Rights of Persons with Disabilities


Opening Remarks at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities


John Kerry
Secretary of State
U.S. Capitol
Washington, DC
November 21, 2013




Well, thank you. Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member Corker and members of the committee, thanks very, very much for welcoming me here to talk about the Disabilities Treaty, which I’m very anxious to do.

I’m mindful of the comments of the Ranking Member just now. I’d just start off by saying we are 100 percent prepared, as we have been, to work through what are known as RUDs – the Reservations, Understandings, and Declarations – in order to pass this treaty. That’s our goal. And as – we begin with a place that makes it clear that we don’t believe this has impact, but we’re happy to restate and reassert the law in ways that makes senators feel comfortable, obviously. We want to pass this.

It’s not lost on any of us that only 11 months ago the Senate fell just five votes short of approving this treaty. So more than 60 senators have already resolved in their minds many of the questions that are re-raised again and again. And we can go into them today, as I’m sure we will.

Obviously, that day when we fell those five votes short with a number of people who had previously been going to vote for it and then changed, so it’s even closer, that was a rough day for a lot of us who support the treaty, including Senator McCain, who is hardly a newcomer to this issue and is one of the strongest and most eloquent voices for why we ought to be doing this, for why – to put it bluntly – this treaty is in America’s interests.

In the after-action conversations that I had with many senators, both Republicans and Democrats alike, including a number who had voted against the treaty – yourself, Senator Corker, and others – I even heard some real regret about what had transpired and the unintended message that the outcome sent to Americans with disabilities as well as to other people around the world. And I heard from many not just a willingness but a hope that they would have the chance in a new congress to take up the treaty again and to demonstrate the important truth that senators from both sides of the aisle care deeply about the rights of people with disabilities.

So thank you, Chairman Menendez, for your comments this morning, for your leadership in bringing the round – the first hearing and being willing to come back at this important treaty. And thank you, Ranking Member Corker, for joining with him in a bipartisan way to do exactly what both of you have talked about trying to do here. And that is with an eye to trying to make certain that we air all of the concerns so that every senator can make up their own judgment in an atmosphere that is not clouded with procedural questions, as we unfortunately were last year.

I think we all approach this renewed discussion – we in the Administration, I mean, listen very carefully to all of you. And we recognize that while many senators voted yes, some senators were dissatisfied with the process last year and that several are not prepared to support the treaty until they feel that certain concerns are addressed. So again I repeat: I’m absolutely committed – I’ve said this to the Chairman in private conversations – we will work with you on an appropriate reservation or understanding or declaration, as appropriate, in order to try to clarify something, if indeed it really is begging for clarification and we’re not able to show adequately through legal cases, through precedent, through the reality of the treaty itself, that it is already addressed.

Now, I still believe what I believed the first time we tried to do this when I was Chair, that the ratification of the Disabilities Treaty will advance core American values, it will expand opportunities for our citizens and our businesses, and it will strengthen American leadership. And I am still convinced that we give up nothing but we get everything in return. I’ll say that again: We give up nothing but we get everything in return. Our ratification does not require a single change to American law, and it isn’t going to add a penny to our budget. But it will provide the leverage, the hook, that we need in order to push other countries to pass laws or improve their laws or raise their standards for the protection of people with disabilities up to the standard that we have already adopted in the United States of America, up to the standard that prompted President George H.W. Bush and Republican Leader Dole to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act, and indeed to negotiate the treaty.

Now, I’m especially engaged now, obviously, as Secretary of State, because having traveled to a great number of countries these last nine months since you confirmed me, I have seen firsthand the need for this treaty in ways that I never had before. It’s not an abstract concept. This is not just a nice thing to do. It’s not something that’s sort of for the few. It really raises standards for the many. And there are countries where children with disabilities are warehoused from birth, denied even a birth certificate, not a real person, and treated as second-class citizens every single days of their life. The United States has the ability to impact that by the passage of this treaty. One hundred and thirty-eight countries have already signed up to this. In too many countries, what we did here at home with the Americans with Disabilities Act hasn’t even been remotely realized overseas. And in too many places, what we take for granted here hasn’t been granted at all.

