On the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the U.S. remains one of a handful of countries that have not ratified the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) — an international treaty the U.S. legislation inspired.
The ADA, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, prohibits discrimination based on disability in public accommodations, employment, transportation and community living, and provides recourse for people with disabilities who faced discrimination.
"It's hard for the newer generation to imagine the injustices suffered before the ADA," President Joe Biden said Tuesday in a House Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus event to celebrate the ADA's anniversary. Biden, who is still in isolation from his COVID-19 diagnosis, delivered his remarks virtually.
"If you're disabled, stores can turn you away, and employers can refuse to hire you. If you use a wheelchair, there was no accommodation to take the bus or train to school or to work. America simply wasn't built for all Americans," Biden said.
The administration on Tuesday announced $1.75 billion to make it easier for people with disabilities to get on board the nation's public transportation systems, including $343 million to help agencies retrofit train and subway stations built prior to the disabilities act.
During the caucus event, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats will not give up trying to ratify the CRPD. A National Security Council spokesperson told VOA the administration "would certainly support its ratification."
However, with only 48 Democrats and two independents in the 100-seat U.S. Senate, and an urgent legislative agenda in the pipeline, it is unlikely that the Biden White House will take up the matter anytime soon.
Global disability movement
Since its passing, the ADA has inspired disability laws in various countries and sparked a movement for disability rights around the world that culminated in the CPRD. The U.S. also provided technical assistance during the convention's negotiation and drafting process.
The CPRD came into force in 2008 and was signed by President Barack Obama in 2009. But in 2012, it fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority required for the U.S. Senate to adopt it, largely due to a reluctance to submit to international law on a domestic policy matter.
Out of 193 U.N. member countries, 185 have ratified the CRPD that aims to promote, protect and ensure full and equal enjoyment of all human rights for persons with disabilities.
"We're always very much open and honest in recognizing we haven't ratified the CRPD," Sara Minkara, special adviser on international disability rights, told VOA.
Minkara, who is legally blind, leads the Office of International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State, which promotes the rights of persons with disabilities around the world through American diplomacy and development aid. The position was created under the Obama administration, and her office was made permanent by the Biden administration last November.
In various countries, views on people with disabilities often fall between pity or inspiration from their suffering, Minkara said, and those extreme narratives contribute to societies leaving people with disabilities behind.
"We need to normalize disability. We need to change how we look at the word disability. We need to change how we look at disabilities and identities, not from a pity lens but from a strength and value-based lens."
The administration says it supports "disability-inclusive development and humanitarian action" around the world.
However, there is no mechanism to ensure full disability inclusion in U.S. foreign assistance, said Eric Rosenthal, executive director of the advocacy group Disability Rights International.
"You can offer your assistance and say our assistance is available to all people, but the truth is, people with disabilities have a hard time finding the aid," Rosenthal told VOA. "There has to be more active outreach efforts."
People with intellectual disabilities, psychiatric and psychosocial disabilities are particularly vulnerable, Rosenthal said. In many places, they are often stripped of legal rights and put away in institutions.
"There are very serious human rights violations against them in most countries, and the advocacy movements are usually way behind the advocacy movements for other disability groups," Rosenthal said. "So, that's an example of a very at-risk group that needs to be targeted for more attention."
Disability Rights International and other groups have endorsed a concept for a U.S. bill to support the efforts of disability advocates worldwide to stop children with disabilities from being institutionalized, where they often face serious neglect and abuse.
Katherine Gypson and Cindy Saine contributed to this report.