The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chaired by Senator Menendez of New Jersey, just held a key hearing on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ("Disabilities Treaty"). According to the U.S. Department of State, "the treaty embodies, at the international level, the ADA principles of non-discrimination, equality of opportunity, accessibility and inclusion."
Supporters of the treaty who gave testimony included a bevy of noted veterans: former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (whose testimony was passionately read by Senator Kelly Ayotte), Senator John McCain, Rep. Tammy Duckworth and former Secretary for Homeland Security Tom Ridge. All of them acquired disabilities during their service to our nation. Other supporters who provided testimony include Sen. Mark Kirk, a stroke survivor, and former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh who is the father of a now grown child with a disability.
With so many luminaries supporting the treaty, one might think the treaty would be a slam-dunk to pass the U.S. Senate. But the last time it was brought to the floor it lost by five votes, and even today the votes are not there for its passage. Opponents have cited concerns that ranged from issues on homeschooling, abortion and national sovereignty. Some predict these issues will all be addressed through "Reservations, Understandings, and Declarations" (known as RUDs).
Senator Johnson, who is hesitant about the treaty, asked former Secretary Ridge what the treaty offers for Americans. Ridge responded that he feels it enhanced the ability of the United States to build its "brand" of standing for good values, without the cost of wars or foreign aid. Others focused on how the treaty can help expand exports for U.S. companies that specialize in products and services for people with disabilities. McCain, Duckworth and others focused on the fact that vets who use wheelchairs cannot travel in many parts of the world for business or pleasure because other nations do not have on ramps or wide enough doorways.
More than 800 disability groups have taken up the cause of the Disabilities Treaty and they feel very strongly that the treaty must be passed now. Still, there is an atmosphere of excitement about passing the Disabilities Treaty that reminds me of how much the Russian people wanted an end to communism, and thought that one election would change their lives for the positive. It was not so simple. More recently, Egyptian citizens thought the end of Mubarak's rule would bring progress overnight. But that did not happen either. The changes were necessary, but not sufficient, for the right positive change.
Like those who wanted true democracy in Russia and Egypt -- who were solely disappointed -- there are lessons to be learned on what can REALLY bring success. EVOLUTIONS often work better than REVOLUTIONS.
No piece of paper voted on by the U.S. Senate or even the United Nations, no matter how urgent or important, is going to end discrimination around the world for people with disabilities overnight. The treaty may be necessary, but like the changes in the FSU and Egypt, it is certainly not sufficient. The road ahead for those of us who want justice, dignity and civil rights will be long and hard. We must prepare for it.
Indeed, there were massive hopes for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 when it was passed. Yet while the ADA did a lot of good, especially for those who use wheelchairs, it was only one piece of the puzzle in terms of enabling people with disabilities to achieve the American dream. Indeed, the most recent statistics from the Labor Department show the 8 in 10 Americans with disabilities are outside the work force (this compares to 28% of people without disabilities.)
There is no magic wand. We will have to work together and keep our focus. So it's important to pick the right people for such a journey and to build a real sense of trust and teamwork.
Fortunately, it is a journey that self-advocates in the disability community and their partners are ready to take. Along that path there are key trailblazers. Like characters in a movie, they all have their roles. There is Marca Bristo from Chicago who is a mighty force who happens to use a wheel chair. David Morrissey of USICD leads an organization that has pulled together hundreds of groups into a coalition. Behind the famous witnesses at the hearing is Kelly Buckland of NICL whose facial expressions on CSPAN tell his every thought. In the back of the Senate hearing room is a group of blind Americans who are catching every word and who can always be relied upon for intelligent strategy.
There are leaders who have battled in the past. There's Yoshiko Dart who traveled with her late husband Justin Dart to all 50 states to build momentum for the ADA. There's former Rep. Tony Coelho and others who all have known and worked together on disability rights for decades. And then there are the new people, the young bloggers who use motorized wheelchairs and have big smiles and true grit to move the agenda forward.
Hundreds of people turned out in person to attend the hearing. Thousands more watched it on TV or the web. Eventually there will be a Senate vote. And when the Disabilities Treaty passes, the key will be to understand that even that important milestone is not enough - not nearly enough. It will be a welcome battle victory, but not the end of the war for equal rights and opportunities. That will come when we trust each other, use our best strengths and never give up.
In the words of Justin Dart: LEAD ON!
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