For more than a decade, a United Nations treaty to protect people with disabilities from discrimination has been on the books. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, introduced in 2006, is the first international treaty to recognize the rights of people with disabilities. While 182 countries have signed and ratified the treaty to become state parties, not all countries have completed ratification. The United States, which signed the agreement in 2009, is one of nine countries that have signed but not ratified the treaty. Seven countries have taken no action.
In 2020, national attention was laser-focused on issues of inequity, lack of inclusion, and discrimination in all aspects of society across many segments of the population. From public safety to health care, education, and employment, public and private sector leaders took a hard look at the data and how issues involving gender and race impact life in America. As our collective sensibility continues to evolve, it makes sense to address issues impacting people with disabilities.
The United States must ratify this agreement.
The treaty essentially affirms the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act as an international standard. It requires no change to US law. A movement to ratify the treaty has failed twice in the Senate since 2009, the last time in 2012, when the proposal lost by five votes.
The National Council on Disability has been involved with the development of the treaty since 2002. The organization states, “Over the years, the NCD has proudly encouraged the ratification of this first international treaty to address disability rights. This treaty will extend the values of the Americans with Disabilities Act abroad and improve access for Americans with disabilities, including veterans, who live, work or travel abroad and the promotion of full inclusion for people with disabilities on an international level.”
One argument against ratification raises concerns about US sovereignty. But the treaty would not impact US sovereignty or dictate new regulations or policy. Participation in this treaty would help strengthen the United States as a global leader on the rights of people with disabilities. Without ratification, the United States cannot actively participate in an annual discussion of disability rights in the international Conference of States Parties. The states meet regularly to consider issues that impact the implementation of the treaty. At the 14th session held in 2021, for example, some key themes discussed were the COVID-19 response and recovery and how to meet the needs and address the socioeconomic impacts on people with disabilities. If the treaty were ratified, the United States would be required to submit reports on the status of people with disabilities on a range of topics, such as protecting basic rights, living independently, right to education, and access to education and quality health care. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities could then make recommendations for all participating countries.
The treaty protects against discrimination in health care and underscores that people with disabilities are not to be discriminated against. This also extends to the discriminatory denial of health care or health services on the basis of disability. The treaty would not create new laws in the United States or change how we define disability. Participation would also not impact parental rights or the right to homeschool children with disabilities. The treaty also addresses quality-of-life issues, including independent living, access to education, and nondiscrimination in housing and employment.
The treaty is also not designed to mandate how a country allocates spending on foreign assistance. It provides a framework for international cooperation and encourages international development assistance programs to provide access for people with disabilities.
The impact of this treaty would be significant and far-reaching. The purpose of the convention is to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities and promote respect for their inherent dignity.” Becoming a party to this treaty is an agreement to fulfill this mission statement. There are about 1 billion people living with disabilities worldwide, according to the US International Council on Disabilities. About 80 percent of people with disabilities live in developing countries.
The United States could play a major role in advocating for policies and practices that could help improve the health and quality of life for people with disabilities throughout the world. Having a seat at the table would give the us a voice in shaping policies that can improve the quality of life for people with disabilities around the world. Countries and advocates can share best practices and innovations, lifting up communities.
Without ratification of the treaty, the ability for the United States to participate in a global discussion in a meaningful way is limited. We have made significant strides in the United States, particularly since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 2020, we saw momentum build toward creating a more equitable society. That includes people with disabilities. As Congress advances policies to help support families, and improve inclusion and equity among all people, it should also ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The United States has much to offer and could be a leading voice for this underserved community around the world.
James T. Brett, president and CEO of The New England Council, is vice chair of the National Council on Disability, chair of the Massachusetts Governor’s Commission on Intellectual Disability, and chair of the Disabled Persons Protection Commission.