Senate rejection of disabilities convention is shameful

The failure of the U.S. Senate to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities marks a new low.

The treaty, which was written by disability activists from around the world, is a far-reaching and thoughtful document. But it is purely symbolic.

Its chief value is that it provides a legal and moral framework for activists to push for disability rights legislation and policies in their own countries. If it had been ratified it would have made little or no immediate difference for people with disabilities in the United States.

Ratification would have basically just stated the moral concurrence of the government and citizens of the United States with the principles of the treaty. The vote should have been routine.

But Rick Santorum, the social conservative who lost his bid for the Republican presidential nomination this year, complained about an “offensive” provision in the treaty. It reads: “In all actions concerning children with disabilities, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” This, Santorum wrote, threatens parental rights because it puts “the government, acting under U.N. authority, in the position to determine for all children with disabilities what is best for them.”


Does Santorum really believe the hidden agenda of the treaty is to empower the United Nations to swoop in and seize custody of his disabled daughter or anyone else’s?

Bradley Mattes, president of the International Right to Life Federation, was freaked out by another provision that declared that disabled people have the right to “free or affordable health care, including the area of sexual and reproductive health and population-based health programs.” He said it “intentionally sacrifices the most vulnerable — the disabled and the unborn — all in the name of population control.”

So Santorum, Mattes and others on the far right told their base to hound their senators into opposing the treaty.

Eight Republican senators voted for ratification. Republican statesmen like George H.W. Bush and Robert Dole passionately supported the treaty.

This was not a case of Republicans versus Democrats. This was the right-wing fringe versus everybody else.

During the election campaign, the far right demonstrated its contempt for the rights of women, gay people and Latinos. It holds the rights of people with disabilities in equal contempt, and now that is on display, too.

The Senate vote was a slap in the face for the 54 million Americans with disabilities — and for all Americans who expect our country to stand up for basic rights.

Mike Ervin is a Chicago-based writer and a disability-rights activist with ADAPT ( He can be reached at

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