The US Senate last week rejected a treaty forged in the UN that would apply many of the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act throughout most of the world. Simply put, the treaty states that nations should strive to assure that people with disabilities “enjoy the same rights and fundamental freedoms as their fellow citizens.”

The main concerns of those opposed to the US ratifying the treaty focused on the broader question of American sovereignty and a narrower question about usurping parental rights over individual rights.

Independent analysts have disputed both of these concerns, noting that careful construction of the treaty’s language took into account national sovereignty. In a review of the provisions of the treaty and the news coverage, it is unclear to me where parental rights might be usurped beyond protections, already in other laws, against abuses and neglect.

Be that as it may, for those who think the ADA has been a good thing for people with disabilities in this country, its provisions promoted more globally would also be a good thing.

The treaty had been worked on for many years. Many respected non-partisan people, well versed in the issues important to people with disabilities, were at the table and the overwhelming majority of those in the disability community in this country support the broad goals and specific language of the treaty.

Supporters acknowledge that the U.S. already has most of the protections and requirements embedded in the ADA, used as a model for the international treaty.

However, as with trade agreements that seek to elevate labor laws, child welfare protections and other guidelines long accepted as reasonable baselines, supporter of the treaty point out that international guidelines not only promote acceptable baselines for the rights of people with disabilities more broadly but also serve to protect American citiznrs with disabilities when they travel abroad.

The rest of the world has long looked to the U.S. to set benchmarks. Nowhere is this more evident than in the promotion of individual rights and the assurance that each person should have the same opportunities of equal access and protection under the law.

Senator Bob Dole—former presidential candidate, longtime Republican Senator, U.S. war hero and veteran with a disability—came to the floor of the Senate hoping to see the treaty’s ratification. Sen. Dole sat on the side in a wheelchair as a reminder of the broad bipartisan coalition that forged the ADA more than 20 years ago.

The treaty has been signed by 155 nations, including the U.S., and ratified by 126 of those countries. Ratification is needed for the provisions of the treaty to be legally binding. Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia are among the nations that have ratified the treaty.

According to news reports Republicans objected to taking up a treaty during the lame-duck session of the Congress and warned that the treaty could pose a threat to US national sovereignty.

“I do not support the cumbersome regulations and potentially overzealous international organizations with anti-American biases that infringe upon American society,” said Republican senator Jim Inhofe.

In addition to Dole, other top Republicans—John McCain, who also suffered disabling injuries in Vietnam; Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee; and former attorney general Richard Thornburgh—joined five others from their party in voting to approve the treaty.

The treaty also was widely backed by the disabilities community and veterans groups.

In an official statement from The Arc of the US, CEO Peter Berns said:

“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. The ratification of this treaty would have unified us with millions of disability advocates, family members, and self-advocates of all nations. This isn’t the end of this fight – advocates across our country will continue to work to make sure that our friends and colleagues abroad know that we stand with them and share their goals.”

It is an important issue. The country’s stance in its relations to other nations defines its principles and character. Often times foreign affairs and seemingly remote issues such as the ratification of treaties get lost in our day to day here at home. They shouldn’t. The world is more connected now than ever and that trend will continue and even escalate. We need to stay aware of what goes on internationally. What happens to one of us has the potential to affect all of us throughout the globe.

Like it or not we’re all in this together—from Abu Dhabi to Zagred to Flying Fish Cove to Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte (look them up; I had to; it’s a good first exercise)—and we swim or sink together.

I say swimming is better. Ensuring that more people with disabilities have access, rights, protections and their own “sovereignty” seems an obvious place to encourage that kind of cooperation and togetherness.

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Disability in Focus