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Jenny and the UN Disability Rights Treaty: US Media Gains A Bipartisan Window of Opportunity

In her “Disabled deserve the same rights as everyone’ column (Washington Post, Oct. 25, 2013), Petula Dvorak told a poignant story about Jenny Hatch’s fight for her right to choose independent supported living in contrast to a group home determined ‘more protective’ by her family. Dvorak's coverage of Jenny’s saga and US disability rights law was well timed.

Currently, 57 million Americans with disabilities—among the 1 billion persons with disabilities worldwide (2011 World Health Organization/World Bank World Report on Disability)—are watching closely the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s just announced November 5th hearing; the first of two, they’ll deliberate for a second time the US’s ratification of the UN Convention (treaty) on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

The media has an opportunity previously ignored in December 2012 when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's ratification action failed unexpectedly by 5 votes despite strong bipartisan support—the latter a rare occurrence by anyone’s measure in the 21st century US Congress. Post-vote, after a flurry of policymakers’ and advocates’ statements, the media gaped incredulously and vociferously that our country could choose to refuse to join with the other 120 ratifying countries in this morally compelling human rights treaty.

 Our Americans with Disabilities Act and other rights-based US legislation are touted as models infused into the CRPD treaty’s tenets, designed to ensure the societal inclusion that Jenny sought. Dvorak described the legal wheels in motion that birthed the Jenny Hatch Justice Project and created a new legal precedent of value to 20 others soon thereafter. 

 Why should the media consider this Senate action on CRPD ratification a page one story as the hearings approach ? Let me count the ways.

 First, 700 disability, veterans, allied and business organizations have formed a strong bipartisan coalition to ensure CRPD passage and gain the US a place at the global disability rights leadership table—no longer guaranteed as a non-ratifying nation. World leaders view the United States as losing the moral high ground as now 138 ratifying nations fulfill their international legal commitments collaboratively. Persons with disabilities and diplomats side by side crafted the UN CRPD treaty—a new model for UN inclusion in policymaking and the model resonating around the world for treaty implementation.

Second, the tea party with the Heritage Foundation succeeded in 2012 in creating an effective smoke screen. They rallied their constituents against CRPD claiming issues of sovereignty for our disability laws, abortion and home schooling autonomy—all truly irrelevant in the CRPD context. At this time, when pundits believe the tea party’s clout may be diminishing over government shutdown, this disheartening example of their numbers and policy relevance is worth revisiting.

Third, the global economic crisis continues and the 1 billion persons with disabilities, considered the ‘poorest of the poor’, lack equitable access to education, healthcare, rehabilitation and employment—not solely in low- and middle-resourced countries, but also in ‘developed’ nations. Recognizing this and acknowledging their neglect to incorporate this population’s needs into the 2015 Millennium Development Goal targets, the UN General Assembly at their recent gathering held an unprecedented full day High Level Meeting on Disability and Development (Sept. 23, 2013). Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon summed it clearly at the onset that ‘all people will have a disability during their lifetime’. And the numbers will only increase due to reductions in maternal and child mortality, aging of the world's population, and increased injury and accidents with urbanization trends. The UN General Assembly agreed and passed unanimously an outcomes document that affirms international commitment to integrate CRPD tenets into the post-2015 strategic development goals in progress.

The UN leadership understands that global economic growth depends on opportunities to learn and thrive through informed decisionmaking for all. With the CRPD treaty’s societal inclusion model, and a common understanding worldwide of these goals, the US Senate’s potential passage of ratification gains a US voice at the world table. In this way, the US can share our policy and programmatic accomplishments, while collaborating on design of new ‘best practice’ approaches for meeting ongoing challenges and achieving better outcomes.

Jenny Hatch has declared a ‘new day’ for disability rights and with thoughtful deliberations, hopefully the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee will do the same. The media has a rare opportunity to highlight the bipartisanship it seeks and illuminate for Americans a human rights movement that fosters global economic growth by way of individuals’ societal inclusion nationally and globally.

Evelyn Cherow, MA, MPA, CEO/Founder