Senate rejects UN disability treaty

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In a major disappointment for disability advocates, the U.S. Senate voted 61 to 38 on December 4 in support of a United Nations treaty recognizing the rights of people with disabilities, falling short of two-thirds vote needed for ratification.

“This is a sad day for individuals with disabilities across the globe. The simple truth is that the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities would help individuals with disabilities around the world obtain the rights and protections we have here in the United States,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc, in a news release. “The ratification of this treaty would have unified us with millions of disability advocates, family members, and self-advocates of all nations.”

The treaty, approved by the UN General Assembly in 2006, is modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act and would require virtually no changes in American law. In July 2009, President Obama signed the treaty, which has been signed by 154 countries and ratified by 136 other countries, according to an article by the Associated Press.

While the treaty received unanimous approval from Senate democrats, just eight Republicans voted in favor, despite support from the influential U.S. Chamber of a Commerce and a coalition of high profile leaders.

World War II veteran Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican Presidential nominee, appeared in a wheelchair on the Senate floor to show his support for the treaty. With the former long-time Senate Majority leader watching, former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry made an impassioned speech in favor of the treaty,

 “It really isn’t controversial,” Kerry, D-Mass., said on the Senate floor. “What this treaty says is very simple. It just says that you can’t discriminate against the disabled. It says that other countries have to do what we did 22 years ago when we set the example for the world and passed the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

The Senate held hearings on the treaty on November 27, but from the start, its passage appeared murky. In September, 36 GOP senators signed a letter opposing any new international treaties during the lame-duck session, the two-month period between election day and inauguration day.

Leading the charge against the treaty was former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum and Rep. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT).

Home school advocates object to a section of the treaty which allows the state to separate a parent from a child with a disability when separation is “in the best interests of the child,” which is already the governing standard in custody disputes and other areas American law. This provision would only come into play upon a judicial finding that the parent neglected or abused a child, but Santorum, who also spoke against the treaty on CNN that evening, contends that the treaty gives the state new powers to interfere with family decision making.

This is “a direct assault on us and our family,” said Santorum, whose daughter Bella has a rare genetic disorder, said at a press conference, according to an article in Think Progress.

In contrast, former Republican presidential nominee John McCain read a letter from Dole at the Nov. 27 hearings urging the treaty’s passage.

“Regardless of where in the world a disabled person strives to live a normal, independent life, where basic rights and accessibilities are available,” McCain said. “Disability rights and protections have always been a bipartisan issue, and ratifying this treaty should be no different.”

In August, the Senate also voted to debate the treaty, though hearings were not held in time for the August recess.
“I feel like the Republican majority has basically declared war on people with disabilities. This boggles my mind because so much of what we fight for in the disability community is completely consistent with the party’s philosophy,” said Marsha Katz of Montana ADAPT in a news release. “The Republican Senators who voted against the treaty have sided with the extreme elements in their party who apparently don’t feel that people with disabilities are fist class citizens deserving of the rights the rest of the country enjoys.”

A video about the vote from NBC News can be seen here.