Kathy Bates
The UN flag emblem

Hey Kathy,

I read your “From Where I Sit” blog post in December, concerning the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. You mentioned the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and I was surprised that the U.S. still has not ratified it. Why do you think this is? 

Jason Alexander Smith

Thank you, Jason, for asking the question that has been on the minds of many people in the disability community.

To recap, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is a United Nations international human rights treaty, designed to protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities. It was adopted on September 13, 2006, and opened for signature in March of 2007. It was modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act, our civil rights legislation for people with disabilities. The CRPD treaty has 50 different articles. Eight guiding principles were considered during its creation, and these are:

  1. Respect for inherent dignity, freedom to make ones own choices, and independence.
  2. Non-discrimination.
  3. Full and effective participation and inclusion in society.
  4. Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity.
  5. Equality of opportunity.
  6. Accessibility.
  7. Equality between men and women.
  8. Respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and the protection of their identities.

“This extraordinary treaty calls on all nations to guarantee rights like those afforded under the ADA. It urges equal protection and equal benefits before the law for all citizens; reaffirms the inherent dignity and worth and independence of all persons with disabilities worldwide.”

- President Barack Obama

The CRPD was signed by President Obama in 2009. By signing it, the president made it clear that the United States supports and believes in the purpose of the disability treaty. Ratification of the treaty would mean that the United States would be able to provide technical support to other countries regarding their disability laws and programs. This would be great because the United States has always been a leader in the area of disability rights, and we should share our knowledge with the world.

Signed treaties must be ratified by at least two-thirds (67 members) of the United States Senate. A vote on the CRPD in December 2012 fell five votes short. The treaty requires no changes to U.S. laws or new appropriations (expenses). It is hard to understand why the Senate has never finalized the vote.

Before he retired, Tom Harkin addressed his colleagues in the Senate about their issues concerning the ratifying of the CRPD. When I met him at a conference in Washington D.C., he told everyone that he wanted to continue to push for U.S. ratification of the CRPD treaty.

There are many reasons why the CRPD has not been ratified. In my reading, I examined several reasons. One reason the treaty has not been ratified is that some legislators are concerned that our Constitution would be contradicted or even disregarded if it were signed. Every ratifying nation has the power to include Reservations, Understandings, and Declarations (RUDs), which inform other nations as to how they will adopt the treaty. The treaty is not legally binding, but it does carry a lot of moral weight. The extent to which we follow the guidelines set by the treaty would be determined by our legislature and our Constitution. Tom Harkin mentions in his video that what makes the Senate hesitant to ratify is the UN Committee of Experts. As with every other treaty that is ratified, a committee of experts is formed every four years to review each nation’s progress on the treaty and see how it is being adopted. The committee can then make recommendations for improvement. This does not seem at all invasive. This is simply how the United Nations checks to make sure that a country is following through on its promise.

Secondly, some lawmakers may have an issue with the CRPD concerning reproductive health.

Article 25 states that “persons with disabilities have the right to enjoyment of the highest standard of health without discrimination based on disability.” In the area of reproductive health for women with disabilities Article 25 provides women with disabilities “the same range, quality, and standard of free or affordable healthcare and programs as provided to other persons including sexual and reproductive health.”

Some representatives may feel that Article 25 creates and expands a woman’s right to an abortion. Tom Harkin says this is completely untrue and unfounded. Article 25 is about access and equality to healthcare on the same level as any other woman in a ratifying country. It was written this way because many women who experience disabilities around the world have been denied basic healthcare, especially reproductive healthcare such as PAP smears, mammograms, and even the right to motherhood. Article 25 can also bring attention to the issue of sexual violence against women with disabilities around the world. According to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), one in five women has a disability and is 10 times more likely to experience sexual violence than women without disabilities.

In my search to answer Jason’s question, I would often find articles and videos where those opposed to the CRPD would say “Why should we bother signing on to this? We have the best disability rights laws in the world.” This upsets me.

In January of 2024, 37.8% of working-age adults with disabilities were employed as opposed to 74.2% of non-disabled people. We might have better access to education, healthcare, and housing, but the disability community still experiences a lot of inequality. Is the ADA a great start? Absolutely, but we must build upon it! The CRPD is about extending basic human rights to the global community, and ratification is another avenue to expand global awareness of the importance of disability rights.

“And it’s an opportunity to continue our nation’s tradition of advancing important human rights protections, as we did with the Rehabilitation Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the ADA, and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 — all signed by Republican presidents.”

-The United States Still Hasn’t Ratified the Disability Rights Treaty,
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Issues in the U.S. Ratification Debate (PDF)