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The ‘No’ Vote on the UN Disabled Rights Treaty, Explained

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The Senate voted not to support a UN treaty upholding the rights of people with disabilities. The treaty was modeled on a U.S. law, and 126 other countries voted to support it. Why didn't the U.S.? What does it mean? And if you care about disability rights, what can you do? Take a look.

What the disabilities treaty is:

The issue here is what's called the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Here, "convention" means treaty, or agreement, among countries. The purpose of the UN disabilities treaty is to reaffirm a commitment to the rights of disabled people.

For a country, signing it doesn't give the disabled any new legal rights - it means the government is committing to provide disabled citizens with legal rights. And it empowers the disabled to take action when their rights are being violated.

The treaty outlines its purpose:

The purpose of the present Convention 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.

And it defines the disabled:

Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

The convention covers specific rights for the disabled, like:

  • Equality overall, with special attention to equal treatment for disabled women and children.
  • Accessibility.
  • Right to life.
  • Protection in emergency situations like natural disasters.
  • Protection against being tortured or abused.
  • Treatment with dignity and respect.
  • Independence.
  • Free speech and access to information.
  • Right to privacy, health care, and education.
  • Opportunities in sports and leisure.
  • Political involvement.

UN member countries had to decide, individually, whether to ratify the treaty or not. In the U.S., that meant that two-thirds of the Senate had to vote yes. That vote failed, 61-38, even though existing U.S. law is very similar to the UN treaty.

What U.S. law is:

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 with this goal:

"the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities”

The law defines disability as an individual having:

(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual;
(B) a record of such an impairment; or
(C) being regarded as having such an impairment

The law's "general rule" is this:

No covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.

In practice, the ADA facilitates access to public places and facilities like public parks and the transit system.

Beware Wheelchairs

It also provides guidelines that private companies must follow, like making websites accessible to the blind and the deaf.

More examples of what the ADA provides for:

  • Providing deaf job applicants with a sign language interpreter at the interview.
  • Allowing an employee with disabilities to take regularly scheduled work breaks for nutrition, blood sugar monitoring and other related needs.
  • Reading important information aloud to a blind employee.
  • Giving an employee with a serious health issue like cancer to take a leave for necessary medical treatments.

Before the vote - and since the vote - there's been a lot of discussion about it and why it wasn't ratified and what it means.

Opposition to the treaty:

Strong opposition came from parental rights and homeschool groups. They were concerned that signing the treaty would take power away from parents and put it into the hands of the government and international authorities.

Opposition also came from those who are skeptical of the United Nations and believe treaties like this one undercut America's power over its own laws and independence - often referred to as U.S. sovereignty.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah articulated opposition to the treaty on the Senate floor:

One of the leading voices against the treaty was Rick Santorum, a former senator who ran for the Republican nomination for president (he ultimately lost to Mitt Romney, who ran against Obama and lost) and who has a disabled daughter.

After the vote, Santorum tweeted his reaction:

Support of the treaty:

Advocates for the disabled, including veterans' groups, wanted the U.S. to vote yes on the treaty.

In the Senate, that included John Kerry and John McCain, who are both military veterans.

Senator Kerry spoke at length about his support:

Bob Dole - a Republican and disabled veteran who was once his party's majority leader in the Senate and who ran against Bill Clinton for president - appeared on the Senate floor to ask for yes votes.

Democrats and other advocates argued that there was no reason to worry about weakened parental rights or U.S. sovereignty. But in the end they didn't have the votes.

Afterward, Jon Stewart took Republicans to task for opposing it:

What it means not to have signed the treaty:

People who were against the treaty say the vote sent a strong message to the United Nations about not interfering with countries' own laws and legal system,

People who favored the treaty say it's a missed opportunity for the U.S. to be a moral leader in the world, to set an example for other countries - and that it sends an unfortunate message to the disabled about the government's commitment to their rights.

What do you think?

The Kicker

If you care about the rights of the disabled, here's what you can do:


Join the Changing the Face of Beauty campaign on Facebook >>


Write a blog post for Voices of Youth about disabilities and rights >>

Write to your congressperson about the Keeping All Students Safe Act >>


Volunteer to help a disabled veteran >>

Get involved with the American Association of People With Disabilities on campus >>

Apply for the Disability Rights Legal Center's Young Professionals Board >>

Images used under Creative Commons licensing.

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The ‘No’ Vote on the UN Disabled Rights Treaty, Explained

Holly Epstein Ojalvo

Holly’s mission is to inform, inspire, and empower engaged activists who will change the world. She was previously an editor at The New York Times and a high school teacher. She spent her brief 20’s slump at a mousepad factory. Holly earned a B.A. at Lafayette College and M.A.'s at U Delaware and NYU. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, daughter, and cat, Tomie Twotone. Follow: @heoj.

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  1. […] Being neither a doctor nor an American I don’t feel qualified to speak about their legal or medical processes, although if you want to know more about the bill of rights is explained beautifully here – with explanations and clips of opposing aguments: GoKicker blog. […]