Deaf perspectives on a United Nations treaty

October 24, 2012

An overflow crowd eager to learn more about the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) packed the JSAC Multipurpose Room on October 10 for a panel discussion on the impact of the CRPD on deaf people within the United States and outside its borders. The session, hosted by the Office of the Provost, was entitled "Policy, Process, and Politics" and featured presenters who have closely followed the creation, signing, and ratification process of the CRPD. Suzy Rosen Singleton, former ombuds for the University, moderated the discussion and provided an introduction to the UN convention.

The CRPD is an international treaty that addresses disability rights as human rights. It was adopted by the UN in December of 2006 and was opened for signatures by leaders of UN member countries the following year. President Obama signed onto the convention in July 2009, sending it to the Senate, where it is currently being deliberated. As of October 2012, there are 154 national signatories to the CRPD and 124 ratifications. Signing on to the convention signifies agreement in spirit to the treaty. Ratification means that it has been legally adopted.

Dr. Joseph Murray, an associate professor in the Department of ASL and Deaf Studies and a board member of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), explained the role of the WFD in developing the convention, as well as a description of how the treaty moved through the UN more rapidly than any human rights agreement in the history of the organization.

Andrew Phillips, an attorney with the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), laid out the strategy for political action and the process of Senate ratification. Barriers to ratification and how they are being addressed by the NAD were shared.

Shane Dundas, a graduate student within the Department of ASL and Deaf Studies, detailed his efforts in approaching senators to gain their support of the convention, and the coordinated effort of multiple groups working in tandem to push for its ratification. While visiting Senate offices, Dundas stressed the human rights focus of the CRPD, and explained that it will not impact the U.S. budget or laws. He added that visiting offices was made significantly easier by bringing an ASL interpreter with him, which allowed him to make multiple office visits in one day. This could not have been accomplished, he said, if he had made individual interpreting requests to Senate offices, because it would have caused delays waiting for the arrival of the interpreter.

Sylvie Weir, a general studies program instructor and program assistant for Latin America for International Deaf Partnerships, shared the impact of the CRPD in Haiti, where there is a newly expanded understanding of human rights for deaf people. While educating the population on the meaning of the CRPD is still a challenge, progress is being made, she said.

Jeffrey Rosen, chief counsel for ZVRS and a board member for the United States International Council on Disability, did some legal heavy lifting, describing the reservations, understandings, and declarations (RUDs) that are attached to the U.S. version of the CRPD that is now before the Senate. These RUDs include protections against the international agreement impacting federal or state laws. The CRPD in the United States will not affect health care coverage or home-schooling, or regulate private conduct in places such as clubs or churches. But what the CRPD does offer is an international statement on legal protections for persons with disabilities, showing that the U.S. is a global leader in access and human rights. The CRPD may also help U.S. businesses operate internationally and enforce standards of access. This treaty may ultimately make international travel more accessible for deaf people.

The panelists stressed that the CRPD puts forth a strong statement on sign languages as a human right, an issue of significant importance to deaf people worldwide. "The CRPD explicitly states governments must promote sign languages and deaf culture, thus recognizing, for the first time in a United Nations human rights treaty, the existence of a cultural community of deaf people," said Murray.

Encouraging the Gallaudet community to stay engaged with the process as the convention is debated in the U.S. Senate, the panelists welcomed personal contact for further discussion on the CRPD. For United Nations background information on the CRPD: http://www.un.org/disabilities/

--By Jean Lindquist Bergey