Whose Rights Are They Anyway?



Americans with disabilities gained national attention in December when the Senate failed to adopt the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, adopted by 179 other countries. It was a disgraceful failure in a year marred by many Congressional failures.Ethan Ellis - Able Newspaper

Republicans cast all the “No” votes. Their reasons were ridiculous, if not absurd. Leading the opposition, Utah’s Mike Lee claimed it would prevent him from home-schooling his children. Former Sen. Rick Santorum claimed it would authorize abortion since it provides that all signatories be guaranteed the same level of care and some of them authorize abortion.

Some arguments made by Convention supporters were hardly more credible. Worse yet, they revealed an incredible ignorance of how limited the rights of people with disabilities are here and how hard it is for most of us to enforce them.

They claimed the Convention was based on the Americans with Disabilities Act and would extend those rights around the world. At the same time, they claimed the rights granted by the Convention were unenforceable and would not affect U.S. sovereignty.

Baloney. The ADA wasn’t the model for the Convention. In fact, George W. Bush discouraged American participation in drafting it and fired Lex Frieden, chair of National Council on Disability, when he did participate.

It’s true that the Convention has no enforcement procedures. However, its codicil requires the U.N. to investigate complaints of violations and make its findings public to embarrass offending countries.

The argument that really blew my mind, however, was that the Convention would protect Americans with disabilities traveling abroad. It’s not only false, it’s a stunning indictment of how few of us the law really protects.

Most of us can’t even afford to enforce our rights under the ADA at home, much less afford a Caribbean cruise or a trip to Europe. Most of us are poor – 80 percent of us live on less than $18,000 a year. It costs a lot to file a successful complaint. It’s a long, time-consuming process, often winding up in court and requiring a lawyer. How many of us can afford that?

Let’s face it. The ADA is for the well-off among us. The rest of us depend on the kindness of employers, restaurateurs and other businesses to benefit from it. Many don’t obey it because their chances of being caught are minimal and their chances of punishment are subminimal. No wonder a 2010 Harris Poll found 61 percent of us thought the ADA had made no difference in our lives and only 26 percent thought it had.. The ADA, like most public policies that affect us, are created by a small disability elite, law-makers, bureaucrats and providers. The rest of us are left out. If you want to know why and how you can help change it, let us know. That’s what this space is for.

Ethan Ellis is known for his incisive commentary on disability policy and politics. Before retiring at 77, he held a variety of positions, including President of Next Step; Exec. Dir. of the N.J. Council on Developmental Disabilities; Consultant to the Commissioner of RSA, U.S. Department of Education; Dir. of the N.J. Governor’s Task Force on Disabilities; Pres. of the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems; and Deputy Dir. of the Division of Advocacy for the Disabled for the N.J. Public Advocate.

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