Lawrence: Disability treaty needs support

Lawrence: Disability treaty needs support

January 20th, 2014 By Jean-Marie Lawrence in Opinion Columns

According to the Princeton Review, the number of U.S. students studying abroad has almost doubled over the last decade. As a student six years ago, I caught the travel bug and joined a group of more than 30 from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on a research trip to the South Pacific.

For two weeks we traveled to Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Hawaii. While this trip was one of the best experiences of my life, it was not without challenges. Studying abroad had been a goal of mine since enrolling in college, but there were some obstacles that made me question if I could achieve it. I have muscular dystrophy and have used a wheelchair for most of my life. While there is still much work to be done in the U.S., I live a luxuriously accessible life in America compared to millions of people with disabilities in other countries. With no expectation of reasonable accommodations or accessibility in many foreign countries, I had no idea how to make my goal to study abroad a reality.

I shudder at the thought that countless individuals with disabilities are unable to travel because so many countries remain inaccessible. It is even harder for me to consider the everyday limitations for those citizens with disabilities who live in countries without curb-cuts, without ramps, without elevators.

When President Obama signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), I was ecstatic. Too many governments are struggling with the realization that their citizens with disabilities can contribute to society, but society remains ill-equipped to accommodate them. It is up to innovative countries like ours to offer our assistance and expertise.

The CRPD is poised to do just that. It is an international disability treaty that is intended to establish the basic civil rights of people with disabilities around the world. It was written based on the Americans with Disabilities Act, but is non-executing, which means that it would not change any of our United States laws.

I waited last year, hopeful that Congress would encourage the breaking down of barriers for people with disabilities by ratifying CRPD. It failed by only six votes.

Since then, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee including the ranking member, Sen. Bob Corker, have been working to settle issues with it. However this December, Sen. Corker turned his back on millions of Americans with disabilities, refusing to continue discussing the legislation in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As a member of his constituency and a person with a disability, I am upset that he is ignoring this opportunity.

Why? Arguments against the treaty have been consistently repudiated, including during the two hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this fall.

I feel that remaining opposition to the disability treaty represent excuses for denying Americans with disabilities the freedom to travel without fear. They are excuses for turning our back on other countries seeking help to improve the lives of their own citizens with disabilities.

When will Congress realize that we are in a position to lead?

Now is the time to take the bull by the horns, Sen. Corker. Continue the negotiations for CRPD and legitimize the rights of people with disabilities on a global scale. Show the world we know how far we've come, and encourage other countries to follow suit.

Jean-Marie Lawrence is a disability rights advocate and was Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee 2012.