Even when the United Nations sets out to do the right thing, it can count on a skeptical response in the U.S. That’s happening now, as the Senate prepares to consider a U.N. treaty upholding the rights of people with disabilities.
The treaty is based on existing U.S. law. Its advocates argue convincingly that nothing in the U.S. would need to change as a result of the treaty’s adoption. It would not affect the federal budget in any significant way. It would not raise costs in schools or workplaces.
It would, however, bring about significant changes abroad. The treaty, already ratified by more than 100 nations, seeks to establish international standards based on practices pioneered in the U.S. It provides a framework for countries to enact and enforce legislation that enables those with disabilities to live more independently, with greater dignity.
Ratifying this treaty would show that the U.S. remains committed to lead on access for the disabled. The U.S. has been leading since Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Though there was great concern at the time about the cost of implementing the ADA, the law has helped to establish that providing access to the disabled is good for society … and good for commerce. More than 50 million Americans, and an estimated 10 percent of the world population, live with disabilities.
The wheelchair ramps, sidewalk cutouts and handicapped parking that have become part of the landscape in the U.S. are practically unknown in many parts of the world. Disabled Americans traveling overseas often encounter severe obstacles. In developing countries, children with disabilities go without even simple accommodations.
The U.N. treaty was negotiated under President George W. Bush and signed by President Barack Obama. It requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate to be ratified. That vote is expected to come Tuesday. It has substantial Democratic support and the backing of some prominent Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Bob Dole.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce favors the treaty, partly because its members already have invested in compliance with the ADA. The treaty would help level the playing field with companies operating abroad. It also would open new markets to American businesses that have developed accessibility products and technologies.
But Senate approval is no sure thing. Former Sen. Rick Santorum has emerged as the most vocal opponent.
The chief concern raised by opponents is that the treaty could undermine U.S. sovereignty by subjecting this nation’s practices to scrutiny and to new international standards. For instance, some parents who home-school children with disabilities fear they could face new requirements.
The treaty contains broad language supporting economic, social and cultural rights. But there is no reason to think the U.N. would or could use these general sentiments as the basis for punitive action against home-schoolers, or any other particular group of Americans.
The conservative Heritage Foundation points out that since the treaty requires no new laws in the U.S., America has nothing substantial to gain by joining it. So why take a risk, the thinking goes, on opening the door to unwanted U.N. meddling in domestic affairs?
The risk of such meddling is extraordinarily low. The potential to improve the lives of people with disabilities in other nations around the world is quite high. The U.S. should sign on. Senators, strike a blow for disability rights from Argentina to Zambia: Vote “yes” on the U.N. treaty.