July 26 marked the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Its passage harkens back to a bygone era, when Americans with disabilities could count on bipartisan efforts in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Congress passed the ADA in 1990, and President George H.W. Bush signed it into law. Some years later, in 2008, President George W. Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act into law, seeking to restore the drafters’ intentions against a judicial onslaught that had effectively gutted the law.
Breaking with this bipartisan tradition, the Senate could not garner enough votes to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2012. The first human rights treaty of the 21st century, the CRPD is also the first legally binding international instrument with the power specifically to protect the rights of the world’s largest minority: the 1 billion people with disabilities.
The Senate voted down the treaty against the advice of two esteemed World War II veterans who acquired disabilities during their service, Senators Bob Dole and John McCain, and a host of other supporters from both parties. A decidedly tepid grassroots response failed to counter an overwhelming surge from right-wing homeschooling parent networks, who oppose the protections. A second attempt to ratify the CRPD in 2013 yielded a second defeat.
An International Disabilities Convention
Disability advocates from around the world have long looked to the United States as a leader in opening up space for people with disabilities to thrive and flourish as full citizens. Borrowed in large part from the American disability-rights framework and informed by principles reflected in our disability-rights legislation, the CRPD is designed to secure full participation for people with disabilities in all aspects of life, on an equal basis with others.
In an approach drawn directly from American disability law, the treaty prohibits disability discrimination and mandates the provision of reasonable accommodation that doesn’t impose an undue burden. The CRPD supports full participation and inclusion in the community, as well as independence and autonomy, ideas that are hardly subversive to American values. Indeed, they are the salient values of our republic. This is standard stuff for us—but not for the vast majority of countries around the world with legal frameworks that simply don’t support or welcome the inclusion of people with disabilities in schools, workplaces, recreational facilities, or religious spaces.