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Overlooking the difference between human rights and civil rights

From Marta Russell's dispatch from the United Nations Ad Hoc Committee Meeting on Human Rights and Disability

The disability movement has been thrown a challenge by the Bush administration. How shall we set our international agenda? This administration's perception that the nation has provided a law that will "seamlessly integrate" disabled Americans into society is to belie our reality.

The 2nd Session of the Ad Hoc Committee groups' work is to come up with an acceptable proposal for a comprehensive and integral international Convention to promote and protect the human rights and dignity of disabled persons.

The Chairman of the Committee, Ambassador Luis Gallegos of Ecuador, is fully supportive of a disability-thematic Convention but to obtain a Convention, consensus must be had. That generally means that a majority of the member states must give it a green light. It was disheartening for me, as an American, to see the United States on the third day of proceedings not come out in full support of a Convention.

Congress made an effort to see the disability thematic Convention issue was raised in its chambers last week. Senator Harkin garnered support for a Resolution in the Senate, for instance, and there was a similar bipartisan measure in the House. This morning, however, the Bush administration did not echo their complete support.

Ralph Boyd, the US Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights appointed by President Bush, laid out the administration's position. Couched in reminders that the U.S. has already made efforts in the arena of civil rights to bring disabled persons into the majority society, he offered member states assistance and U.S. expertise but followed with a caveat "not with the expectation that we will become party to any resulting legal instrument."

Boyd stated: "It is the position of the United States today that, given the complex set of regulations needed to canvas this broad area, and the enforcement mechanisms necessary to ensure equal opportunity for those with disabilities, the most constructive way to proceed is for each Member State, through action and leadership at home, to pursue within its borders the mission of ensuring that real change and real improvement is brought to their citizens with disabilities."

Before leaving LA, I was interviewed by a member of our disability press. Thirteen years after its passage the chief question was "Is the ADA dead?"

There has been widespread consensus that the ADA has suffered tremendous setbacks some scholars call a "backlash" and taken a beating in the courts. No doubt others interviewed will say yes with qualifiers; improvement has been made but not what we hoped for, especially in employment.

This administration's perception that the nation has provided a law that will "seamlessly integrate" disabled Americans into society is to belie our reality.

Across the nation in some cities disabled Americans still cannot get on a public bus or participate in the political process by attending local government proceedings.

On my way to an appointment this morning in east Manhattan my path was blocked at 53rd Street where I could not cross the street at Park Avenue because there was no curb cut. The sidewalk was top-of-the-line granite, beautiful but useless.

Yesterday I went to an Internet cafe because I needed to spend some time online. Each one of the three entrances had a barrage of steps leading to the plaza above the street where all the shops were located. There was no accessible entrance. I could not conduct my business in commercial New York without running into noxious time delays and frustration!

On my way there, I saw that a vast majority of stores were built up from the street -- one, two, or three steps up -- some requiring only a minimal ramp. At my hotel the ramp is not built to code. It is so steep that a doorman must assist all the wheelchair users staying here each time we wish to leave or enter the building. If this is accessibility, then what is Mississippi like?

This is a long way of saying that enforcement of "the well developed legal protections" is overlooked when the U.S. overrates the disability laws of the land. One can say the same about IDEA, housing discrimination, transportation and many other arenas we know too well.

Do we disabled Americans have it made when it comes to our rights? I cannot believe that we believe we do. If so, we are kidding ourselves.

Significantly, the administration seems to have chosen to overlook the difference between human rights and civil rights. Civil rights are only one aspect of the human rights agenda. The Human Rights framework includes cultural, social, political, civil and economic rights.

There are 28 of them listed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Article Number 5, for instance, states "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment." It is a different dialogue and the international community seems ready for it. Why isn't the United States?

As I see it the disability movement has been thrown a challenge by the Bush administration. How shall we set our international agenda? How shall we meet that challenge? How shall we impress upon our elected leadership that it is time for a universal scope?

The process to get an international agreement that would hone in on some missing pieces is in the works.

There are over 56 million disabled persons in our nation alone. Internationally, there are more than 600 million, the vast majority living in extreme poverty, many subjected to degrading and dehumanizing conditions. We need to show solidarity with them, but understand that in doing that we are improving our position, as Americans, in the world as well.

Contact your national, state and local representatives and educate them on our efforts to secure this vital Convention.

For more information on the convention efforts, visit:

Marta Russell, AAPD International Human Rights Advocate, can be reached at Russellmarta@aol.com

Posted June 19, 2003

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