If our government had an opportunity to increase accessibility for wounded or disabled veterans and improve the lives of millions of people with disabilities abroad, without changing any of our existing laws or adding a penny to our budget, wouldn’t we expect them to do it?
The fact is, we currently have a treaty that would do just that, waiting to be ratified. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, also known as the Disability Treaty, is an international treaty that was inspired by U.S. leadership in recognizing the rights of people with disabilities worldwide. It is a vital framework for creating legislation and policies around the world that promote the rights and dignity of people living with disabilities. In short, it would help other countries put in place laws modeled after our own Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These laws would help open the world up to veterans and other Americans with disabilities who want to travel, work, or study abroad, while helping improve the quality of life for millions of disabled people worldwide.
I served in the Army for over 30 years, culminating as the Acting Surgeon General and Commander of the Army Medical Department and the 22nd Chief of the Army Nurse Corps. Since my retirement, I have dedicated my life to improving the lives of returning veterans who have suffered serious combat injuries, specifically those resulting in vision impairment.
Vision impairment is one of the top ten disabilities in the Unites States, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and blindness is a major public health concern globally, with approximately 50 million people who are blind and three times that numbers are visually impaired.
Through my travel abroad and my work with wounded warriors, I have seen firsthand the significant barriers to international travel for disabled American veterans, not to mention the many horrific human rights abuses being perpetrated in many countries against millions more people with disabilities.
The U.S. has an opportunity to use its position as a world leader to be a part of the solutions to these problems. We should all be able to agree that making the world more accessible to our wounded warriors and improving the quality of life for millions of disabled people are commendable goals. In the face of glaring discrimination against people with disabilities abroad, it seems shameful for the U.S. not to share the expertise we’ve gained from years of working on disability issues, formulating and implementing important legislation like the ADA. Signing on to a treaty that would help us accomplish these goals doesn’t seem like it should be controversial; it’s just common sense.
Unfortunately, not everyone feels this way. Last year the U.S. Senate had the opportunity to ratify this treaty, but as the result of a shameful campaign orchestrated by individuals who spread fear and misinformation about the treaty, it failed by just five votes. It is important to recognize that opponents of the treaty may be loud, but they are unquestionably in the minority. Over 700 disability, faith, business, and veterans’ service organizations, including Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, Blinded Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, and Wounded Warrior Project, have voiced their support for the treaty. It is also supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, including my fellow veterans, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), former senator and current Secretary of State John Kerry (D), and former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas).
The Disability Treaty offers the U.S. an opportunity to reinforce our leadership in the promotion of disability rights, by taking action rather than standing on the sidelines in the fight for rights and dignity for people with disabilities both at home and abroad. For the sake of those who have been injured while bravely fighting for our country, and for the millions abroad unable to fight for themselves, I hope that this time around the Senate will vote to ratify this crucial treaty.
Pollock erved as the Deputy Surgeon General of the United States Army, 22nd Chief of the Army Nurse Corps, and was acting Surgeon General of the United States Army following the retirement of her predecessor. She has also served as executive director of the Louis J. Fox Center for Vision Restoration at the University of Pittsburgh.