Twenty-two years ago, the United States passed landmark legislation forbidding discrimination against people with disabilities. That law put the United States at the forefront of the global struggle for equal treatment for the disabled. It inspired a United Nations treaty that encourages countries to pass similar measures.
Since the United States is already basically in compliance with this treaty, it is bizarre and unfortunate that the US Senate fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to ratify it. Passage would have allowed the United States to participate fully in UN meetings on this issue, joining 126 other countries that have already ratified it.
The vote would have been easier to take had the treaty’s opponents offered rational, factual arguments to secure its defeat. Instead, the treaty fell victim to scare tactics, wildly inaccurate statements, and rote ideological claptrap.
Jim DeMint of South Carolina, for instance, claimed the treaty would give “international bureaucrats” control over “issues that should be addressed by states, local governments, and American parents.” In reality, the treaty only sets up a committee that makes non-binding recommendations.
Mike Lee of Utah claimed that the treaty threatened home-schooling. In reality, it doesn’t change US law at all, but merely asserts that disabled children have a right to an education.
Pro-life groups claimed that the treaty had a stealth agenda to sterilize and abort the disabled. In reality, the treaty merely calls on countries to provide disabled people with “affordable health care including in the area of sexual and reproductive health.”
These bogus arguments got so much traction among conservatives that three Republicans who had previously supported the treaty changed their minds, including Jerry Moran of Kansas, who had been one of the treaty’s strongest advocates.
John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made a heroic effort, in a flurry of opinion pieces, to separate fact from myth. But he couldn’t beat back the tide of misinformation. Kerry called the day of the treaty’s defeat “one of the saddest days I’ve seen in almost 28 years in the Senate.” He should not give up.
Perhaps the most alarming thing about the vote was how starkly it illustrated the extent to which the Tea Party has taken control of the Republican soul. Old-guard Republicans supported the treaty, which was negotiated under President George W. Bush. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, was one of its fiercest champions. To support the treaty, former Senator Bob Dole, who was once among the party’s most powerful figures, showed up in his wheelchair during the vote. Yet the Tea Party — which treats collaboration with other governments and the United Nations as a surrender of US sovereignty — killed the treaty.
US leadership on issues covered by the treaty would help disabled people around the world. Instead, a small number of extremists managed to block progress for millions of people.