Nearly one billion people worldwide live with a disability but many do not enjoy the same rights, freedoms, and opportunities as those without a disability.
In many countries people with disabilities are denied basic rights to family life, education, or even a name. People with mental or physical disabilities are often kept against their will in institutions in deplorable conditions, chained to beds or confined to cages. Even in countries where they are not forced into institutions, many people with disabilities are effectively prisoners in their own homes because of widespread physical inaccessibility. Throughout the world people with disabilities face poverty because of severe employment discrimination.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, known as the disabilities treaty, is designed to address these injustices and inequities.
This treaty provides a framework for countries to develop laws and policies that afford people with disabilities the same basic rights and fundamental freedoms as everyone else. The treaty would help eliminate the severe human rights abuses currently being perpetrated against people, especially children, who are denied basic rights because of their disabilities. It represents an international effort to expand opportunity and achieve full participation for people with disabilities, and it presents an opportunity for the United States to further its leadership in the international community.
Inspired by and modeled after the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, President George W. Bush negotiated the disabilities treaty in 2006. As of late last year the treaty had been ratified by 125 countries and the European Union. Though signed by President Obama in 2009, the treaty awaits ratification by the U.S. Senate.
Critics contend the treaty will create a legal basis for the United Nations to infringe on the parental rights of parents of children with disabilities and that it will violate U.S. sovereignty by allowing the U.N. to challenge the policies and practices of individual states. But as former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., noted in an op-ed late last year, “ratifying the agreement will not affect current enforcement of the ADA or create additional causes of action under the treaty. The Americans with Disabilities Act would remain the controlling U.S. law.”
Frist’s successor, Sen. Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had been in negotiations with the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., over legislative language that might have addressed his concerns about the treaty and its implementation. But Corker has left the negotiating table and continues to oppose ratification.
I would respectfully encourage Corker to return to negotiations and to consider the long history of Republican support for the rights and dignity of people with disabilities including from such architects of the ADA as former Sen. Bob Dole, former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, and former White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray, who, among others, support ratification of the treaty.
More than 40 national religious organizations have voiced their support for the treaty. They join a broad coalition of more than 700 U.S. disability, civil rights, business, and veteran organizations likewise voicing their support.
My faith teaches that each person is created in the image of God and therefore, regardless of physical or mental disability, has the same inherent dignity and rights. The teachings of many religious traditions encourage us to seek justice for all and that includes people with disabilities, and Baptist history is rooted in a deep and abiding concern for the freedom of the individual.
In just a generation since the ADA became law, our society has made great strides in becoming more open and accessible to people with disabilities. Now we have an opportunity to extend those gains globally through ratification of the disabilities treaty and participation in its implementation. Rather than sitting on the sidelines, let’s offer our decades of experience and expertise to this effort. Dignity demands and justice compels we do no less.
(Curtis Ramsey-Lucas is managing director, resource development, American Baptist Home Mission Societies. He represents the group on the steering committee of the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition, a program of the American Association of People with Disabilities.)
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