Disabilities Expert Michael Stein Dissects the Making of a UN Treaty

One Key Nation, the United States, Still Missing in Action

HARTFORD, CT, December 5, 2012 – A veritable alphabet soup of developed nations – France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and the United Kingdom, among them – as well as developing nations – including Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali and Namibia – have enacted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was adopted on December 13, 2006 and open for signing on March 30, 2007.

So far, 155 countries have signed the groundbreaking treaty and 126 nations have ratified it. One key nation has yet to hop on the bandwagon – the United States.  Although President Barack Obama signed the treaty in 2009, the U.S. Senate hasn’t approved it, according to Michael Stein, co-founder and executive director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability and Cabell Professor at William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, VA.

Stein, who was not a member of the U.S. delegation to the Convention but who attended the eight ad hoc negotiating sessions and provided legal advice, spoke about the disability rights treaty Monday, the kick-off event to Human Rights Week on the Trinity campus. Stein, who uses a wheelchair, offered an insightful and, at times, wry perspective on the UN Convention and the status of disabilities law in the U.S. and around the world.

In essence, the Convention is meant to be a human rights instrument with an explicit social development dimension. It adopts a broad categorization of persons with disabilities and reaffirms that all persons with all types of disabilities must enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms. It also clarifies and qualifies how all categories of rights apply to persons with disabilities and identifies areas where adaptations have to be made for persons with disabilities to effectively exercise their rights, areas where their rights have been violated, and where protection of rights must be reinforced.

Notwithstanding this country’s failure to ratify the treaty, in 1990 Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a wide-ranging civil rights law that prohibits, under certain circumstances, discrimination based on disability. Because of the ADA, ratification of the treaty by the U.S. Senate would not require changes to U.S. law or new appropriations.

(A day after Stein spoke at Trinity, a U.S. Senate vote to ratify the treaty fell short, with the measure receiving 61 votes, six less than the 67 needed for ratification. Senate Republicans largely led the effort to defeat the treaty. For example, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-OK, voted against the treaty because he said he opposes “cumbersome regulations and potentially overzealous international organizations with anti-American biases that infringe upon American society.”) 

Stein also described his experience as a student at Harvard Law School 20 years ago, which had no facilities for the disabled. When he complained about it to higher-ups, he was told he could attend Yale, where he had also been accepted. Today, Harvard’s law school has been transformed, thanks to the ADA, and people are incredulous when he talks about Harvard’s indifference back then.

Until recently, the generally accepted percentage of people with disabilities worldwide was 10 percent, a number that Stein believes should be met with skepticism. How did that figure come about? Some years ago, experts were trying to get an accurate count, so they got in touch with the World Health Organization, which had no idea. So advocates called Norman Acton, president of Rehabilitation International, who guessed 10 percent. That went unquestioned for years, although the percentage now used by advocates and organizations is the 15 percent benchmark used by The World Bank. That’s the equivalent of about 650 million people, Stein said.

As for the UN Convention, Stein cited many plusses and minuses in connection with the treaty, the ad hoc meetings that led to its adoption and the attitudes of many countries. The U.S., for example, took the position that disabilities was “not a matter of international law” and that it ought to be dealt with at the national level.

Interestingly, the UN was not even equipped to host a series of meetings related to the disabled. When the talks were going on, there were two handicap accessible bathrooms, one for men and one for women. If a delegate was sight or hearing impaired, “it was too bad,” said Stein.

Another interesting fact highlighted by Stein is that the word “disability” is not defined in the treaty. He called it “an evolving concept.”

Some of the more contentious debates involved the issues of educating the disabled, abortion rights, the meaning of “right to life,” health care and the right of people with disabilities to raise children without disabilities. 

Despite all of the problems and shortcomings, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities had 82 signatories of the treaty on the day it was adopted, the highest number of signatories in history to a UN Convention on its opening day.

In the end, it accomplished many important goals, said Stein, such as asserting “the right of people with disabilities to live in the world and the right to do what other people do every day of their lives.”