On Wednesday, Dec. 5th, I defended my dissertation which asked the following question: “Why is the U.S. an innovator in disability rights?” Although I could not help but rethink my answer to this question in light of the Senate voting against ratifying the U.N. disability treaty the day before, I still posit that the U.S. was an innovator on disability rights compared to other western industrialized countries.
Without getting into the history of disability and disability rights in America, it is important to note that political entrepreneurs played a critical role in the late 1960s and early 1970s in reframing disability as a minority group entitled to rights. Before the late 1960s, the disability policy community – or what I consider a policy monopoly – was composed mainly of a few political elites, health and rehabilitation processionals and incumbent groups (like March of Dimes and Easter Seals) which occupied a stable but small part of the policy agenda. This policy monopoly was not particularly interested in promoting rights. Through entrepreneurship and innovation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, rights-based language made its way into the Rehabilitation Act which was originally intended as an amendment to extend already existing vocational rehabilitation policies and programs. At this time, a nascent disability rights movement made use of this political opportunity to mobilize around a new policy with rights-based language.
Ironically, the Convention was actually modeled around the American approach to disability rights. Collins, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, mentions Senator John Kerry’s position on the matter. Kerry “kept pointing out during the debate, this is a treaty to make the rest of the world behave more like the United States.” But more importantly, the U.N. has no really sanctioning capacity which is also why, in part, so many countries are signatories. Nonetheless, the Convention, while limited in what it can do materially for persons with disabilities, it does have symbolic importance in that it is a way for nations to declare their support for disability rights: something the U.S. government initiated forty years ago.
What is interesting here is that there was no clear opposing frame against disability rights-based legislation in the U.S. until it became obvious that unlike other groups, rights for persons with disabilities would come with some cost. Thus, some politicians would later use cost as a way to justify their opposition. But this too was problematic because it essentially implied that extending rights was conditional on how cheap it was. Later with the ADA, some opponents framed their dissent around the idea that the ADA was simply another form of regulating employers and limiting their rights. This was a fairly effective frame, given that courts since the ADA have tended to rule in favor of employers. So how are detractors framing their position today? There are seemingly two related frames. The first was best expressed by Rick Santorum, who claims that ratifying the U.N. Convention would take away authority from parents (he is specifically referring to the part of the Convention that states that “The best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”) Others have focused on the Convention as posing a threat to U.S. autonomy and sovereignty. Whatever the case, Senators were quick to proclaim that this was not a vote against persons with disabilities or their rights.