Kerry Seeks To Extend Protections Of Disabilities Law Beyond U.S. Borders

By Lisa Hagen
BU News Service

Sen. John Kerry
Sen. John Kerry

WASHINGTON–Marking more than two decades since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that was sponsored by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to ensure equality for people living with disabilities, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is seeking to extend the work of his former colleague by ratifying a treaty that would guarantee those same rights worldwide.

The Treaty on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – which would set international standards, and seek to provide disabled Americans with equal rights and accommodations when they travel, live, or study abroad – was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Mr. Kerry chairs, in late July.

Mr. Kerry is hoping to move the treaty through the full Senate for ratification during a post-election, “lameduck” session that begins Tuesday.  A couple of Massachusetts groups that represent disabled individuals are pushing for the treaty ,and have lined up bipartisan support –including from Mr. Kerry’s current Massachusetts colleague, GOP Sen. Scott Brown.

“This is about who we are as Americans,” Mr. Kerry added in a statement. “We lead the world to make sure people are treated with dignity and respect. This is the right thing to do.”

According to a spokesman for Mr. Kerry, Alec Gerlach, the senator has been “shepherding” the treaty since 2009, when it was drafted by the United Nations and later accepted by U.S. officials. However, until this past spring, it was at a bureaucratic standstill due to U.S. interagency review, Gerlach added.

He noted that, to date, 153 countries have signed on to the treaty, while 115 of these have ratified it..

Leo Sarkissian, executive director of the Arc of Massachusetts – a group which works to oppose discrimination against those with intellectual and developmental disabilities – said his organization contacted Mr. Kerry late last spring to arrange a hearing on the matter in the Foreign Relations Committee.

While acknowledging it was “a “tough timeline to get it done,” Mr. Sarkissian added, “We knew the senator and his team would be responsive and we worked with a national group on this issue as well as our national office…We got the word out to our constituents asking them to encourage him.”

Once a hearing was officially scheduled,  Mr. Sarkissian said his organization broadened its lobbying efforts, since Mr. Kerry was seeking a particular vote count in favor of the treaty to expedite it being brought to the Senate floor.

Mr. Kerry noted that the treaty has the support of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a fellow Vietnam War veteran who was the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. “It is also strongly supported by Republicans like President George Herbert Walker Bush, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, and former Attorney General [Richard] Thornburgh who, alongside Senator Kennedy, made the ADA a possibility,” Mr. Kerry noted.

Another Massachusetts-based organization — the Independent Living Center of the North Shore & Cape Ann – has been promoting the treaty both around the state and throughout New England, according to Executive Director Mary Margaret Moore. For the past 25 years, the group has been advocating for the rights of the disabled along with providing peer counseling and seeking to further independent living skills.

With almost 20 percent of the population living with disabilities, Ms. Moore said her group’s role also extends to helping disabled women and ensuring that they are “valued citizens.”

Although Ms. Moore said Sen. Brown was “on the fence” about the treaty for two years, he now supports it according to Marcie Kinzel, his communications director.  Mr. Brown, while defeated for re-election this past week, remains a voting member of the Senate through the end of the year.

“Senator Brown is a strong supporter of ensuring equal opportunities for all and supports bringing international standards in line with existing U.S. law,” Ms. Kinzel said in a statement.

Alluding to possible obstacles to Senate passage of the treaty, Mr. Kerry cited the need to “overcome treaty-phobia” on the part of some senators. He said that ratification of the treaty would not necessitate any changes to existing federal or state law.

“By joining the treaty, we would help set the tone for countries across the globe, be in a position to apply pressure to those that have neglected individuals with disabilities, and help countries better understand their obligations,” Mr. Kerry contended.

He said the treaty also would “set an example for the rest of the world” especially when disabled servicemen and women and veterans are traveling. After their commitment to military service, ““we owe it to each of them to fix this,” Mr. Kerry said.

Declared Ms. Moore: “The fact that Kerry got it through the committee in the Senate is a major feat and we really appreciate his work. Civil rights are not an easy fight. It’s already been 22 years since the ADA was passed, but there is still not full handicap accessibility in our home communities.”

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