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U.S. signs on to international disability-rights agreement

Movement with deep roots in Berkeley celebrates human-rights emphasis of the United Nations convention

| 6 August 2009

The Bancroft Library has developed a website on the history of the Disability and Independent Living Movement.

The United States' signing last week of the United Nations' international convention on disability rights brought cheers from Berkeley academicians and activists involved in efforts to assure the quality of life for disabled people — and reminders that there remains much to do to, both here and around the world.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., signed the document on Friday, July 31, in New York, more than a year after it went into effect and a week after the move was announced by President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony marking the 19th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The United States became the 143rd country to sign the document, officially called the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

"What is so important about the convention," says Sarah Hawthorne, Berkeley's assistant provost for academic compliance and disability standards, "is that it shows that there is a developing consensus that there is not only a moral imperative but now a legal imperative [to support] the rights of persons with disabilities.

"Countries are not free to simply make judgments about the worth of a human life using only the particular cultural norms and traditions of that country," Hawthorne adds. "There is an overriding international standard to which countries are accountable."

Berkeley roots

Berkeley, the campus and the city, has been at the center of the American disability-rights movement since its inception during the social revolution of the 1960s and '70s. The Berkeley campus first confronted the issue when Ed Roberts arrived as a student in 1962 — and brought with him the iron lung he slept in nightly.

From that evolved a movement patterned on the civil-rights movement, with the principles of non-discrimination and independent living at its core, according to Mary Lou Breslin, a senior policy adviser for the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF), a law and policy center based in the city of Berkeley. The center has strong connections to the Berkeley campus: Two DREDF lawyers teach at Berkeley Law, and Breslin was key to the creation of the Bancroft Library's substantial collection of materials and oral histories documenting the history of the disability-rights movement.

From the first campus disability-rights group ("Rolling Quads," started by Ed Roberts and John Hessler in 1969) grew Berkeley's internationally recognized Physically Disabled Students' Program in 1970. By 1972, students and alums were among those in the region who created the Center for Independent Living, which became a national model for independent learning programs and a powerful national voice for disability rights. 

The campus itself set about making itself more accessible to persons with disabilities, an effort that is ongoing. Along the way, Berkeley's law school, in cooperation with DREDF, began one of the nation's first disability-law courses in 1985. Later it had a hand in the development of the international movement to establish the rights of persons with disabilities, convening a 1998 meeting of international experts who were advising the United Nations on standards relating to Disability.

Convention's human-rights dimension

The U.N. convention finally adopted in 2006 emphasizes the importance of the human-rights dimension to disability rights, in addition to the civil-rights dimension. Support for the rights of people with disabilities to health care, housing, and freedom from institutionalization is already central to the European movement but remains underemphasized in the United States, Breslin says. On the other hand, European nations, among others, have work to do in the non-discrimination arena.

The convention itself, she says, is a "stellar achievement," but what it actually might accomplish will vary from country to country. For the United States to be bound by the convention, the U.S. Senate would have to ratify it by a two-thirds vote — and whether that  will happen is unknown, according to Breslin.

She adds that the convention is unlikely to have any immediate effect on efforts to push Congress to pass laws to strengthen the social safety net for disabled people. Currently, advocates are trying to secure legislation that would allow poor people with disabilities to receive health care and personal assistance at home instead of having to move into a nursing home.

Still, Breslin says the convention is important because it "sets a bar that advocates, community groups, lawyers, and humanitarian organizations can point to in their advocacy work for public policy. It sets an international standard."