Wash. Times Fearmongers Over UN Disabilities Treaty That Is Similar To U.S. Law

The Washington Times yesterday published a misleading account of a United Nations treaty that seeks to promote equal rights for people with disabilities, arguing that it threatens U.S. sovereignty. In fact, this interpretation amounts to nothing more than fearmongering since what the treaty calls for, non-discriminatory treatment of people with disabilities, is already U.S. law.

In the piece titled “Does The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities void US sovereignty?” Washington Times Communities columnist Bryana Johnson claimed that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities voids U.S. sovereignty because of a clause in the treaty that she claimed “demands that all American law on the subject be conformed to the standards of the UN.”

In fact, the treaty demands -- to use Johnson's word -- that we meet our own basic human rights standards and not discriminate against the 56.7 million Americans currently living with a disability.

Article 4 of the treaty, which Johnson cited as raising “the sovereignty issue,” states:

1. States Parties undertake to ensure and promote the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities without discrimination of any kind on the basis of disability. To this end, States Parties undertake:

a.     To adopt all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in the present Convention;

b.    To take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices that constitute discrimination against persons with disabilities;

c.     To take into account the protection and promotion of the human rights of persons with disabilities in all policies and programmes;

d.    To refrain from engaging in any act or practice that is inconsistent with the present Convention and to ensure that public authorities and institutions act in conformity with the present Convention;

e.     To take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination on the basis of disability by any person, organization or private enterprise.

Indeed, U.S. law already meets the standards the treaty requests. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) “prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, State and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.” If a law, policy, or program is found to be discriminatory, the government has the power, through the Department of Justice, to enforce the ADA on both a private and public level.

Thus signing the treaty would merely reaffirm the U.S. commitment to equal rights. As former Senator Bob Dole and former Congressman Tony Coehlo argued in The Hill, “Since the U.S. has been a leader in ensuring rights for individuals with disabilities, ratification does not require changes to laws in the U.S. Ratification would signal to the world that the U.S. is committed to international standards for disability rights and will play a leadership role in implementation of the treaty obligations.”

More than 120 nations have ratified the treaty, and though the United States signed it in 2009 and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved it, the Senate has been unable to obtain the required number of votes to push it through. It is likely that a vote may occur this month.

Johnson's piece also echoed a Times editorial from September 11, which warned that the “United States could soon find itself taking orders from international bureaucrats on how to treat people with disabilities.” Both Johnson and the Times editorial cited Michael Farris of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association to back up their claims. The HLDA argues that the UN treaty would mean “every home owner would have to make their own home fully accessible to those with disabilities” and “the government--and not the parent--would have the ultimate authority” to choose how a child with disabilities would be educated.

In fact, the treaty specifically states that the accommodations requested would only be mandatory if they do not impose "a disproportionate or undue burden," and under current U.S. law, parents are authorized to appeal any administration decision regarding their child's education. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees parents “can request a due process hearing and a review from the State educational agency if applicable in that state. They also can appeal the State agency's decision to State or Federal court.”

The Washington Times has previously been criticized for its writing on disability rights. An editorial it published on August 22 titled “Holder's 'severe mental deficiency'” was called "hate speech" by the National Council on Independent Living, as it “unnecessarily demeans and mocks people with disabilities.” The editorial inaccurately described the new Department of Justice initiative to hire individuals with disabilities:

You don't have to have a severe intellectual disability to work at the Justice Department. But it helps.

According to a July 31 policy memo titled “Hiring of persons with targeted disabilities,” otherwise problematic mental deficiencies are no barrier to jump-starting a career at Justice. The memo lists a number of “targeted disabilities” that trigger special hiring privileges in compliance with President Obama's Executive Order 13548. Among them are people with “severe intellectual disability,” “psychiatric disability” or other undefined “current severe physical, intellectual or mental conditions.” Most employers would balk at even minor mental disabilities in hiring a lawyer, let alone severe ones. But the policy states that the Cabinet department run by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. must “achieve a work force from all segments of society,” which includes those who are teetering on the edge of sanity.

Attorney General Eric Holder also criticized the editorial as “ill-informed, offensive and a stark reminder that persistent prejudices and stereotypes remain too prevalent in our society and must not go unchecked.”