Fifty years ago today, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act -- landmark legislation that broadly outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It was the culmination of years of sacrifice by some of the bravest, most patriotic Americans of our time, who mounted a massive grassroots effort in the name of equality despite unimaginable odds. I was a junior at a high school in Brooklyn at that time, marveling at the movement that gave birth to a better America. What I did not realize was how it was to transform my life and my life’s mission on a very personal level.
In 1949, I contracted polio at a very young age. Suddenly, I was unable to walk and had to use a wheelchair for mobility. I was the only one in my family who had a disability. In those days, because of my disability, I was denied equal access to education. At the age of five, I could not attend my local public school and was expected to be satisfied with my “good fortune” when the New York Board of Education sent a teacher to my home for 2.5 hours a week for instruction. In fact, when I set out to teach in a New York public high school years later, I was initially denied the opportunity to do so because I in my wheelchair was considered a “fire hazard.” In those days, this was not considered discrimination, but rather that people just didn’t know better. And for those of us with disabilities, we simply had to accept the way the world was – a world where we were marginalized, often invisible, sometimes forgotten.
But the world was changing. In 1963, I watched the March on Washington on television and a year later, was inspired by the signing of the Civil Rights Act. At that moment, I realized the possibility of a future of equality for myself and millions of others with disabilities. In those days, civil rights legislation did not include protections for people with disabilities. So if we were to have the same rights and protections as others in America, we too would need to create a movement to secure those rights and protections. We too would need to help develop and pass laws to guarantee those rights and protections. We too would need to begin to organize and fight for our civil rights.
So we started coordinating, collaborating, and breaking down barriers. Today, people with disabilities in the United States have made great advancements made possible by the Civil Rights Movement. Discrimination against people with disabilities is broadly outlawed in education, employment, housing, transportation, etc. People with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities from around the world have watched as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was implemented in the 1970s and as the Individuals with Disabilities Act became law and then as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990. In fact, with the passage of the ADA, the United States became the first country in the world to adopt national civil rights legislation banning discrimination against people with disabilities in the public and private sector. People from around the world who travelled here saw the changes our country was making and were amazed. We had become the gold standard, and other countries aspired to be just like us.
In the years after enactment of the ADA, people with disabilities and governments around the world began meeting and discussing an international treaty that would require other countries to protect the rights of disabled people, much as we do in the United States. In 2006, these discussions culminated in the Disabilities Treaty, which is based on the principles of non-discrimination and inclusiveness that underlie our own ADA. Today, 147 parties have ratified the Disabilities Treaty. Surprisingly, we in America have failed to do so. Our ratification would require no new laws, and there would be no fiscal impact on the United States. Our laws, including the ADA, would continue to govern. Our ratification, however, would help expand opportunities for the millions of Americans with disabilities, including the roughly 5.5 million disabled veterans, who want to serve, travel, work and study abroad. As a State Party to the Treaty, we would be in a strong position to guide other countries to develop and implement laws that will enable disabled people to obtain the rights that they have so long been denied. We could open up the world to help other nations be more like us.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee may take further action on the Disabilities Treaty this July. As President George H.W. Bush said in 1990 when he signed the ADA, “Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and the upcoming 24th anniversary of the ADA, let ratification of the Treaty help us break down those shameful walls of exclusion around the world. Let’s continue to be the world’s pioneer on disability rights and ratify the Treaty that will benefit millions at home and abroad. Let’s do the right thing and ratify the Disabilities Treaty now.
Judith Heumann serves as the State Department’s Special Advisor for International Disability Rights.
Editor’s Note: This entry originally appeared as an Opinion Piece for TheHill.com.