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Disability Rights A Focus In Senate


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Disability issues topped the agenda on Capitol Hill this week as members of the U.S. Senate convened two hearings focusing on the rights of those with special needs.

While a Senate panel considered ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Thursday morning, a separate committee met in the same building to consider legislation that would regulate the use of restraint and seclusion in schools.

The hearings marked the first time that either issue was taken up by the body.

Consideration of the U.N. Convention comes nearly two months after President Barack Obama sent senators the international treaty, which calls for greater community access and a better standard of living for the estimated 650 million people around the world with disabilities.

Already 153 countries have signed the disability convention and 117 have ratified it, according to the U.N. While the United States signed on in 2009, Senate approval is needed to make participation official.

The convention has broad support with over 165 organizations urging ratification and the backing of a bipartisan group of senators, including Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., both of whom spoke at the hearing.

“(The treaty) will provide the United States with a critical platform from which to urge other countries to improve equality of individuals with disabilities, including Americans who travel or live abroad, and including children with disabilities, whose plight is particularly neglected in many parts of the world,” Judith Heumann, special adviser for international disability rights at the U.S. Department of State told the Senate committee.

Heumann and Eve Hill, an attorney from the Justice Department, insisted that ratifying the convention would not require any changes to current U.S. law or infringe on the nation’s sovereignty.

Some senators and witnesses, however, questioned why it is necessary to join the treaty when American laws on disability rights are already considered the gold standard.

“The idea that the U.S. must join a convention to gain legitimacy in the world… is demeaning,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

The committee could vote on the convention as early as next week, paving the way for consideration by the full Senate. Disability advocates are hopeful that the U.S. could ratify the treaty by the 22nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act July 26.

Next steps are less clear for legislation designed to limit the use of restraint and seclusion in schools that was also debated Thursday.

Though disability advocates have pressed for federal standards on the issue since 2009 when the first of several reports was released documenting numerous cases of abusive and even deadly uses of the practice, congressional efforts in recent years have stalled. (Read all of Disability Scoop’s coverage of restraint and seclusion »)

Harkin is the sole sponsor of the Senate bill. While there is a similar proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Republican chair of the House education committee has indicated that he has no plans to address the issue.

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Comments (9 Responses)

  1. Sir FreeBird Edwards says:

    Why is there a need for A Focus on Disability Rights? What percentage of the Hardworking American understands the true ramifications of individuals with disabilities; until they too become a victim of one??? How can I justifiably make this stand? I was once one of the Hard, Hardworking Americans until I was tragically brought down to a 100% disability status; a status I thought I truly understood before said accident, but dramatically learned the hard way how totally naive I was on this subject! Please, do not be as naive as me! The concept is too devastating to wait until you or a loved one is tragically placed in to a disability status! A status where you are left yearning to get back up in society, but the community’s misconceptions places hurdles too high to concur!

  2. Jason says:

    I watched the hearing online, and the comments by Dr. Michael Farris, LL.M., were especially revealing. He said the CRPD would be the first treaty signed by the US that shifts power to the federal government and away from individuals and states (whereas most human rights treaties contain “negative rights” about what government may not do to you). In particular, he said this treaty would obligate the US to align our laws with the UN Committee that governs the treaty. This could have severe consequences for the rights of parents, many of whom would be forced to accept institutional care for their disabled children instead of seeking the individualized care many of them currently provide on their own. Dr. Farris said the CRPC would be the most massive shift of power from the state to federal level in US history.

  3. vmgillen says:

    Politics. In an election year. Feh.

  4. Mrs. Eileen Curras widow to Hernandez, WWII says:

    We need a Focus on Disability Rights. Society understands zero about ramifications of individuals with disabilities; until they too become a victim. We need to stop been naive. We cannot wait until then. The status leaves Citizens yearning to get back up in society, but the community’s misconceptions places hurdles too high to concur!

  5. Mary says:

    The supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution makes it clear that treaties form a part of the supreme law of the land once ratified. I do not want the decisions that I feel are in the best interest of my son with Down Syndrome overridden by the federal government. I really feel that I can better determine what he needs than some bureaucrat in Washington.

    Most of the countries that make up the United Nations are far from democratically-run governments created to be for the people, by the people, or of the people. No wonder they came up with a treaty supposedly to help the disabled but will override parental and personal decision-making.

    If the U.S. ratifies this treaty there will not suddenly to be disabled parking spots in Chad. Most developing countries do not even abide by the U.N. treaties that they have already signed! We, in the U.S. currently have many more protections for the disabled than most of the rest of the world. We don’t need this treaty, and I certainly don’t want it.

  6. Zoe says:

    Anyone saying that CRPD harms US sovereignty in any way is at best paranoid, at worst knowingly lying. Committees have worked for years drafting Reservations and Understandings that make it clear that ratifying CPRD will not change our Federal or State laws.

  7. Daniel A. Torisky, President, Autism Society of Pittsburgh says:

    Re comment by “Zoe”. If indeed wording in the CPRD specifically stipulates that our ratification of the treaty does not allow change or modification of existing relevant USA Federal and State laws, codes and regulations, no problem. If it doesn’t, count me not as a liar, but justifiably paranoid, the UN being what it is.

  8. Long Island Disability Attorney says:

    We have to find new ways to address the needs of people with disabilities. Whether that can be accomplished with a treaty is yet to be seen.

  9. KA101 says:

    OK, I just got through reading the text of the CRPD. ( is your friend: searching will bring up UNTS vol. 2515, and the text starts on p. 79 of the 363-page pdf.)

    I noticed only one area that would be a substantial shift in US law: Article 24, Education, specifically 24(1)(b), holds that treaty-ratifiers must work to help PWD develop to their fullest potential.

    This autistic attorney would welcome such an upgrade to the IDEA. Constitutionally-required education funding would be a very good thing.

    More generally, the document specifically provides significant protection to disabled persons’ rights to self-express & exist. I’ve yet to hear aut$peaks specifically endorse auties’ right to receive all relevant reproductive education & health-care at the same basis NTs might receive it, for example. [25(a); see also Article 23]

    To those who would prefer not to ratify the treaty: what parts of the text do you find troublesome?

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