Teachers College Conference: New Hope on Rights for the Disabled
Coming in a motorized chair via subway to speak at the Teachers College Conference “When Worlds Collide 2012: Ongoing Challenges of Special Education,” David Morrissey brought optimism and hope. Executive Director of the United States International Council on Disabilities, an NGO in Washington, DC, Morrissey is a leading advocate for the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Explaining that the treaty has led to the disabilities rights movement “exploding around the planet” with 153 countries signing and 110 countries ratifying it so far, he is campaigning vigorously for US ratification. To “sign” the document means to show support, to “ratify” means to commit to making it legally binding.
Barack Obama signed the Convention in 2009, making it the first UN treaty to be signed by a US president, but getting it ratified is more of a challenge as this country is traditionally wary of accepting laws made outside our country. (For example, the US has not signed the UN Treaty on the Rights of Women or the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.) The US does have the Americans With Disabilities Act (1990), but some say ratifying the UN treaty would give broader protections and demonstrate American leadership in the area.
Morrissey is hopeful of eventual Senate approval because “disability knows no party, no religion, no race,” and it is possible to attach “reservations” and “understandings” to a treaty before signing that protect a nation’s laws and interests. Morrissey suggested all politicians need to make some gestures toward bipartisanship and, “Because it is so universal, disabilities become a convenient bipartisan space. . . Unanimous consent would be a tremendous affirmation and message to people with disabilities.”
The Convention, which was drafted with full participation of people with many types and stages of disability, covers all aspects of life and sets a benchmark standard of general human rights, not new or special rights. Article 24, which covers Education, mandates a universal right to education without discrimination and lifelong learning with full development of human potential. It calls for changes on the ground for children with disabilities and individualized support and use of mechanical aids to achieve potential. Access to tertiary and vocational education must be assured, and skills recognized and opportunities offered. Reasonable accommodations must be made for people with disabilities.
There are 93 to 150 million disabled children in the world and, depending on their culture, many are unlikely to start or stay in school leading to poverty and dependency as adults. The treaty has been embraced by many developing nations that see it as an aspirational part of their development.
Despite increased awareness of the needs and rights of the disabled around the world, Morrissey admits that changing attitudes is slow and meaningful progress takes time. Employment rates for the disabled in this country have not improved in twenty years, even though new technologies support people in the workplace as well as children in school. Morrissey reports that about 1 billion people in the world (15 percent) are disabled, and the number is growing due to better reporting, aging, and more chronic, rather than fatal, diseases. He believes an international protocol like the CRPD gives an important message to the world: the disabled must not be invisible, and they have needs and rights that must be met. #