Possibilities of ADA — Harkin

Senator Tom Harkin images at different ages in his history of service.

Dear ABILITY readers,

Thanks to the progress we’ve made since passing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) more than 20 years ago, millions of people have grown up proud of who they are, confident that the doors of opportunity are open to them. This landmark legislation was a major victory for equality, and helped to change the lives of millions of Americans who endured years of discrimination.

The ADA—America’s first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities—also established the United States as a world leader in protecting the rights of people with disabilities. It created a model for other countries to follow as they work towards inclusive societies free of physical and attitudinal barriers.

America’s support for disability rights inspired a global movement that led the United Nations to adopt the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD). Through its adoption by countries around the world, the CRPD has the potential to improve protections for people with disabilities everywhere.

In addition to calling on countries to promote, protect, and ensure that people with disabilities enjoy full equality under the law, the CRPD has already begun to transform the way people with disabilities are seen. Just as the ADA helped to change Americans’ attitudes towards people with disabilities, the CRPD is helping people globally to see friends, families and neighbors who have disabilities as full and equal members of society, deserving of fair treatment and equal opportunity.Building on the work of the ADA, this vital treaty would help ensure that people with disabilities can enjoy equal access around the world. Joining the 145 countries that have already ratified the CRPD would not only benefit them, but also it would make it easier for Americans with disabilities, including veterans with disabilities, to travel, study, and live abroad.

Many of the protections Americans with disabilities now enjoy, thanks to the ADA, do not exist in other countries. By ratifying the treaty, we can ensure that America has a seat at the table as countries around the world determine the best ways to make progress and remove barriers for all people.

Despite the fact that an American delegation working for George W. Bush negotiated and approved the CRPD, the treaty fell six votes short of approval when it came up for a vote in the Senate. Failing to promote and protect the rights of persons with disabilities was both inexcusable and embarrassing. I am hopeful, however, that the Senate can correct this grievous error by again taking up and ratifying the CRPD this year.

The reasons for ratifying this treaty are abundantly clear, but are perhaps best expressed by those who have the greatest personal stake in its approval by the Senate.

The personal story of Terhas Clark, a young woman who uses a wheelchair and interned in my office, speaks compellingly to the critical need to promote disability rights around the world.

Growing up in Ethiopia, she was denied access to primary school. When she came to the US, the ADA made it possible for her to access all aspects of life, including higher education. She’s said that earning her degree was “the most incredible moment” of her life. She is now home in Ethiopia working to advocate for people with disabilities, and writes the following:

“Even today, teachers refuse to teach students with disabilities. They believe that the students are cursed by the devil, which is what they used to say about me as a child.”

Terhas also explains how important access to public transportation is, saying that, thanks to the ADA, she was able to get around easily in the US. Without the CRPD in place, things are very different in other countries:

“In Addis Ababa,” Terhas went on, “I am completely denied access to transportation, and I have no legal basis to demand equal access to it. Every day, I see blind people, wheelchair users, and deaf people denied entry onto the buses. Lack of transportation for people with disabilities makes it impossible to function in society.”

More than anything else, the ADA helped Terhas to feel “fully human” when she was in this country, she said:

“As a person with a physical disability, who travels, and currently lives in Ethiopia, the only place in the world that I have felt fully human was in America. The American society views people with disabilities as people. So often while I have been in Ethiopia, the people automatically view me as inferior.”

Her story is not unique. To help this promising young woman and millions like her around the world, we must continue our leadership to ensure that they have a bright and promising future. We must ratify the CRPD this year.

Sharing personal stories of the millions of people with disabilities whom the CRPD would help is a powerful way to raise our voices and ensure that this treaty is ratified. That would send a powerful message to countries around the world that it’s not okay to refuse to educate children because they are blind or deaf or use a wheelchair. We can say that it’s not okay to prevent people with disabilities from voting, getting married, owning property, or having children. This is a matter of basic human rights, and now is the time to act so that we can extend the promise of the ADA to people with disabilities around the world. Together, I know we can ensure that the CRPD is ratified and made a reality.

Tell me your story on why Congress should ratify the CRPD by visiting:


Senator Tom Harkin

Senator Tom Harkin (DIA) is Chairman of theSenate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee


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