New Generation of National Leaders Needed to Support Disability Rights Convention

February 8, 2013

by Gary C. Norman, Esq. L.L.M. Mr. Norman, an attorney partnered with a guide dog, is an Associate Civil Rights Commissioner. He is the Co-founder and Vice President of the Mid-Atlantic Lyceum, a new non-profit whose purpose is, while fostering, developing, and including, disabled leaders, bringing diverse perspectives (the left and the right) together to inform a better society. These views are solely of the author.


The founding documents of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution do arguably espouse, whether in explicit or implicit terms, the notion that, farmers and pharmacologists, instead of useless kings and nobles, ought to be empowered to self-rule.  President Obama sagaciously reminded citizens in his inaugural words: that the principles of the founding documents are timeless and universal; however, they are not self-executing.  To encapsulate the sentiments of President Madison, governments are necessary because humanity is far from being angelic in its pursuits.  As an example, the United States Senate did not ratify last December an international disability rights instrument. As such, collective action, including by leaders with disabilities such as this author, is required to advance broad civil rights, such as are contained in or should be contained in the foundational documents.

The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities has the goal of improving the inclusion and integration of the world’s largest minority – the disabled – in civil society.  There are, by all estimates, one billion people with disabilities on the globe.  In the United States, the disabled constitute an emerging powerful base for Democrats in that there are some 56 million of them.  For much of history, people with disabilities have been excluded from the mainstream.  Even among the disabled, some subpopulations are said to be doubly disadvantaged, e.g. women and girls with disabilities.  In addition to its myriad provisions ranging from education to health care, and from technology to transportation, which seek to eliminate this exclusion; the Convention has a corollary instrument called the Optional Protocol.  The Convention has the goal of equalizing opportunity, not outcome.  As the editorial board of The Washington Post implicitly or explicitly contended in Dec. 2 editorial, the United States Senate should ratify the Convention for a range of reasons, which include, but are not limited to, the countless human capital that is lost abroad and even here at home when people in wheelchairs cannot access civil society or a disabled child has limited, if non-existent educational opportunity.

A bipartisan list of American leaders, such as then Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) supported ratification of the Convention, given that its language is congruent with the spirit, if not the text of, the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The United States International Council on Disability (Council) issued a release, applauding the Republican senators who bucked the status quo for folly within the Republican caucus. The following Republican senators, besides McCain, also supported ratification: Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-Tenn.); Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine); Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska); former Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who is a newly installed Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States; and former Sen. Olympia Snow (R-Maine). Of all republics, or so called republics, even China has ratified the Convention. The average city dweller reposing at a local pub would think ratification of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities should have not been fraught with controversy.

Bipartisan support of the Convention would not be sufficient to advance its ratification in the Senate.  A super majority of sixty-six votes is required for ratification of international instruments.  Alas, the Convention received sixty-one votes, falling five votes short of the required super majority.  Arguably, the extreme right of the political spectrum, as represented by flagging leaders, such as 2012 Republican Presidential primary candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), vocally opposed and helped quash what should have been, to utilize the colloquial, a no brainer.

Despite its bipartisan support, thirty-eight Republican senators voted no to ratification. Not a shocker, prominent congressional conservatives, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah, former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Sen. Rand Paul (R-K.Y.), and Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.)  opposed the Convention, claiming its ratification would violate American sovereignty. An article in the National Review recounted the words of Sen. Lee, “We don’t think that it’s appropriate for the United States to be answering to a U.N. convention based in Geneva, Switzerland, when we are the leader of the world on this issue, as we are on so many other issues.” The President of the Council, Marca Bristo, stated, “This campaign for ratification brought together a powerful coalition of over 300 disability and 21 organizations, only to have 38 Senators tell us that our rights, protections, and dignity are not important to them.” Clearly, a new generation of leaders is needed; it is incumbent for leaders with disabilities to ensure that, in the 2014 mid-term electoral cycle, pro-disability representatives are elected, and that as many of them as possible be persons with disabilities.

To ensure that international instruments, such as the Convention, which the vast majority of the world supports, are ratified in the future, not to mention holding true to the foundational documents, people with disabilities must be part of our republic’s leadership.  Actualizing the founding documents into daily experience for the disabled is perhaps more difficult when there is a dearth of elected and appointed leaders with disabilities. There should be a national training for leaders with disabilities on campaigning for office and the Democratic Party on the national, state, and local level should proactively recruit and involve leaders with disabilities.  In the interim, as training is planned and executed and leaders with disabilities are recruited and elected, leaders with disabilities will be chagrined when asked why 38 senators failed some 56 million disabled citizens.