So, What Has Obama Managed to get Done? Ask U.S. Disabled

At last, the United States is part of a UN strategy to stop discrimination

Published On Sat Feb 20 2010
Kathleen Kenna Special to the Star

Being blind doesn’t bother 30-year-old Bryan Garaventa. It’s how others perceive him that’s annoying.

“People see you and they see your disability, not the person,” he says from his home in Pacifica, Calif. “It’s basically ignorance – they think if you have
a disability, you’re not capable of thinking.”

Blind from a gunshot wound at 14, Garaventa hasn’t let his lack of vision prevent him from becoming a computer programmer and poet.

He designs programs that improve computer accessibility for users of all abilities.

And Garaventa is waiting for the day when the social stigma of disability disappears.

One signature last summer renewed his hope that that might actually happen.

While President Barack Obama continues to struggle with war and recession, his administration has been working quietly on less high-profile issues that
have the potential to change the world.

Years of lobbying by disability-rights advocates had failed to persuade the Bush administration to sign the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 2006.

But six months after Obama became president, the United States became the 142nd country to sign the agreement, lauded as the first comprehensive human rights treaty of the 21st century.

The convention aims to end discrimination against people with disabilities, and to ensure equal access to education, jobs and other opportunities long denied them in some parts of the world.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Garaventa said. “This could change the social stigma of disability forever.”

Enforcement of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act has lagged behind its powerful language, but it’s now hoped the UN convention will lead to better
implementation of all disability-related laws, advocates say.

The Obama administration’s push on civil rights for people with disabilities could also heighten public awareness at a time when two wars and an aging population is leading to a larger population of disabled people. It’s estimated 54 million Americans have a significant disability, whether physical, psychological, sensory or intellectual.

U.S. Department statistics indicate the official unemployment rate for the disabled is 14 per cent (the figure is based on people collecting unemployment
insurance benefits and so isn’t reflective of so-called discouraged workers – those not seeking work or who are under-employed).

Experts say the jobless rate among Americans with disabilities is actually far greater, perhaps as high as 30 per cent.

Canada was among 82 nations signing the convention on March 30, 2007, the first day it was open for signature. Every other major country has signed the treaty, including India and China.

The U.S. had balked at signing, partly because of an aversion to being monitored by international bodies, and partly because of a belief that its laws on
disability issues are solid compared to most of the rest of the world.

Until last summer, the lack of a U.S. signature was “an international embarrassment,” according to Andy Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, the largest disabilities group in the U.S

But now, after years of knocking at the doors of power in Washington, prominent disability advocates echo Garaventa’s joy at a White House committed to civil rights for all.

“There is no question that this is the first administration in my 35 years in this field to put this kind of emphasis on disability rights,” says Carl Augusto,
president and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind.

Kareem Dale, special assistant to the president for disability policy, and other White House officials have already contacted disability-rights advocates
more times “than the last three or four administrations combined,” Augusto says.

But this is not a Democrat nor Republican issue: It was George Bush Sr. who signed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, dramatically changing rights and protections for people with disabilities in the U.S.

That law has changed the physical structure of America – think curb cuts and wheelchair-accessible buildings – as well as helping reform attitudes.

And now Obama promises to take things further. “President Obama pledged a new level of U.S. engagement in the world, and this is one way he’s delivering on that vision,” says David Morrissey, executive director of the United States International Council on Disability.

The New York-based advocacy group sees the global disability community reaching “a new level of energy” in the wake of the U.S. signing of the UN treaty, he adds. “This convention is going to make a really profound difference” in improving lives of people with disabilities.

Already, it has launched an international collaboration among advocacy groups, so that American trainers are working in developing countries to show how “assistive” technology, for instance, can be used to improve accessibility.

Lawyer Rhonda Neuhaus, project manager of Making it Work, a new program developed by Handicap International, has worked in El Salvador on boosting employment for women with disabilities, and in Colombia on improving laws to let people with intellectual disabilities live independently. She’ll soon be in Guatemala helping non-profits make public transportation more accessible.

“All the rights are interchangeable,” she says. “How do you have the right to go to work if you can’t get to work?”

It’s “remarkable that that so many developing countries have signed and they don’t have laws on the books” protecting the rights of people with disabilities, Augusto observes.

“In Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, where we have laws relating to people with disabilities, it’s important to take the lead to show developing countries how it works … showcasing that people in the U.S. and Canada are fully integrated.”

Augusto’s recent tours of Caribbean nations to meet with blind citizens showed their employment is “appallingly small,” he says. “There are few laws banning discrimination (against disability).

“Society needs to get a wake-up call for people with disabilities to achieve equality: Employment is one of the biggest issues separating people with disabilities from the non-disabled,” says Augusto, president of the North American/Caribbean Region of the World Blind Union.

A key strength of the convention is its goal to change attitudes about disability. In many countries, disabled people are ostracized and barred from employment. Women, especially, are shunned because of physical or intellectual disability in countries where they’re considered a burden because they’re deemed less likely to earn an income, marry or care for children.

The UN estimates that 90 per cent of children with disabilities in developing countries don’t attend school. The treaty aims not only at equality of access
to education, but also at full inclusion in society for people with disabilities.

The treaty “represents a major paradigm shift in the way people with disabilities are viewed around the world,” says Joan Durocher, senior attorney/adviser with the National Council on Disability in Washington, D.C.

The council is an independent, federal agency composed of 15 members appointed by the president and charged with promoting policies and practices guaranteeing equal opportunity for people with disabilities.

The UN convention moves the focus from the old “medical” model to the social: People with disabilities are no longer “objects of charity and pity” but are
regarded as autonomous beings who can make their own decisions about what they need and want, Durocher says.

“It’s an issue of civil rights. Take education – children with disabilities have a right to education, everywhere, the same education as everyone else.

“This is far-reaching. It will make an enormous amount of difference in health care, in education, in accessibility.”

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