Time Is Now for U.S. to Support International Disability Rights

Monday, December 3 is recognized around the world as International Day of People with Disabilities. Sanctioned by the United Nations two decades ago, the day "aims to promote an understanding of people with disabilities and encourage support for their dignity, rights and well-being." While the anniversary typically doesn't cultivate much attention in the United States, this year, the U.S. Senate has the opportunity to underscore the importance of rights for people with disabilities worldwide. On December 4, one day after the anniversary, the Senate is expected to vote on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Introduced by the United Nations in 2006, and signed by President Obama in 2009, the treaty gives people with disabilities around the world the rights and protections necessary so that they may live independently and productively.

Since May, when President Obama submitted the treaty package to the U.S. Senate for ratification, the treaty has garnered strong support, earning full support from Senate Democrats. The treaty is also endorsed by Republicans, including some current members of the Senate, and former leaders such President George H.W. Bush, Senator Bob Dole and former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh. In the time that remains before the vote, treaty advocates hope to rally enough bipartisan support so that the community may celebrate the ratification of the treaty just as the community celebrated the signing of the Americans with Disabilities by President Bush in 1990.

Yet, opposition threatens the two-thirds majority needed to ratify the treaty. Opponents argue that the treaty threatens U.S. Sovereignty. But sovereignty will not be threatened by the treaty. The Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act will continue to be the law of the land in the United States. Inconsistencies between current U.S. Law and the treaty are covered by treaty reservations, understandings, and declarations that "confirm that by ratifying (the treaty) the United States is not undertaking any international obligations inconsistent with domestic U.S. law,." Despite holes in their argument, and despite the endorsement of Democratic Leaders, Republican Leaders, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, opponents in the senate continue to stand against the treaty and its ratification.

Failure to ratify would impact this country in multiple ways. If ratified, the treaty extends U.S. protections to Americans traveling abroad and working abroad. Without ratification, Americans won't have those protections. Also, the United States will lose an international voice on disability matters. If the United States does not ratify the treaty, the United States can't appoint anyone to sit on the U.N. Committee on Disabilities. According to Marca Bristo, Board Chair for the United States International Council on Disability, this means "our best practices and many years of experience can't be implemented."

As a person with dwarfism who sits on the board for Little People of America, losing that voice would have a devastating impact. I recently read an article from a magazine published by Little People Uganda, which serves people with dwarfism in Uganda. The article was written by a young man with dwarfism who had recently celebrated the birth of his daughter. The baby's mother was an average stature woman. In the article, the young man wrote that his newborn child was murdered just days after birth by her maternal grandmother. In the article, the father wrote that his baby was strangled to death "just because her father was a dwarf and probably she was a dwarf."

Sadly, as a member of a non-profit volunteer board, I can do little more than express outrage over, mourn over, and write about such a tragic story. That's one reason why the United States needs to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The treaty will give me a platform upon which I can speak out and advocate on behalf of people with dwarfism in other countries. More importantly, ratification gives the United States a voice to shape disability policy worldwide, and tool to protect and make concrete change on behalf of people with disabilities worldwide.