Many people have life-changing moments that alter their life's path. This moment occurred for my family in 1949 when I was 18 months old and contracted polio. While some see my acquiring a disability as a misfortune, I see it differently: it created numerous opportunities, leading me to where I am today.
Were it not for my parents, my life would have been quite different. They decided early on that I should have the same opportunities as my brothers. They quickly learned this would not come easily, particularly when it came to my education.
When my mother attempted to enroll me in kindergarten and the principal would not accept me, we had no legal recourse. At the age of nine, I entered special education classes -- but there was no expectation that disabled children like me would be held to the same standards as our nondisabled peers. When I was supposed to enter high school, my mother found that our high schools were not accessible for students using wheelchairs. She organized with other mothers in New York City, forcing the Board of Education to make a number of high schools throughout the city accessible. Because of our mothers' work, students like me could finally attend high school.
I was inspired by my parents, who taught me to work hard for my rights and those of others denied their basic rights. I chose to get involved, and have made it my life's work.
Hundreds of thousands of American parents and disabled people have fought hard to bring about the dramatic changes that have occurred in our country over the decades. Today we have laws that protect our rights, and have enforcement provisions to ensure those rights are not denied. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and others have been transforming our nation.
But what about the parents and disabled people in other countries who face the same kinds of challenges my family faced? What about Americans with disabilities who wish to enjoy the same opportunities as our fellow citizens to study, travel, serve, and work overseas? What can the United States do to help move other countries forward the way our country has moved forward?
December 3 is a poignant reminder of the fighting spirit of so many, as we mark the 21st International Day of Persons with Disabilities. It's a day when we reaffirm that the struggle to ensure the rights of every person does not end at our borders, but extends to every country and every community. We have a concrete opportunity to help raise standards and open the world for Americans with disabilities. This is because the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) recently resumed their consideration of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Disabilities Treaty). This treaty embodies, at the international level, the principles of non-discrimination, equality of opportunity, accessibility, and inclusion grounded in our own ADA.
These are the same principles that enabled me to become a schoolteacher in New York (despite at first being told I would be a "fire hazard" in my wheelchair) and to eventually pursue a career fighting for the rights of disabled people. Rights for people with disabilities have come a long way in the United States -- it is much different from when I was growing up. But more needs to be done, especially on the international level.
The United States has an opportunity to do more now, through the Disabilities Treaty.
Almost 140 countries have ratified the Disabilities Treaty, but the United States has not. Remaining on the outside of the Disabilities Treaty has consequences. As Secretary Kerry noted in his recent testimony before the SFRC, "When other countries come together to discuss issues like education, accessibility, and employment standards for people with disabilities, areas where the United States has developed the greatest expertise, we've been excluded because we're not a party to the treaty. And the bottom line is that when we're not there, other countries with a different and unfortunately often a lower standard, a lower threshold, wind up filling the void."
The United States set the gold standard for disability rights when we passed the ADA in 1990, and we have the opportunity to continue to lead. By ratifying the Disabilities Treaty, the United States can carry forward its strong leadership on disability issues, breaking down barriers, and making a real difference for the one billion people living with a disability, many of whom too often face discrimination, inequality, abuse, or neglect.
Joining the treaty is the best tool we have to expand opportunities for disabled Americans, promote and export our disability rights gold standard, and help bring about meaningful systemic improvements in other countries. It would complement and enable the crucial work USAID, civil society, and American private enterprise have been doing to advance the rights of disabled people abroad.
As many have discovered, including me in 1949, our circumstances can change in an instant. But while our circumstances may change, our rights and our opportunities should never be diminished.
The time is now for action on the Disabilities Treaty.
To learn more, visit http://www.state.gov/disabilitiestreaty.
You can follow Judith E. Heumann on Twitter @IntDisability.
About the Author: Judith Heumann serves as Special Advisor on International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears on The Huffington Post.