Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Ratify the CRPD

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The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, (CRPD), is about to be considered again by the US Senate for ratification. Last winter, the Senate fell 5 votes short of ratifying the CRPD.

The CRPD's purpose is to outline the basic principles of how the human rights of people with disabilities should be respected. Like the Americans with Disabilities Act, it focuses on equal opportunity, equality before the law, physical accessibility and design standards, and the concept of reasonable accommodations.

The CRPD's impact on US law would be negligible, since the US already has laws and policies that are a model for everyone else. The convention would have the most positive impact in countries where the rights of people with disabilities are not widely respected, where the status of people with disabilities is sometimes far worse than our worst experiences here in the US. We complain every day about leftover physical barriers, stubborn attitudes, and inept bureaucracies, but once in awhile we need to remember that things could be so much worse, and are in other parts of the world.

The CRPD encourages each UN member country to pass legislation to protect the basic human rights of people with disabilities, legislation that would closely resemble the Americans with Disabilities Act. It also requires member countries to report annually to the UN on the status of the rights of people with disabilities within their countries. Again, this would be no big deal here in the US, but in some other parts of the world, it might be the first time governments have been prompted to focus at all on the rights and status of people with disabilities. Like most United Nations policies, it wouldn't change the world overnight, but it would provide a template for change, and help build momentum for disability rights activists around the world to make their countries better.

So, why didn't the Senate ratify the treaty last year? It fell short mainly because of two somewhat related concerns.

First, there is a small but passionate group of people here in the US who oppose pretty much anything and everything the United Nations does or tries to do. They believe that the UN is an illegitimate organization which poses a continual threat to American sovereignty and freedom. These folks oppose the CRPD not because of anything to do with disability, but on general principal.

Second, and more specifically, there is one section of the CRPD, Article 7, Section 2, that says:
"In all actions concerning children with disabilities, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration."
This sentence has been interpreted and publicized widely to American homeschoolers as posing a threat to their ability to homeschool their children. I guess the idea is that somehow US ratification of the CRPD would lead to the federal government overruling parents' decisions about their children with disabilities, using "best interests of the child" as a justification. In the literal, legal sense this is ridiculous. Many, many other legal and public opinion dominoes would have to fall first before any such thing happened, and ratification of a UN rights treaty could never by itself make this happen.

I think this concern is, like the first, more of a philosophical and emotional one. Homeschoolers of various kinds often feel disrespected, embattled, and alone. So do many parents of kids with disabilities, whether they homeschool their kids or not. Both groups have ambivalent relationships at best with their local schools, education departments, medical professionals, and government agencies ... all of which say that their priority is "the best interests of the child". I can understand how parents' necessary vigilance can lead them to jump at shadows, especially when there are more ideological actors making sure they see those shadows in the scariest ways possible. But in this case they are shadows, nothing more.

Do I think it would be the end of the world if the US fails to ratify the CRPD? No. It might not even do much harm to the CRPD itself. The US is one country, and our failure to ratify won't necessarily doom the convention. But it would weaken it, be an embarrassment for us, and provide an "out" for countries that would prefer to continue prioritizing other issues and people … a practice that we who have disabilities are, sadly, quite familiar with. It's not hard to imagine other countries saying, "Why should we put ourselves out to make buildings more accessible or stop institutionalizing children when the United States won't even ratify the CRPD?"

Here are some links for more information on the CRPD and what you can do in the days and weeks ahead to push for ratification:

Andrea Shettle's Twitter Feed - @AShettle

This is the best website of any kind about the CRPD that I've seen so far. It directly addresses addresses all of the objections to the CRPD … in detail.

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