GOP should lead again on disability rights

The United Nations estimates that more than 1 billion people live with disabilities worldwide. In many places, they face discrimination, lack of accommodation and even a disregard for their right to exist.

The United Nations General Assembly in 2006 adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Its goal is to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.”

Since then, 156 countries, including Iran, China and Russia, and the European Union have ratified the convention.

There is one glaring omission on the long list of countries that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. That would be the U.S.

The Senate fell five votes short of the supermajority needed to ratify a treaty in December 2012, when 38 senators, all Republicans, voted against ratification.

Two of the senators who voted against the treaty are running for the GOP presidential nomination, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator who was not in the Senate at the time of the vote, wrote in an email to members of his Patriot Voices, a conservative nonprofit that he and his wife founded, that the treaty “threatens U.S. sovereignty and parental rights, and would effectively put the U.S. under international law when it comes to parenting special needs children.”

The treaty’s actual language refutes this claim. The United States would only be required to submit periodic reports to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The committee would, in turn, “make such suggestions and general recommendations on the report as it may consider appropriate.”

It’s not as if the U.S. turns a blind eye to people with disabilities. This nation generally, and Republicans in particular, have much of which to be proud on the issue of disabilities.

The 2010 U.S. census revealed that nearly one in five Americans has a disability; that’s more than 56 million Americans, me among them.

We have basic rights today because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a bill carried by Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole and that President George H.W. Bush signed on July 26, 1990.

By any measure, this is a landmark act. Marking the 25-year anniversary, Bush told the National Organization on Disability that the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act was the decision he is “proudest of when I was president.”

The law prohibits discrimination based on disability, created accessibility requirements on public places, and required employers to make reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities.

California similarly has a rich tradition of helping secure rights for marginalized groups.

United States hasn’t ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, unlike 156 other countries, including Russia, China and Iran, and the European Union.

Frank Lanterman was a Republican assemblyman from Southern California who in 1969 pushed legislation that created a first-in-the nation law. Signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan, the Lanterman Act guarantees people with developmental disabilities the right to care. Under state law, they are entitled to care.

In the coming year, that cost will be about $3.3 billion, a 6.5 percent increase from the prior year. Some legislators in the special session on health care are advocating increasing that amount.

Using a wheelchair for the past 10 years, I have had firsthand the pleasure of feeling included in a location that has a ramp up to the entrance or a wheelchair-accessible bathroom stall. I have appreciated the opportunity to pursue an education. I have enjoyed the ability to make my own life decisions.

But there are many places in the world where a person with a disability can’t have these experiences.

While many countries do have some sort of law regarding the rights of people with disabilities, there is very little implementation of these laws, acknowledged Susan Henderson, executive director of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

That’s what makes the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities so important.

Opponents of the treaty have voiced concerns about the United Nations forcing actions upon Americans. But they need only to look at the 2008 Supreme Court ruling in Medellin v. Texas, which states that the terms of an international treaty are not binding on U.S. law.

The rest of the world looks to the United States for an example. We have led the way in the disability rights movement at home. We ought to use our moral leadership to advance the cause globally.