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.

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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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