Our government’s continued refusal to consider sending the 2008 UN Convention on The Rights Of Persons With Disabilities for ratification places us in a position in which we’re one of the few countries in the world which has not ratified the convention.

Current Federal, state, county and city laws throughout the U.S. have been in full compliance with many of the terms of the 2008 Convention On The Rights Of Persons With Disabilities for many years.  We’re one of only a handful of countries in the world that has not ratified this treaty.  In 2012, the U.S. Congress voted not to ratify this treaty.  The vote was very close, ratification failed by only 6 votes. 

Laws in the U.S. regarding the rights of people who are physically handicapped, visually impaired or blind, hearing impaired or deaf, as well as people who are developmentally challenged are have been more advanced than comparable laws in many countries since this treaty was first written in 2006.  

With regard to mental health issues such as depression and schizophrenia, the mental healthcare system in the U.S. is not in compliance with this convention.  It is debatable whether conditions such as depression and schizophrenia fit within the legal definition of a “disability” as defined in the terms of this convention, and this is a particularly complex issue because the ways which those conditions are defined and the ways which doctors diagnose those conditions keeps changing in different countries.  I will discuss this further in the section of this article in which I discuss patients’ rights in hospitals in the U.S.  

A Brief History Of Federal Legislation Regarding Protecting The Rights Of People Who Are Physically Handicapped, Blind, Deaf Or Developmentally Challenged In The U.S.

Since the 1970’s, the U.S. has been ahead of many countries in terms of our legislation which is intended to ensure that people who are physically handicapped, visually impaired, hearing impaired as well as developmentally challenged have equal access to all facilities.  

The Federal government had been funding programs for the rehabilitation of military veterans who had been injured during the course of their military service since the 19th century.  There had been a limited number of schools for people who were blind or deaf in the U.S. since the nineteenth century.

During the course of the twentieth century, a number of Presidents had authorized funding for programs for people who were physically handicapped, blind, deaf or hearing impaired, as well as developmentally challenged, and there were also comparable programs which had been funded by state, county and city agencies in some states.  The first piece of Federal legislation which specifically addressed architectural features at the entrances of Federally owned buildings was the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968

In 1968, the Johnson administration enacted the Architectural Barriers Act, which stated that all Federally owned buildings were required to be easily accessible to people who are physically handicapped.  This act required that all Federally owned buildings, including government office buildings, buildings on military bases and military academies, museums, buildings in national parks, prisons, public housing, post offices, etc. have ramps in addition to the stairs at the entrances so that people who are in wheelchairs can easily enter into those buildings.  This law only applied to buildings which are owned by the Federal government, and it did not require that all older buildings be retrofitted, it only required that new buildings adhere to the standards. Throughout the latter years of the 1960’s and the 1970’s, many state and city agencies throughout the U.S. soon followed by enacting comparable requirements.

In 1978, the Carter administration created the National Council On The Handicapped, which would later become the National Council On Disability.  In 1986, under the Reagan administration, the National Council On Disability proposed the Americans With Disabilities Act.  This act was sent to both houses of Congress in 1988, and it was signed by former President Bush I in 1990.  The Americans With Disabilities Act is a very comprehensive act, it is intended to ensure that all Americans who are physically handicapped, visually impaired, hearing impaired or developmentally challenged have equal access to employment, and education opportunities throughout the U.S., and it also established the requirement that all buildings which are intended to be accessible by the public are easily accessible to people who are handicapped.  The ADA also established requirements for signs which are printed in braille in many kinds of buildings, and it established terms for audio guides for people who are visually impaired as well as for people who are hearing impaired.  

 The Americans With Disabilities Act was further amended in 2008 under the Bush II administrationThe ADA Amendments Act of 2008 further clarifies the legal definition of “disabilities,” and the 2008 amendment also includes terms extend the legal authority to interpret the ADA to three Federal agencies.

Most of the terms of the Americans With Disabilities Act are very similar to the terms of the U.N. Convention On The Rights Of The Persons With Disabilities

We’re In Compliance With The Terms Of This Convention Regarding Physical Disabilities and People Who Are Developmentally Challenged, But The Mental Healthcare System In The U.S. Is Not In Compliance With The Terms Of This Convention Which Address Patients’ Rights:

Article 14 of this convention, “Liberty And Security Of The Person” states:

“1. States Parties shall ensure that persons with disabilities, on an equal basis with others:

 (a) Enjoy the right to liberty and security of person;

 (b) Are not deprived of their liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily, and that any deprivation of liberty is in conformity with the law, and that the existence of a disability shall in no case justify a deprivation of liberty. 

2. States Parties shall ensure that if persons with disabilities are deprived of their liberty through any process, they are, on an equal basis with others, entitled to guarantees in accordance with international human rights law and shall be treated in compliance with the objectives and principles of this Convention, including by provision of reasonable accommodation.”

As I mentioned earlier, under the terms of this convention, it is debatable whether conditions such as depression and schizophrenia constitute the legal definition of a “disability.” This is a very complex issue because psychiatrists in some countries use the Diagnostic Service Manual to diagnose mental health issues, while the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems is used in other countries.  Because the definitions of these conditions change every time these manuals are updated, there is no clear answer as to whether depression and schizophrenia are included within the definition of a “disability” as defined in this convention.  

