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Improving Disability Rights in the United States

By Topher Taylor

Given the current COVID-19 pandemic and its particularly severe impacts on people with disabilities, what can be done to improve the protections and rights for disabled people in the United States? Since its adoption in 2006, many disability advocates have called for the United States to ratify The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which has already been ratified by 181 other countries. However, while the CRPD was modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Senate has failed to ratify the CRPD twice since President Obama signed it in 2009.

What explains the Senate’s failure to ratify the CRPD? Some have suggested that the CRPD is no different and/or not as comprehensive as the ADA, and thus the United States does not need to ratify the CRPD. However, the CRPD does expand on the ADA in several key aspects that seem valuable from a human rights perspective:

  1. CRPD defines disability not merely as a medical condition, but as a person’s interaction with various institutional and structural barriers in society that hinder their full and equal participation.

  2. CRPD focuses on promoting equal outcomes, not merely equal opportunities

  3. CRPD provides the right to reasonable accommodations to promote equality

  4. CRPD avoids portraying dependency as a negative value, but acknowledges the right to support and interdependence.

  5. CRPD is more comprehensive in its coverage of many facets of life, while the ADA primarily covers employment issues and access to public places.

Other possible reasons that ratification failed can be seen in concerns of Senate Republicans, who were the main dissenters to ratification. Mike Lee and Rick Santorum were two prominent voices who expressed several concerns including:

  1. CRPD would supersede US law and threaten US sovereignty

  2. CRPD would lead to easier abortion access

  3. CRPD would prevent parents from making decisions about their child’s education, by prohibiting them from homeschooling children

Are these the real reasons Senators voted not to ratify? Did Senators feel that the ADA was already good enough? Are Senators opposed to additional rights for disabled people? The answer may not be clear.

One point that may inform the answer is the existence of the ADA, the US’ signature disability rights legislation. This law, now in its 30th year, came about through the lobbying of domestic interest groups, not as a result of international agreements on disability, for there were none at that time. With this precedent, it seems the US’ failure to ratify the CRPD may not necessarily mean that the United States will neglect disability rights in the domestic sphere.

Indeed, when the US has ratified international human rights agreements, this has not always led to an improved human rights record. For example, the Convention against Torture, to which the US is a party, failed to change US actions because complying seemingly did not align with domestic interests. It was in the name of national security that the US has tortured prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, despite this being a clear violation of the Convention against Torture.

Thus, it seems premature to conclude that there is a causal link between ratifying an international human rights treaty and the improvement of human rights in the United States. On the other hand, interest groups bringing disability onto the policy agenda has led to improvement of disability rights in the past. Perhaps this is the key factor in improving disability rights.

Interestingly however, if domestic pressures in favor of disability rights are effective in advancing legislation and protections, then ratifying the CRPD may yet have a degree of utility for the United States. Human rights treaties can generate norms and promote ideals, which in turn can mobilize domestic actors to advocate for those ideals. This is a point made by political scientist Beth Simmons, who stated that international treaties can be effective when domestic groups have both a motive and a means for pursuing implementation.

In the case of the United States, those in the disability community will likely agree that there is certainly room for improvement. Thus, there is a motive. There is also a means, as the US is home to a vibrant civil society with many organizations active in promoting disability rights. It is likely that ratifying the CRPD would facilitate an environment for involved activists to pursue more comprehensive national disability legislation in those areas where the CRPD expands on the ADA.

That said, however, would disability rights be better served by pushing for CRPD ratification or by directly pursuing national legislation? The concerns of Senate Republicans are likely unchanged and the polarized political climate under Donald Trump may not be conducive to pursuing CRPD ratification. Trump has frequently opposed international agreements like the CRPD that may appear to undermine US sovereignty.

National legislation, while certainly still difficult, is likely a more attainable goal and many points could be adapted from the CRPD itself. There will undoubtedly still be considerable opposition in Congress regarding issues such as those raised by Senators Lee and Santorum during debates over the CRPD. However, concerns over sovereignty would be irrelevant, and rather than a two-thirds majority needed for ratification, a simple majority would be enough to pass a congressional bill. These two factors make national legislation easier to implement.

Finally, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, disability rights advocates may find a policy window opening as there has been greater publicity than normal regarding disability. If policymakers and society at large are shown the coronavirus’ particularly harmful impacts on disabled people and the shortcomings of current disability laws, then expanded national protections for disabled individuals is a possibility. Those with an interest in disability rights should use this moment to encourage Congress to propose new disability legislation.


Topher is a Master of International Affairs candidate focusing on politics and Southeast Asia. He is passionate about conflict engagement and human rights. He graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor’s degree in geography.


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