Disability rights advocates push for accessibility treaty

Republican opponents fear treaty will extend to other issues

(REUTERS/Jason Reed)
(REUTERS/Jason Reed)

WASHINGTON — To Iowa’s disability rights advocates, the United Nations Convention On The Rights Of Persons With Disabilities means the world — literally.

Even though the U.S. Senate has delayed a ratification vote for the international treaty until this fall or winter, advocates in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines say the fight for persuasion is continuing now.

“It’s about seeing things being done for people with disabilities,” said Michelle Ray-Michalec of Cedar Rapids, who chairs the Iowa Commission of Persons with Disabilities and is the area’s representative to the commission. “This is a group of people that are very, very important, and many times they are forgotten. The discussion that extends from this really matters.”

Among the unfinished business that senators left behind in Washington at the end of July, the treaty has been championed for decades by Iowa’s retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. It’s modeled after the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act that Harkin himself pushed through Congress.

Harkin said the original ADA treaty “really did change the face of America,” from curb cuts at traffic intersections to workplace accommodations that are now commonplace.

The international treaty would establish similar standards regarding accessibility and rights of access to other countries around the world. It has already been signed by 146 countries, including the European Union. Drafted in 2006, the treaty was signed by the United States in 2007 and sent to the Senate by President Barack Obama.

Iowa’s disabled community call the treaty vitally important. Many have reported problems traveling or vacationing outside the U.S. Ray-Michalec, for example, said her own commission members have reported problems with Iowans traveling with service animals, prosthetic limbs and diabetic insulin pumps, among other aids.

Jane Hudson, executive director of Disability Rights Iowa, said disability rights is also about global attitudes.

“If you have a standard that says, ‘All people with disabilities are entitled to this,’ then I think it strengthens people in Iowa who are trying to assert their rights — that this is a norm, a given, just as people should not be discriminated against on the basis of color,” Hudson said.

The treaty suffered a critical blow in December 2012, when the Senate fell six votes short of ratifying a previous version. All 38 ‘no’ votes were from Republicans, who were concerned about the treaty’s effect on U.S. sovereignty, home schooling rights and pro-choice.

Prominent Republican supporters of the treaty were unable to convince their colleagues — including former Senate Republican Leader and 1996 presidential nominee Bob Dole, whose efforts to sway critics fell short even as he wheeled through the halls of the Senate in a wheelchair. The party’s 2008 presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, also urged support, noting that the ADA law was first signed by GOP President George H.W. Bush in 1990.

This time around, Democrats in the Senate added language to the U.S. clarification of the treaty that was aimed at easing Republican concerns, essentially establishing that the treaty had no effect on existing U.S. law.

To Becky Harker, executive director of the Iowa Developmental Disabilities Council, another failed Senate vote on ratifying the treaty could mean the loss of U.S. leadership on disability rights that began with the ADA.

“The U.S. has been a leader in this,” Harker said. “We have an opportunity to be a role model for other countries and with people who can make a difference internationally.” …”

McCain, a former U.S. prisoner of war who was left partially disabled by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, told The Gazette he still remains worried that not enough Republicans will come on board. “That’s what’s got to work,” he said. “Veterans and the disabled community are all behind it, but right now it’s not going to happen.”

One colleague McCain will need to persuade is Iowa GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, who opposed ratifying the treaty in 2012. “I have serious concerns about infringements upon U.S. sovereignty by a committee tasked with providing criticisms and recommendations to the United States on our disability laws,” Grassley said.

However, Grassley also left the door open to a change of mind.

“I’ve heard from Iowans both for and against this treaty who feel strongly about it,” he said. “I’ll continue to weigh their views.”

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