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Hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Statement

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

This morning, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) delivered the following statement at a hearing analyzing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Treaty Doc. 112-7).

"Americans may not witness these discriminatory acts in our daily lives, but they sting our conscience from half a world away," said Sen. Kerry. "Ratifying the Convention would strengthen our hand as we push for higher standards internationally--standards to which all of us should aspire."

The full text of Chairman Kerry's hearing statement, as delivered, is below:

Thank you all very much for being here today. We are meeting to examine the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We're very grateful to have a number of our colleagues, who've had a long-time interest in this, prepared to testify.

I know that there will be other Senators arriving. Senator Lugar has told me that he's going to be a little bit late but he will be here.

It has been twenty-two years since the Americans with Disabilities Act knocked down barriers to employment and government service here at home -- and Senator Harkin played such a key role, along with my former colleague, Senator Ted Kennedy, in achieving that goal, and many others. Now, it is time to do the same for Americans with disabilities when they travel overseas.

The world obviously faces many competing crises-- all of them contend for attention and for leadership. But I believe very strongly that we have a responsibility on this Committee to ensure that issues deserving attention also receive a focus. As the author and civil rights activist James Baldwin reminds us: "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

I couldn't agree more. All Americans have an inherent right to be treated as equal citizens of our nation. But the historic march toward a better, fairer America can come about only if we are willing to make those with certain challenges the focus of our work.

Like most of you, I have witnessed over time first-hand the challenges and discrimination of people with disabilities and the many ways in which they are prevented from fully participating in activities that most of us are privileged to take for granted. That's why, early on in my career in the Senate, when I first came here, I served with Senator Lowell Weicker on the HELP Committee -- what is now the HELP Committee -- and I was Chairman for a brief period of time of something back then, anachronistically, called the "Handicapped Subcommittee." We actually did the first work that unleashed technology and that has produced assisted devices that help people with challenges be able to speak and communicate. I'm proud of that.

I cosponsored the Ending the Medicare Disability Waiting Period Act to phase out the 24-month waiting period for individuals with disabilities to become eligible for Medicare benefits. It's why I happily worked with Senator Pryor on the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which improves access to audio and visual materials for the deaf and blind.

And it's why I recently introduced the Children's Mental Health Accessibility Act to provide states an option to serve children and adolescents on Medicaid with intensive home or community-based mental health treatment services, and also to replace the also anachronistically term "mentally retarded" in the Social Security Act with the more appropriate term of "intellectually disabled."

So this is a march that goes on for all of us. We all learn and we all eventually, I hope, make progress.

I have heard from countless advocates on this issue -- the issue we're here to talk about today -- from the Perkins School of the Blind in my home state to disabled Americans across the country, to veterans groups, all of whom tell me this treaty will make a difference in their daily lives.

It's not only the right thing to do. It's also the smart thing to do--and it will extend essential protections and liberties to millions of U.S. citizens with disabilities when they travel overseas, including our disabled servicemen and women and all veterans.

As I understand it, there really are only upsides to joining this Convention, which enshrines the principles of the ADA. The United States is already a leader in domestic disability rights protection. Joining the Convention will provide a critical tool as we work with other countries to advocate what they follow -- and hopefully that they will follow -- our lead and ensure that people with disabilities are free to live, work and travel wherever they want.

This is important. Across the developing world, persons with disabilities face indignities and prejudice on a daily basis. They are prevented from attending schools, subject to discriminatory hiring practices, and often are unable to enter public buildings, safely cross a street, or even ride a public bus.

Americans may not witness these discriminatory acts in our daily lives, but they sting our conscience from half a world away. Ratifying the Convention would strengthen our hand as we push for higher standards internationally--standards to which all of us should aspire.

Twenty-two years ago, President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law with the promise of fostering full and equal access to civic, economic and social life for individuals with disabilities. Upon its passage, Senator Ted Kennedy, who played the role that I described, said: "The act has the potential to become one of the great civil rights laws of our generation…This legislation is a bill of rights for the disabled, and America will be a better and fairer nation because of it."

That was the spirit that animated passage of the ADA, and it's the same spirit that has inspired a bipartisan group of Senators to work tirelessly in support of this Convention. I especially want to acknowledge the effort here of three longtime Senate leaders on disabilities issues, Senator Harkin -- who's here now, who chairs the HELP Committee and who has been such an extraordinary leader on this issue and the ADA itself, Senator Durbin -- who will be here and who will chair part of this because I have some conflicts, but we will share that responsibility, and Senator McCain -- and we're grateful for their leadership. I'm also pleased that several other members of this Committee--Senator Barrasso, Senator Coons, and Senator Udall--are part of this bipartisan group.

They are each great champions for persons with disabilities, and I know that they're going to work to do whatever it takes to move this process forward and help deserving Americans enjoy the full measure of their rights.

To help us explore these issues, we have three excellent panels of witnesses.

On the first panel, we are pleased to be joined by our friends and colleagues I'd mentioned -- John McCain and Tom Harkin. In addition to his own views, Senator McCain will be sharing with us a statement from former Majority Leader Bob Dole.

On our second panel, we welcome Judith Heumann, Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the State Department; and Eve Hill, Senior Counselor to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Justice Department.

On our final panel, we have Richard Thornburgh, a former Attorney General of the United States and Of Counsel at the law firm K&L Gates; John Wodatch, former Chief of the Disability Rights Section at the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department; Steven Groves, the Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow at the Heritage Foundation; and John Lancaster, a Vietnam veteran, Retired Executive Director of the National Council On Independent Living and respected advocate for the disabled community. Rounding out the panel, we have Michael Farris, Chairman and General Counsel of the Home School Legal Defense Association and Chancellor at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia.

So welcome to all of you and we look forward to your testimony.


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