While wheelchair accessibility is nowhere near perfect in the United States, the American disability community is truly lucky to have the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an achievement that shines brightly on the timeline of disability history in our country. However, for wheelchair users who aspire to travel the world, we often encounter prejudice and inaccessibility in other countries. Consequently, in 2006, in an effort to advance global disability rights, the United Nations adopted a treaty that employs the principles of the ADA, known as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, or Disability Treaty.
The Disability Treaty provides a framework for countries to protect the human rights of their citizens with disabilities by improving environmental and cultural accessibility. Seems incredibly important, right? And yet the U.S. – a country whose laws directly influenced the treaty, and that has served as a model for countless countries in implementing disability rights and improving accessibility – still has not proceeded with ratification.
Though the U.S. lags behind, 143 countries have already ratified the Disability Treaty. But there is still a dire need to vastly improve quality of life and ensure basic human rights for the global disability community. So, you might be wondering why the U.S. has not welcomed with open arms a treaty with the admirable intent of serving as a guide for disability rights.
Unfortunately, the first time the Disability Treaty came before the Senate, the 2/3-majority vote needed for ratification faced a major roadblock because five senators chose to vote “NO” over unfounded concerns regarding the effects of Treaty. Opponents of the treaty have resorted to fear-mongering, claiming that ratification will give the United Nations legal power to infringe upon the rights of parents who have children with disabilities, and will give the United Nations power to modify U.S. law.
Quite simply, none of the assertions being made by critics are true. The Disability Treaty does not and cannot require alterations to any laws, and it does not take away anyone’s rights. In fact, there are attachments known as Reservations, Understandings, and Declarations (RUDs) in place to be adopted with the treaty to ensure it will not negate U.S. legal authority or call for any changes to U.S. law. It’s a shame that false information to the contrary has thus far prevented ratification of a treaty that would do nothing but lead to positive change.
By signing on to the Disability Treaty, the U.S. will have the opportunity to build upon our current position as a leader in best practices of ensuring human rights for the population of people with disabilities worldwide. Moreover, we will have the privilege to take part in a global exchange of ideas about how to improve disability rights and accessibility.
And accessibility is a crucial issue that needs to be addressed across the globe, which is why all passionate travelers who have disabilities must absolutely get behind the treaty. Ratifying the Disability Treaty has the potential to make a world of difference for disabled world travelers.
Consider this story shared with me by Dr. Mitchell Tepper, a sexuality and disability expert who has traveled internationally to speak at conferences: Dr. Tepper is an incomplete quadriplegic and uses a power wheelchair. While on a five-hour layover in Holland, he entered a waiting area and was told his wheelchair would be brought to him. Instead, he was left sitting with all of his luggage in a standard airport wheelchair that cannot be self-propelled. Even worse, on his return trip, Dr. Tepper was faced with the same situation, but when he insisted he needed his power wheelchair so he could get himself to a restroom, his needs were denied.
This is unfortunately not the only time Dr. Tepper faced denial of his needs because of his disability. He conveyed to me that while attempting to board a flight home from India he was detained for several hours, prevented from getting on the plane because he did not have a companion traveling with him. Dr. Tepper had to prove that he was able to take some steps and demonstrate that he could get on to the plane, and it wasn’t until he finally got to speak to top management of the airport that he was able to board a flight to go home.
In addition to discriminatory treatment, troubles with inaccessibility abound while traveling. As an example, while I was traveling through Israel a few years ago, I experienced major difficulties using the bathrooms and showers in nearly every location. At most of the kibbutzim I visited (communes), I had to make the treacherous transfer from my wheelchair to an unstable plastic lawn chair to shower. And when I stayed in a hotel room that purported to be wheelchair accessible, my chair got stuck in the narrow glass entryway to the shower, so I risked falling just to get clean.
I also learned of struggles encountered by my friend Nicole, who uses a power wheelchair, while traveling in London. She explained: “I experienced a problem getting on the train in the underground. They claimed that it was accessible, but in reality, there was a huge step to get on the train. I had already purchased tickets so I had two guys lift my power wheelchair onto the train. The worst part of the ordeal was that the station that I arrived at had a sign warning disabled passengers about the step.”
Although these particular instances of discrimination and inaccessibility were occurrences while traveling, it is imperative to realize that what poses a challenge for a disabled traveler is an every day obstacle for citizens of those countries. The disabled populations in all countries deserve the opportunity to enjoy and explore the world around them. But all too often, it’s not a matter of barriers to leisure, but of barriers to the very act of living. This is why the U.S. simply cannot delay ratification of the Disability Treaty any longer. We must take our seat at the world’s table to continue as strong leaders in the movement for global disability rights.