Time to Ratify the Global Disabilities Convention

Back in the good old days, when there was bipartisan support for such things as mom and apple pie, President George H.W. Bush signed the landmark 1990 Americans for Disability Act (ADA). I can remember how proud we were that the United States had passed a comprehensive civil rights law for disabled people, and how we hoped the rest of the world would follow us.

Sixteen years later, President George W. Bush's administration negotiated the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), an international treaty that calls for ADA-like protection for people around the world. President Obama signed the treaty in 2009.

The treaty requires countries that ratify it to begin to work toward standards on accessibility and infrastructure for the disabled similar to our own. This will not only help the disabled in those countries. It will also help the estimated 40 percent of U.S. travelers or their travel companions who have disabilities.

One hundred and thirty-eight countries have now ratified the convention. The United States is not among them.

Our Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate to ratify international treaties. Last December, Bob Dole, the 89-year old former senate leader, Republican Presidential candidate, and disabled war hero -- acknowledged by people in both parties as the father of the ADA -- came to the Senate floor in a wheelchair to show his support for the treaty. He watched as the Senate failed to ratify by five votes, 61 to 38. "I can tell you how sad that was for me," said John McCain at the time. It was not the Senate's finest hour.

Tomorrow, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) will convene the first of two hearings of the Committee in preparation of another full Senate vote on CRPD is scheduled. Given the implacable gridlock we have seen recently in Congress, that is going to be a very revealing vote.

Just what is the hang-up 38 Republicans had with CRPD last year? Three words: The United Nations. Despite the fact -- and I stress the word fact -- that there is not one word in the treaty that gives the U.N. any power to affect any U.S. law or court action, the ideological hatred some feel for the institution trumped all. Somehow, they persuaded themselves that because the U.N. is involved the treaty threatens American independence. The incoherence of some opponents was stunning. Rick Santorum famously wrote that the treaty could allow the U.N. to make medical decisions for his disabled child.

I don't think all of the 38 senators who voted against the treaty last year actually believe it is a threat to our sovereignty. I do know they have to worry about primary challenges from tea partiers like Rick Santorum who do.

You don't have to listen to one Democratic voice to make the strongest possible case for ratification of CRPD. Former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year, said, "Ratification is an opportunity to export to the world the very best we have to offer. This is a chance to use our rich national experience in disability rights -- which has gained us the respect of the world community -- to extend the principles embodied in the ADA to the hundreds of millions of people with disabilities worldwide who today have no domestic protection. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose by playing the role the world expects of us."

Tom Ridge, the former Republican governor and Bush cabinet member is now Chairman of the National Organization on Disability (NOD). After the vote last year he said, "I am disappointed in the Senate's failure to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The CRPD embodies the protections and opportunities available through the Americans with Disabilities Act, but on a global scale. CRPD is a treaty created by the United Nations that protects the rights of people living with disabilities, including: equal treatment and non-discrimination in access to justice, health, education, employment, and rehabilitation. Failure of the Senate to ratify the CRPD only strengthens NOD's resolve to dispel the myths offered by the opposition and secure ratification of the CRPD in the next session of Congress."

Mom, apple pie, and rights for the disabled. If we can't find five more votes this time to ratify the CRPD, I think we'll know that ideological gridlock is a terminal condition in this session of Congress.