26 Years after the ADA, United States Can Do More to Lead on Disability Rights

This week marks 26 years since President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. At the signing, Bush said it was an “incredible day” and declared, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

The ADA protects Americans with physical and mental disabilities against discrimination in areas like employment, public accommodations, and transportation. It also served as a model for an international human rights treaty – the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, or CRPD – that the U.N. adopted nearly a decade ago.

But while this Saturday, July 30, marks seven years since President Obama signed CRPD, the U.S. Senate hasn’t actually ratified it yet. In December 2012, a Senate vote (61-38) on CRPD fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority required to adopt an international treaty. And in July 2014, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced the treaty – but the full Senate never voted on it.

“From the U.S. Constitution, it borrows principles of equality and the protection of minorities. From the Declaration of Independence, it reflects the unalienable right to pursue happiness. From the Americans with Disabilities Act and other landmark accessibility laws, the treaty enshrines the concept of reasonable accommodation,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, D. N.J., who at the time chaired the Foreign Relations Committee. “When we lead, the world follows, and only the United States can show the way in raising worldwide accessibility to the American standard. The Disabilities Treaty is essential to improving the lives of over 1 billion people around the globe with disabilities, as well as the 58 million Americans with disabilities right here at home, including 5.5 million disabled American veterans.”

Today, the latest sign of support for ratifying CRPD can be found in the Democratic Party’s 2016 platform, which says this:

“No one should face discrimination based on disability status. Democrats are committed to realizing the full promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We will protect and expand the right of Americans with disabilities to get the accommodations and support they need to live in integrated community settings. We will improve access to meaningful and gainful employment for people with disabilities. We will provide tax relief to help the millions of families caring for aging relatives or family members with chronic illnesses or disabilities. And we will continue to fight for ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

The Republican Party’s platform mentions the treaty, but says they “oppose ratification of international agreements whose long-range implications are ominous or unclear.”

After the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced CRPD two years ago, Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the committee’s approval “sends a signal that the U.S. needs to be a global leader in honoring the dignity of people with disabilities.” In the absence of ratification, the world is still waiting for that global leadership.