US role as leader on disabilities issues weakened by legal lag

US Senate fails to ratify Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – The US Senate voted 61-38 Monday against ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The vote follows criticism from the World Blind Union (WBU) in Geneva over slowness on the part of the US to embrace a treaty for people who are blind or have other print disabilities.

The WBU says the US is now isolated, following a meeting in Geneva at the end of November. “With the WIPO Extraordinary General Assembly in three week’s time tasked with agreeing the nature of the new law (treaty or non-binding soft law), the nature of that law is a pressing concern for disability activists. Historically, WIPO only deals in treaties to protect publishers’ rights. WBU is urging negotiators to afford them the same level of protection for the human rights of blind people.”

Geneva-basd IP Watch reports that “The treaty is vital, said Chris Friend, head of the WBU’s Right to Read campaign, because, ‘We need those provisions to clearly permit cross-border sharing of accessible books both between organisations and directly from organisations to blind or print disabled individuals. We reject complicated requirements for checks on whether the books are commercially available. Such procedures would sacrifice the usability of the treaty on the altar of publisher reassurance.'”

The Senate vote on the convention appears to have had more to do with complacency than opposition to measures to protect people with disabilities. Sixty-six votes were needed to ratify the convention, signed by the US in 2009.

Ironically, it is based on the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and “the US provided important technical assistance during the convention’s negotiation and drafting process,” according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Like the ADA, the treaty embodies the basic principles of individual dignity and autonomy, non- discrimination, full inclusion and participation in society, equality of opportunity, accessibility, and respect for difference. The core protections of the treaty are the same as the protections in the US law, and the legal standards articulated by the treaty align with US disability law.”

HRW called the Senate vote “a big step backwards” after noting that “US leadership has been influential in putting disability rights issues on the international agenda. “Ratifying the disability rights treaty would have built on the US commitment to the values embodied in the Americans with Disabilities Act and provided the framework to advance and promote the rights of people with disabilities globally.”

The ADA was the first major piece of national legislation in the world to address systematically the discrimination, barriers, and challenges faced by people with disabilities, according to HRW. “The US set out a vision for empowering people with disabilities to achieve economic self-sufficiency, independent living, full participation, and inclusion and integration into society.”