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Isn’t It Time for the US to Ratify the UN Treaty on Disabilities?


Students from the New York Institute for Special Education performing at the United Nations in December 2012 for the International Day of Persons With Disabilities. RICK BAJORNAS/UN PHOTO

The seventh anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities at United Nations headquarters in New York was commemorated on Dec. 13. Since March 2007, when it opened for signature, the convention has been ratified by 138 countries.

Modeled after the landmark United States Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, the UN convention was signed by President Obama four years ago but has still failed to be passed by the Senate for ratification. Among those long advocating for its passage are members of veterans organizations, such as former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, who was the majority Republican leader before becoming his party’s presidential candidate in 1996. Last December, Dole appeared in a wheelchair in the Senate to plead for ratification of the convention — to no avail.

Last week, on Dec. 12, the National Capital Area chapter of the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA) saluted Elisa Massimino, the chief executive of Human Rights First, a US-based advocacy group, by honoring her with its annual Louis B. Sohn Human Rights Award. Massimino mentioned the UN disabilities convention in her address but had also placed a lengthy statement about it in the evening’s printed program. In it, she noted: “The treaty’s goal is simple: equality. Opponents, however, claim it would impinge on US sovereignty. But the treaty was inspired by and mirrors US law; reinforcing it would expand US influence, not diminish it.”

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The printed program also included a statement by Samantha Power, the US permanent representative to the UN, who called the American With Disabilities Act “the international gold standard” protecting the rights of people with disabilities. Noting how Americans with artificial limbs who fly abroad have been told to store the limbs in overhead bins or are required to hand over their guide canes in some foreign airports, Powers said that “by ratifying the disabilities treaty, we gain so much and lose nothing — it has no effect on US law and doesn’t add a penny to our budget. At the same time, it gives us leverage to push other nations to adopt standards equal to our own.

“Last year, the US Senate fell five votes short of ratifying this treaty,” she added. “Five votes short of helping the millions of disabled Americans who receive second-rate rights when abroad. Five votes short of helping hundreds of millions of people across the world who have been written-off as imperfect and unequal.”

It remains to be seen whether the Senate will finally ratify the UN convention by the end of December, before another year goes by without the 67 votes required for ratification.

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This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Tino Calabia began his humanitarian work as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s and then ran a Bronx antipoverty agency and wrote numerous federal studies ranging from the rights of female offenders to racial discrimination on college campuses. He has served on national Asian American boards and organized seminars in former Eastern-bloc countries for exchange students he mentored while they lived in the United States.

Calabia has an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, attended the University of Munich on a foreign-exchange fellowship and has a master’s degree in English and American literature from Columbia University. He lives in the Washington area with his wife, Dawn Calabia, who is an honorary adviser to Refugees International.

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Isn’t It Time for the US to Ratify the UN Treaty on Disabilities?
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