ashamed of, and disabled relatives tend to be either confined to institutions or hidden away at home and never allowed to go out in public. They don’t enjoy the same rights and freedoms as disabled people like me do in northern Europe, which sees disability more as part of the civil rights movement.”
Adams-Spink says that disability activists in northern European countries took their cue from their counterparts in America, who were themselves inspired by African-American leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960’s. Their approach, Adams-Spink says, gave Europeans a whole new theoretical framework to use in the fight against discrimination.
That’s allowed for innovations in Britain like “supported employment,” a government program that helps Adams-Spink pay the salary of a personal assistant to type up his written work and help manage the tasks of daily life. Without her, he says, he wouldn’t be able to have a career.
Conspiracy theories drive American politics
There might be legitimate objections to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. After all, ratifying the treaty – which is based on the Americans with Disabilities Act did of 1990 – wouldn’t have changed anything in the U.S. It was a purely symbolic gesture.
And, more generally, global human rights treaties have little effect on the laws of authoritarian nations that sign them, as Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, points out on Slate. For example, Posner writes, despite signing the UN convention on children’s rights, the government of Uzbekistan still regularly enslaves children during the annual cotton harvest. Saudi Arabia, which is a party to UN legislation banning discrimination against women, is notorious for preventing women from driving, among many other assaults on basic gender equality.
But conservative critics didn’t raise those objections, instead preferring to focus on how the treaty could be used to euthanize disabled people in America and prevent parents from homeschooling their children.
“I do not support the cumbersome regulations and potentially overzealous international organizations with anti-American biases that infringe upon American society,” said Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) in comments carried by The Guardian.
And so despite the pleading of Bob Dole and John McCain – prominent members of the GOP disabled during military service – Senate Republicans refused to round up the 66 votes needed for ratification. The treaty, which had been negotiated by the administration of George W. Bush, fell short 61-38 with just eight Republicans crossing party lines to vote yes.
Writing in The Telegraph, a right-leaning British newspaper, John Avlon summarizes the philosophical underpinning of the treaty’s opponents:
It was a riff of the old Death Panel argument – the notion that health care reforms would mean bureaucrats deciding who should live and who be allowed to die – pushed this time most prominently by right wing commentator Glenn Beck and former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who promoted the idea that the treaty could have compromised the life of his severely disabled daughter, Bella.
Ratifying the UN treaty is just the first step for many countries in getting serious about disability rights, as Laurence Borg of Malta Federation of Organisations for Persons with Disability argues in The Times of Malta.
Borg says life for the disabled is far from easy in this Mediterranean island nation where the disability pension is less than 60 percent of the minimum wage, and transportation, building design, employment and education are all serious obstacles to equality. He writes:
The recent ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD) by the Maltese Parliament aims primarily to bring a change to all this.
However, there is no guarantee this will happen in the near future unless stakeholders are ready to fight and, if necessary, make aggressive demands for their rights to be upheld.
While the U.S. Senate’s refusal to ratify the treaty probably won’t hurt disabled people in the U.S. or around the world, it sure makes our government look dysfunctional. If Congress can’t pass a treaty banning discrimination against the disabled, Americans better tightens our collective seatbelt: we’re heading right over the fiscal cliff.