The first time Jesus preached in a synagogue, he said that he had come to proclaim release to the captives (Luke 4:18). Those captives include people who have disabilities, sometimes literally. My friend Margaret who works overseas with people with disabilities told me that some of them have scars on their wrists from being chained to their beds for years as children. Pastors from a number of different countries have told me similar stories.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will not right all the wrongs committed against people with various disabling conditions, but it puts a line in the sand that squares with the message of Jesus.
People with disabilities tend to be the most oppressed in any community. Even here in the U.S., they are more likely to be unemployed, poor, and victims of crime compared with the general population. People with disabilities from around the world wrote the CRPD, patterning it after the landmark U.S. legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The CRPD gives voice to the cry of people who are often unheard (Proverbs 31:8).
As a Christian, I believe firmly that the United States needs to ratify this important international treaty, but multiple misunderstandings brought about the defeat of the CRPD last time. In particular, three areas of concern have been expressed about the CRPD: parental rights, rights of the unborn, and U.S. sovereignty.
Parental Rights: Ratification of the CRPD would not change U.S. law but would confirm our commitment to disability rights and allow the U.S. to affect disability rights globally. No changes to U.S. laws covering parental rights would result from ratification. Parental discipline and homeschooling would still be under local jurisdiction. In fact, the treaty supports people with disabilities and their right to live in the community among family, and it protects parents and children from separation on the basis of disability.
Rights of the Unborn: The CRPD states that people with disabilities should have the same access to health care as people without disabilities. It emphasizes non-discrimination on the basis of disability, without denying the rights of the unborn.
U.S. Sovereignty: All human rights treaties passed by the U.S. Senate include RUDs (Reservations, Understandings and Declarations), legally binding conditions added to treaties to protect U.S. sovereignty. The CRPD ratification package before the Senate requires no changes to U.S. law. It includes the RUDs, defines disability as already defined in the ADA, and declares that the U.S. is already in compliance with the CRPD.
Besides proclaiming justice for people with disabilities, ratification will re-engage the U.S. as a world leader in disability rights and will provide additional protections for U.S. citizens with disabilities when they travel abroad. In addition, if the U.S. ratifies it, U.S. citizens will have a seat at the table of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). This body makes recommendations to countries regarding accessibility and implementation of the treaty.
Justice for people with disabilities is personal for me, not only as a Christian but also as the parent of a child who lives with severe disabilities and as the son of a woman who recently died after a 12-year journey with dementia. Engage your senators, especially the 38 senators who voted against ratification last December, by making calls, visiting their offices, and sending emails. You can find your senators’ contact information at www.senate.gov. Some senators are still on the fence about the CRPD. Your voice can make a difference.
Rev. Mark Stephenson serves the Christian Reformed Church in North America as the director of Disability Concerns.