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U.S. leadership on disabilities rights wavers

In 1990, the U.S. set the example for protection of the rights of people with disabilities in its Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA became the template for many nations’ laws on disability rights and was recently the model used to design the United Nations’ Treaty on Disabilities Rights. Knowing this, it is difficult to understand why the U.S. Senate recently failed to pass that very treaty.

The U.N. Treaty on Disabilities, first adopted in December 2006, sets a standard for all nations in assuring full human rights for people with disabilities. The Guiding Principles include such ideals as respect for inherent dignity; individual autonomy; the independence of all people; nondiscrimination; full and effective participation and inclusion in society; equality of opportunity; accessibility; and respect for difference and acceptance of people with disabilities as part of human diversity.

The U.N. treaty sets forth a set of articles that specify for every nation the benchmarks for protecting the human rights of people with disabilities.

Anyone familiar with the ADA will recognize the origins of these articles, which address such issues as reasonable accommodations, equal recognition under the law and the right to vote, access to the justice system, free and public education, the right to fair employment practices, the right to habilitation and rehabilitation.

As with any rights, it is the responsibility of the governmental body to protect these rights and the choice of each individual whether to exercise them.

U.S. citizens with disabilities who have travelled internationally attest to the need for many other nations to come to the standards of our country when it comes to accessibility for people with disabilities.

The U.N. treaty establishes those standards. It does not change any nation’s laws or constitutions.

A variety of nations have specified their own application of the treaty’s principles and excluded any clause that appeared to be in conflict with their own constitution or practices.

Yet it was not because of this flexibility in interpretation that the U.S. Senate voted against ratification of the U.N. Treaty on Disabilities. Those who opposed it claimed to do so because of their fear that the treaty would affect the ability of American people with disabilities and their parents to make their own choices about how to live and educate their children.

A particular fear was the fear of some parents that the treaty would prevent them from choosing to home-school their children.

The U.N. has no such powers, nor do the rights afforded through the treaty compel any person with a disability to exercise those rights.

On Dec. 4, 38 senators opposed ratification of the treaty, and the vote failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to pass. Daily life for people with disabilities in America won’t change, but what message have we sent to the 650 million people with disabilities at home and abroad?

Tara Kiene is the director of case management with Community Connections Inc.