Now, I’ll never forget my visit recently to a sport rehabilitation center for disabled veterans in Bogota a little while ago, a center that we support with funding from USAID. And I met police officers who were injured by grenades, soldiers wounded by IEDs, volunteers caught in the tragic shootouts that take place over their efforts to help us together to enforce global international narcotics objectives. These brave men and women have risked life and limb and they’ve lost friends in battle, and yet there’s a whole world that they are unable to access today because of their disabilities which they received as they undertook duties shared by our hopes and aspirations with respect to the enforcement of law.

Moments like this really clarify for me the work that we have to do to export our gold standard. The Americans with Disabilities Act is the global gold standard. We should be extraordinarily proud of it. We are. But I would hate to see us squander our credibility on this issue around the world because we’re unwilling to embrace what we actually began – this initiative. When I tell other countries that they ought to do what we’ve done, I’m often reminded that we haven’t done what we said we were going to do, we haven’t joined the treaty ourselves. It’s pretty hard to leverage people when you’re on the outside.

So those 138 parties to the treaty, when they convene, we miss out on the opportunity to use our expertise to leverage what we’ve done in America and put it on the table. We lose out on that. We’re not at the table. We can’t share our experience and use our experience to broaden theirs. 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, and that’s the best that people get.

I don’t want to see us continue to take ourselves out of the game. No member of the Senate should want us to voluntarily take ourselves out of this. And remaining on the sidelines jeopardizes our role in shaping the future of disability rights in other countries, and we need to help push the door open for other countries to benefit, not just from our example but from our guidance and our expertise, our experience.

Joining the treaty is the most powerful step that we can take to gain all of those upsides. And don’t take my word for it. In a letter to this committee last month, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said it best. He wrote, “If the Senate does not approve this treaty, the United States will continue to be excluded from the most important global platform for the implementation of best practices in disability rights abroad.”

So this is about something very real. Look at the numbers of people who were here today and the numbers of groups represented behind me here today. Every one of them represents thousands more people for whom this is very real. It’s about things that you can see and you can touch and that make a difference to people’s lives. I’m talking about sidewalks without curb cuts – try managing that; public buildings with no accessible bathrooms; restaurants, stores, hotels, and universities without ramps or elevator access; buses without lifts, train platforms with tactile strips that keep you from going over onto the tracks. We can’t afford to ignore these barriers as problems that somehow affect other countries but don’t affect us. They’re present all over the world, including some of the top destinations for Americans traveling abroad for work or for study or for pleasure. And we’re not using all of our power and influence to change things for the better if we don’t join this treaty.

Now, I’d ask you just to think about what this treaty could mean. It means something for everybody with disabilities. But I do particularly want to ask you to think about what it means to our veterans with disabilities.

Last year I met a fellow named Dan Berschinski. He is a West Point graduate, a retired U.S. Army captain, and he’s an Afghanistan war veteran. Like many of us, Dan never thought that he’d one day have a disability or be an advocate for people with disabilities. But his life changed instantly when he stepped on the trigger of an IED and he lost both of his legs. Dan speaks in absolutely clear, searing, stark terms about the difficulty, the fear, the embarrassment of negotiating obstacles abroad as a person with a disability. And he experienced those obstacles firsthand when he traveled to South Africa. And he told me last year – he told all of us, because he shared his testimony with this committee – quote, “The advantages that we take for granted here at home that allow people like to me to live fulfilling, independent lives don’t exist in much of the rest of the world.”

Now let me tell you the good news. Dan is now a student at Stanford Business School and he wants to be able to take advantage of every possible opportunity. He can do that in the United States because of the ADA and other disability rights laws. But Dan will tell you – not me, he will tell you, as he said last year – as he experienced on a trip abroad, his opportunities in the increasingly important international marketplace are hindered by his disability, and it’s a disability that he acquired while fighting overseas on our behalf. He’s asking us now to fight for him and a lot of folks like him on their behalf.

There are an estimated 5.5 million disabled veterans just like Dan, and many of the veterans and their beneficiaries on the Post-9/11 GI Bill have a disability. And many of them are unable to study abroad because of poor accessibility standards at schools overseas. Now, I’ve met with recovering veterans at home in Massachusetts. I’ve met with them at Walter Reed. They want, very simply, a world where they can be independent, go out and fend for themselves, where they can travel abroad to work or study or vacation. And they should never have to worry about whether the disabilities sustained fighting on our behalf are going to prevent them from accessing the classroom, a workplace, a hotel, or transportation overseas. Like all people with disabilities, they deserve a world where they can fully participate in the global economy on equal terms without fear of discrimination or loss of dignity.

