Bipartisan Legislation for the Rights of Disabled People

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SEATTLE, Washington — Promoting the rights of disabled people is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outlined by the U.N. The interests of disabled people are mentioned in SDGs in areas of promoting education, economic growth, sustainable cities and data collection on development progress. However, achieving progress on the SDGs by advancing disability rights requires cooperation and leadership from influential individuals on the international stage.

Recently, the U.S. signaled a willingness to lead the international community on promoting the rights of disabled people. In June, Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV1) and Rep. Don Young (R-RK0) introduced bipartisan legislation designed to further include the interests of disabled people in U.S. foreign policy. The bill in its current form is called the Office of International Disability Rights Act. Before diving into exactly how the bill would get the U.S. more involved in promoting disability rights around the world, it is useful to understand how the interests of disabled people have historically been addressed on the international level.

The History of International Disability Rights

Soon after its creation in 1945, the U.N. took an interest in the rights of disabled people. In the 1950s, the U.N. Economic and Social Council adopted a resolution that promoted increased awareness of disability issues. In the 1970s, the U.N. issued its first declarations that specifically dealt with people with disabilities: the Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons in 1971 and the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons in 1975. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was adopted by the U.N. in 2006 and was the first treaty that specifically focused on people with disabilities.

The CRPD provides the most comprehensive framework for promoting disability rights internationally. It acknowledges that disabled people are entitled to the same human rights and freedoms as everyone else. It establishes protections for disabled people in employment, housing, political life and other areas. The CRPD requires signatory countries to adopt laws that protect the rights of disabled people and to abolish those that discriminate against them. In the 10 years following the U.N.’s adoption of the Convention. Thailand, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Malawi and Swaziland have all passed laws protecting disability rights. Currently, the U.S. has signed but not ratified the CRPD.

The Office of International Disability Rights Act

On June 20, 2019, Rep. Titus (D-NV1) and Rep. Young (R-RK0) introduced the Office of International Disability Rights Act to the House of Representatives. The bill has been sent to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but it has yet to be discussed and voted upon. The act would direct the Secretary of State to create the Office of International Disability Rights, which would be placed within the State Department’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

The office would “coordinate efforts of the United States Government, as directed by the Secretary, regarding human rights for persons with disabilities and advancing the status of persons with disabilities in U.S. foreign policy.” The office would be managed by a special advisor for International Disability Rights, who would be “a person of recognized distinction in the field of disability rights.” This advisor would serve as the chief advisor to the State Department on matters related to disability rights. The advisor would conduct regular meetings with civil society groups concerned about international disability rights

The office would have several responsibilities, including ensuring that disability-inclusive practices and the empowerment of disabled people are included in all U.S. foreign operations. It would ensure that abuses against people with disabilities are documented and included in State Department reports on human rights progress. This office would also advise the Department of State’s Bureau of Human Resources Development on hiring and recruitment practices for civil and foreign service officers with disabilities. Additionally, the office would require the State Department to adopt a formal disability inclusion policy and require mandatory disability inclusion training for all civil and foreign service personnel.

Skopos Labs data currently estimates that the Act has a 49 percent chance of being enacted. With bipartisan support for the bill, Rep. Young is optimistic about the potential good that the bill could do. In a press release, Young stated, “It is critical we work together to defend the inherent worth and dignity of all people, particularly those with disabilities.” If the Act does pass, it will signify a newfound commitment by the U.S. government to lead the international community in addressing the rights of disabled people around the world.

– Andrew Bryant
Photo: Flickr

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