With specific regard to patients’ rights in the mental healthcare system in the U.S, hospitals do have a tendency to keep mental health patients locked in their facilities for far longer than necessary, this has been well documented since the latter decades of the 19th century.  Psychiatric hospitals and psychiatric units within hospitals also have a tendency to dangerously overmedicate some patients, this has been very well documented since the 1960’s.  

If we are to opt to include conditions such as depression and schizophrenia within the definition of a “disability,” then this is the area in which the U.S. is not compliant with the terms of the convention which address patient’s rights.  If the U.S. government were to ratify the Convention On The Rights Of Persons With Disabilities, patients’ rights groups could very easily state that conditions such as depression and schizophrenia should be classified as “disabilities” as defined in this convention, and that could potentially force the Federal government to overhaul the mental healthcare system in the U.S., which notably few politicians from the 2 major parties seem to be interested in doing anytime soon.

The 2008 Protocol To The UN Convention On The Rights Of Persons With Disabilities

There has only been one protocol to the 2008 Convention written so far.  Representatives at the UN wrote the Optional Protocol To The Convention On The Rights Of Persons With Disabilities at the same time that they wrote the convention.   This protocol establishes terms by which people and groups can file complaints when with the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities when they feel that a national or a local agency is either ignoring or violating this convention.  The protocol was signed in 2007 and it was entered into force in 2008 at the same time as the convention.  The U.S. has not signed the 2008 protocol. We’d need to ratify the convention before we can ratify this protocol, though we also do have the option to ratify the convention and opt not to ratify the 2008 protocol.

Why Does The U.S. Government Continue To Refrain From Ratifying This Convention?

This is not an easy question to answer.  As I’ve mentioned, former President Obama did attempt to send this treaty to Congress for ratification in 2012, and ratification failed by only six votes.  The terms of the treaty created the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which is a UN committee which is intended to ensure that all of the countries which have ratified this convention continue to remain in compliance with it.

One reason that it may be difficult to get Congress to approve ratification of this convention is that overhauling the mental healthcare system in the U.S. so that hospitals would be forced to comply with the terms of the convention which address patients’ rights would be a very lengthy process.  A number of writers for The Pavlovic Today have written articles about how the mental healthcare system in the U.S. often creates problems for patients rather than solve them.  In recent years, there have been quite a few memoirs published which have been written by people who have felt that they were harmed either by psychiatric hospitals or by psychiatric medications.  These issues absolutely do need to be addressed, however, this does not seem to be a high priority for many current politicians or for many of the candidates for the 2020 elections. 

A second reason that some members of Congress are hesitant to approve ratification of this convention is that some members of Congress also seem to feel intimidated by the idea of giving a UN committee the authority to inspect buildings throughout the U.S. to ensure that all buildings are compliant with the terms of this convention.

The Convention On The Rights Of The Persons With Disabilities In The 2020’s

This is not a “Democrat vs. Republican” issue, nor is this a “two major parties vs. the third parties” issue.  This is not even an American issue, this is a global issue. There are many thousands of tourists, students, business travelers as well as people who are visiting friends and family members from nearly every country in the world traveling throughout the U.S. on any given day.  Some of these people are physically handicapped, visually impaired, hearing impaired or developmentally challenged, and these people are very glad that there are ramps at the entrances to bus stations, train stations, airports, hospitals, colleges, universities, museums, libraries, parks, government buildings, office buildings, theaters, etc.  They are thankful that in many buildings, signs are in braille, and that there are audio guides for the blind as well as for the hearing impaired. Americans who are handicapped or disabled expect these same accesses when they travel to other countries. So, why not have ensure that these accommodations are required by international law? 

We’re Already In Compliance With Many Of The Terms Of This Convention, So Would Ratification Be A Symbolic Gesture?

As I’ve pointed out, if the U.S. government does opt to ratify the Convention On The Rights Of Persons With Disabilities, and also to possibly sign party to as well as ratify the optional 2008 protocol to this convention, that could force the U.S. government to overhaul the mental healthcare system in the U.S.

There is also another benefit to our ratification of this convention as well as the 2008 protocol, which I feel is equally important.  Our ratification of the convention and potential signing and ratification of the 2008 optional protocol would send a message to the rest of the UN member states that the U.S. is willing to be an active cooperating partner with regard to any future developments in international law regarding the rights of people who are physically handicapped, visually impaired, hearing impaired as well as the rights of people who are mentally handicapped throughout the entire world. 

There are presently many thousands of people who have worked in quite a few different fields who are presently working for both the Trump 2020 reelection campaign as well as for the 2020 Democratic Party’s 2020 candidates.  Is seems impossible that these people have never had friends, neighbors, family members or coworkers who are either physically handicapped, blind, hearing impaired, deaf or developmentally challenged. 

And yet the Trump administration has not made any statements regarding any intentions to consider resubmitting this treaty to Congress for ratification, and none of the Democratic party’s candidates seem to be proposing submitting The Convention On The Rights Of Persons With Disabilities to Congress for ratification, or at least none of them have mentioned proposing to submit this convention for ratification yet.  So far, I’ve not heard any of the third-party candidates proposing submitting this convention to Congress for ratification either. Physical and mental disabilities affect people who live in all regions of the U.S. as well as throughout the rest of the world, no political party has anything to gain by our continuing to wait to ratify this treaty. 

If you feel that this issue is important to you, the only way that we’ll ever get a President to submit this convention to Congress for ratification and the only way that we’ll ever get Congress to approve ratification is for you to talk or write to the candidates who are running for office.  

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...