US Secretary of State John Kerry, in a brief statement at the United Nations last fall, argued that the US has one of the strongest disability rights laws in the world, and he was right. So then, why should the United States also enact a treaty, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD)? The answer is actually simple. As good as it is, our ADA doesn’t go nearly far enough.
The United States enacted sweeping civil rights protections for people with disabilities in 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law. The ADA provides the United States with one of the strongest frameworks to assure the civil rights of people with disabilities. It prohibits the all-important discrimination in employment, requires employers to provide disability accommodations for employees who need it, and it requires any establishment that serves the public to be accessible to people with disabilities. It was watershed legislation when it was signed into law, and it remains a model for the world. In 2008, in a direct smack-down to the Supreme Court’s series of decisions weakening the ADA’s protections, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act and further solidified strong federal support for people with disabilities.
So why doesn’t the ADA go far enough? I have been pouring through mounds of data about this topic recently and my excursion into the data confirms what we in the disability community know: the ADA is not sufficient. Even 24 years after its passage, thousands of US students with disabilities still spend most of their day in segregated classrooms, out of sight and mind of their nondisabled peers. Employment rates for men and women with disabilities remain woefully low. A paltry 21 percent of working-age adults with disabilities are employed full time. And due to inadequate education and low employment, poverty rates are exceptionally high: more than one-fourth of adults with disabilities who live outside of institutions live in families that the US government deems poor. People with disabilities and their families are the poorest group in the US, and they often live with hardship and deprivation, including food insecurity, housing instability, and unmet medical needs.
How could the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities help? Why must we encourage the US Senate to pass the UNCRPD? Ratification would provide a clear framework to fully protect the values we share about respect, dignity and independence for children and adults with disabilities. Ratification would strengthen the civil rights protections that are already available to people with disabilities in the US. It would send the clear, unequivocal message that as a nation, we are fully committed to ensuring that people with disabilities live full and rich lives as citizens in their communities, participating in everything society offers. The ADA has not made full inclusion a reality for many Americans with disabilities. The baton should be passed to the UN Convention, which was built on the framework of the ADA, but goes further. The Convention will require the federal government to assertively promote disability rights, a step that is vitally important today.
The US is overdue in stepping up and offering leadership in the area of disability inclusion. Total ratifications to date: 145 nations. Israel, nearly all developed countries, and most of the developing world has already taken the step of ratification. Last December, when the US Senate considered the matter, the vote was five short for ratification.
US Senator Tom Harkin, a distinguished champion of inclusion for people with disabilities, has stated that he plans to work this summer to secure passage of the CRPD. I can’t imagine a better way to spend the summer months than fighting for the rights of people with disabilities.
Susan L. Parish, PhD, MSW is the Nancy Lurie Marks Professor of Disability Policy, Director of the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy, and Associate Dean for Research at the Heller School, Brandeis University. Her research aims to improve the health and well-being of children and adults with disabilities and their caregiving families. Follow the Lurie Institute on Facebook and engage Susan directly on Twitter.