As the 112th Congress drew to a close last winter, nearly two-thirds of the U.S. Senate voted to ratify an international treaty that would help ensure millions of people with disabilities around the world have basic rights, open markets to American business abroad, and reassert the United States as a global leader on disability rights. Even though this treaty is inspired by American law, the treaty failed to pass by a mere five votes.
The reasons for the Senate’s failure to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an international agreement based on the Americans with Disabilities Act, appear to be rooted more in politics than any pure policy-motivated opposition. The Senate will have another chance to get it right this fall, and it’s vital that this time, the Senate vote “yes.”
The importance of the Convention cannot be overstated: The treaty promotes, protects, and ensures the rights of all who have disabilities, and would thus serve to begin the hard work of evening the playing field for the world’s largest minority — one in six people, more than one billion, have a disability.
More than 130 countries have already ratified the Convention, which commits these nations to passing and strengthening laws to promote the rights of people with disabilities. The United States was the first nation to pass a comprehensive disability rights law, the ADA, and our delay in ratifying this treaty sends the wrong message to the world and to Americans with disabilities.
Fifty million Americans benefit from the ADA, and ratifying the disability treaty would further protect their rights when they work or travel abroad. Additionally, as the treaty leads to more rights and access in other countries, American expertise and technology that improves the lives of people with disabilities will be in higher demand abroad, expanding markets for American products and businesses.
These are among the many reasons that the disability treaty has broad bipartisan support in the Senate, is endorsed by more than 500 disability organizations and 22 veterans’ groups, and not just the usual progressive suspects. It also enjoys the backing of two Republican leaders I had the opportunity to work for, President George H.W. Bush and former Sen. Bob Dole.
These leaders understand that all people should have the opportunity to achieve economic self-sufficiency, enjoy equality of opportunity, and participate fully in society. Ratifying the disability treaty will expand the global dialogue on these issues, and American leadership in this dialogue is essential.
Jewish tradition stresses the equality of all people before our Creator, and the obligation we share to help facilitate the full participation of everyone in public life. In the Talmud we read: “Do not scorn any person, and do not discount the importance of anything. For there is no person who does not have their hour, and there is nothing without its place.”
This is also a time at which the United States and entire global community face extraordinary challenges. Our lawmakers have much on their minds and agendas; understandably, some issues may be more urgent than others.
But it’s worth remembering that many of the people living with disabilities today had their lives changed irrevocably in paroxysms of violence. As Dole and the five million American veterans with disabilities can attest, for far too many people, the effects of war go on long after the wars themselves end.
“You shall not insult the deaf,” reads Leviticus, “or place a stumbling block before the blind.” In Judaism, we understand this to mean that we must actively remove the stumbling block, actively work to uphold those who need upholding.
The Senate must ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as soon as it can be considered. This treaty is good for American citizens, for American business, for American values and leadership, and for millions across the globe. It is, simply put, the right thing to do.
A version of this piece originally appeared in The Hill.
William Daroff is the senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America.