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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

United Nations Convention on Disabilities

In December 2006 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UN-CRPD. When it was signed the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, characterized the the CRPD as "the first human rights treaty to be adopted in the twenty-first century". Since it was adopted, 139 countries have signed the Convention and 58 more have ratified it. The United States, the supposed "world leader" for people with disabilities has not signed the Convention. This is puzzling to me. Every international and domestic disability rights group I am aware of supports and expects our country to sign the CRPD. I do not pay attention to international conventions nor do I keep up with what the UN is doing. Perhaps I am too narrow minded or skeptical but I fail to see what international treaties and conventions do to help people--that is me, you, and others living in nations around the world. I fail to see how such wonderful sentiments and ideas translate into the real world. In short, I lack an international vision. Regardless, I am simply at a loss as to why the United States does not sign CRPD.

If the United States government truly considers itself to be the leader in disability rights I think we, Obama that is, must sign the CRPD. Readers of this blog will know I care deeply about the social inequities associated with disability in this country. But based on my reading the situation in Third World countries is nothing short of grim. In many parts of the world a disability is a death sentence. If you doubt me read Norm Charlton's Nothing About Us Without Us. Although somewhat dated, this text demonstrates that in many ways disabled Americans are lucky--though I must confess I never look at myself in this light. So why has the United States Government, Big Brother if you will, not signed the CRPD? One could take a hard look at this and conclude as Stephen Kuusisto has in his blog Planet of the Blind and speculate that: "the United States is reluctant to sign a world wide treaty on human rights for people with disabilities because our military activities (remember "Shock and Awe"?) create civilian populations with disabilities. We wouldn't want to be responsible for this, would we?" Harsh words for sure, one's that made me think and become depressed about the previous Bush Administration and its war on terrorism. A more kind interpretation may be that the ADA is legally incompatible with the CRPD. No such luck or at least that is what lawyers have written. Perhaps the CRPD is redundant? We have the ADA, a law that will turn 19 years on my Independence Day July 26. This explanation also fails as we as a nation have largely ignored the ADA and the average American has no clue the law has anything to do with civil rights. So why has the United States not signed the CRPD? In my estimation it is because we pay lip service to the civil rights of people with disabilities. That is what we say and what we do are two radically different things. Sure, all will state that people with a disability should be included and access should exist everywhere. Yet when it comes to a vote on these things such as an elevator, a wheelchair lift on a bus, or the construction of a group home I see nothing but firm resistance and cost cutting. This is not a new phenomenon, it has been present since the day the ADA was signed into law. We put a value on access and inclusion and it is not a priority--it never was. Thus I think we have not signed the CRPD because there is no commitment to real inclusion and equal access in this country. If we do not want to be inclusive in this country can we expect or even hope others nations be held to the same standard? In a word, no. The refusal of the American Government to sign the CRPD is more than politics, it is a reflection of national failure to support the civil rights of people in this country. This failure can be found in every ADA violation I encounter where ever I go. And believe me I do not need to go far. Such gross violations abound and are so numerous that I could spend the rest of my life filing ADA complaints, it would be a full time job for me and hundreds if not thousands of others. Worse yet, I have come to accept these violations as the norm and rarely complain about them anymore. Where does one access blame? Frankly, I do not care. What I do care about is social change and for that to happen people with and without a disability need to come together as equals. When that happens access for all will be taken seriously.

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