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My Vote on the “Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities”

Dec 4, 2012 | Blog

My late grandfather was one of the most influential people in my life. Until his death when I was 13, “Papá” was a mentor who spent countless hours on our front porch with me discussing history, politics and baseball. As a Cuban immigrant, he knew how special America is, and it’s one lesson from him that I will never forget.

Papá was also my hero for the way he lived his life. Stricken by polio as a boy, he would be disabled for the rest of his life.  He would often walk miles to work at a cigar factory to provide for his family. Because of his disability, walking was difficult for him and he would often return home at night with his clothes dirty from repeatedly falling to the ground.  But he kept getting up, and lived a life that I admire and will never forget.  Because of him, I knew from a very early age the inherent dignity and beauty evident in every disabled human being on earth, whether they were born with their disability or developed it in the course of their lives.

The landmark Americans With Disabilities Act enshrined into law many fundamental rights to help disabled people live better lives.  As Americans, it should make us all proud because it is one reason the United States has set the gold standard in the world for disability rights.  It has helped demonstrate to everyone else one more dimension of our exceptional people, by ensuring that our disabled brothers and sisters have better opportunities to rise above their physical limitations to stake their claim on the American Dream.

As the Senate considers the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities today, it’s important to note that a failure to approve it would in no way diminish what we have accomplished in America on disability rights, just as its passage would not improve the laws affecting Americans with disabilities.  Furthermore, nothing on this treaty compels other nations to raise their standards or in any way improve the care they afford to persons with disabilities.  Therefore, I stand in opposition of its ratification today.

The treaty’s supporters have argued that its passage will elevate disability rights abroad, to the benefit of disabled people not fortunate enough to live under laws like ours and also to disabled Americans when they travel. However, the United States already promotes disabled rights and better laws abroad through the State Department and our foreign embassies.  The Americans With Disabilities Act (and subsequent improvements to it) should be the law upon which other countries base their own laws protecting their disabled people and aiming to make their lives better.

I believe America’s example should lead the way on achieving stronger universal disability rights instead of the United Nations, the governing body entrusted to oversee this treaty’s implementation. The American example of millions of disabled Americans living their dreams is a stronger force to compel other countries to do the same than a United Nations body populated by such chronic human rights abusers as China and Russia, nations that fail to respect the fundamental rights of everyone, much less their disabled.

When this treaty was originally negotiated, a bipartisan consensus existed that this treaty would not address abortion. This is an appropriate position when you consider that, too often, unborn children in the United States and across the world are aborted because their disabilities have been detected while in the womb. When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee debated this issue in July, I offered an amendment to make clear this Convention does not create, endorse or promote abortion rights as reproductive health.  I made clear its intent was not to change U.S. domestic laws on this matter. All my proposed change did was state very clearly that, at the end of the day, this Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is about protecting persons with disabilities, regardless of their stage in life.  Because this important change was not adopted and for all the reasons I’ve outlined here, I cannot support Senate ratification of this treaty.