Last Friday, as President of the United States International
Council on Disability (USICD) and Executive Director of NCIL, I
had the honor to represent both organizations at the United
Nations as a witness to the initial signing of the UN Convention
on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
As I sat in the
observers' area on the floor of the UN's General Assembly Hall,
delegates from 80 nations and the European Community took their
turn at the official signing table to commit their country to the
human and civil rights of people with disabilities.
points, my eyes welled with tears. They should have been tears of
joy and pride as an American, as a citizen in the country that had
created this world-wide movement for the rights and empowerment of
people with disabilities. Instead, they were tears of shame and
embarrassment in being an American.
I do not relate these feelings to you, my friends and colleagues
in the Independent Living Movement, lightly or as a passive
observer. Almost 40 years ago, I acquired my spinal cord injury as
a Marine Platoon Commander in combat just east of Hue City, Viet
Nam. I had become a Marine out of a Kennedy era inspired desire to
defend my country and the principles for which we stand "that
all men are created equal -- with certain unalienable rights -- Life,
Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Following law school, I
dedicated my career to these principles as they pertain to people
I was proud to work with many great Americans,
many with disabilities, as part of a great movement for the
rights, empowerment and independent living for all. The United
States for many years took the world-wide lead with passage of
Title V of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and then the Americans
with Disabilities Act and many other great laws ensuring the
rights and inclusion of people with disabilities.
From 1995 to
2004, I traveled many times to and then lived for four years in
Viet Nam. There, I assisted Vietnamese with disabilities and their
Government in establishing similar principles, laws and policies
within the context of their political system. I had always been
proud of my efforts in this movement and especially of my
country's world leadership. For the last six years, that National
pride has given way to shame, embarrassment and anger; it
culminated for me emotionally last Friday during the Convention
The UN General Assembly Hall was full; the observer galleries were
packed with disabled advocates from around the world; and
delegations from UN member nations huddled behind their respective
desks and country signs. After initial speeches, one-by-one in
alphabetical order, the delegations from the various signing
nations filed to the ceremonial table to sign the treaty books.
some cases, it was that country's ambassador to the UN. In the
case of Ecuador, Vice President Lenin Moreno Garces, a wheelchair
user, signed. Even the countries, who were not signing at least
had representatives from their UN Mission present and sitting at
their country table out of respect for the UN processes and the
historic importance of the occasion all but the United States.
For the past several years of UN discussion, debate and
negotiations that led to this historic day, the United States had
been generally not present. When towards the end we did begin to
participate, it was generally contrary and negative in nature. And
then, on this truly historic day when we could have resumed
continued leadership for rights for people with disabilities, the
United States thumbed our noses in insolent arrogance at the
United Nations, the signing countries, and the six hundred fifty
million disabled people of the world.
Our country did not even
have the courage to seat a representative from our Mission to the
UN at our country table or to make any sort of official comment or
explanation as to why the Country of the ADA was not signing on to
the Convention. I was not proud to be an American. I was ashamed
of my country and of myself for letting it happen.
Please join me
in recommitting ourselves as advocates and leaders to human
rights, empowerment and independent living for all peoples of the
world. Write your Senators and President Bush today urging that
the US sign and ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons
John A. Lancaster, April 2, 2007.