Joining the Disabilities Treaty will also expand opportunities for American students with disabilities, who need to be able to study abroad to prepare themselves to compete in the global economy. I want you to take the example of Anais Keenon. She is one of the outstanding interns at the State Department. She’s here today. Anais is a graduate student with dreams of a career in Foreign Affairs. She happens to also be deaf.

Two years ago, she traveled to Ghana. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, but the obstacles she faced, from the absence of written directions on how to proceed through customs at the airport, to the absence of fire alarms with flashing lights in public buildings made the demands of everyday life much more difficult for her to sustain. And she managed to travel, despite the obstacles in her way that would stop others from traveling at all.

Anais is exceptional, but it shouldn’t be the exception. It ought to be the rule. And America has more students with disabilities in higher education than ever before, partly by virtue of what we’ve accomplished with the ADA. So students with disabilities participate in study abroad programs, unfortunately, less than half as often as those without disabilities. And our joining this treaty will help change those numbers.

I just ask you – very quickly, and then I’ll wrap up – consider just a few concrete examples. We’re talking about joining a treaty that will strengthen our hand as we push for fire alarms with flashing lights so people who are deaf or hard of hearing will know when there’s emergency or when they need to evacuate. We’re talking about joining a treaty that gives us leverage to push for other countries to have sidewalks with those curb cuts so people who use wheelchairs can safely cross the street, or the tactile strip at the train platform so people who are blind don’t fall into danger. Our joining the treaty means that we will lead the way for other countries to raise their standards, and it means that we will lead the way for other countries to adopt our standards for all of these things – accessible bathrooms, tactile strips, fire alarms, flashing lights, all of the advancements that have made an enormous difference in the lives of Americans with disabilities.

Now, I will admit to you change is not going to just happen with the passage of the treaty. It’s not going to happen overnight. When we passed the ADA, sidewalks with these curb cuts and bathrooms that were accessible didn’t appear the next day, nor did all of the businesses that make accessible products that serve people with disabilities. But the Disabilities Treaty, just like the ADA, is a process. And our joining the treaty, followed by a very important ingredient – we pass this treaty, I will send a message to every embassy in the world, and we will begin to engage a protocol that will have our people reaching out to every country and every government, and we will use our presence in this treaty to leverage these changes in these other countries, to encourage these changes, to use the voice that you will give us by actually joining it, a voice that we’re not able to exercise today for our absence as a member.

If we join, we can ensure that vets like Dan Berschinski and a lot of others like him have the same opportunities abroad as other Americans. That’s why the American Legion, our nation’s largest wartime veteran service organization, which I’m proud to be a lifetime member, and the VFW likewise, and many other veterans groups support the ratification of this.

If we join – I ask you to think about this – why is the American Chamber of Commerce supporting this? Why are so many businesses – Coca-Cola, which is, I think, in something like 198, 200 countries plus – why do they support it? Because this will open new markets. It’ll level the playing field for our businesses, who already meet accessibility standards. As other countries rise to meet our standards and need our expertise, guess what? They’re going to look to American companies that already produce these goods, and we’ll be able to help them fill the needs, and this means jobs here at home. And that’s why IBM and the Consumer Electronics Association and many other businesses support ratification.

So I think this is the single most important step that we can take today to expand opportunities abroad for the more than 50 million Americans with disabilities. This treaty is not about changing America. This treaty is about America changing the world.

And I hope that each of you will put yourselves in the situation if you were disabled today. One of our colleagues, Mark Kirk, as we all know, supports this treaty, has unfortunately found himself fighting back against things that happen unexpectedly. And so while our circumstances might change, our rights and our opportunities should never change. And with the passage of this treaty, we have an opportunity to guarantee that for all Americans. And we also have an opportunity to change lives for the better for a lot of people in the world. That’s what America is all about, and I’ll hope we’ll ratify this treaty.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

PRN: 2013/1453

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