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Help Needed Now for People with Disabilities Worldwide: UN Disability Treaty

Hillel, asks, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14)

This month’s U.S. legislative agenda will give Americans with disabilities and their supporters (including we Jews) the opportunity to respond fully to the last two of Hillel’s three questions.  We can respond positively –IF we choose to take part in the current Senate debate regarding the ratification of the UN Disability Treaty.

What seems like yesterday to some of us and a world ago to others, the ADA became the law of the land.  Prior to that, we people with disabilities were treated as second class citizens.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, Americans with disabilities and our friends were “for ourselves” when we for the first time in history became an organized political force.  We did not rest until in 1990 we were given the full rights we U.S. citizens deserved.

No one was “for us” had we not been “for ourselves.” How dare we now sit back and be “only for ourselves,” enjoying our public accommodations or basking in our lawful, if not fully implemented, access to opportunity without looking outside of ourselves, beyond our borders.

We need not look far to see that worldwide not only are basic rights denied to people with disabilities but punishment is incurred simply for being born with or acquiring a disability.  It is tragic that throughout the world people with disabilities are denied fundamental rights.

Drafted in 2006, the UN Disability Treaty officially called “The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” or “CRPD” addresses this worldwide concern.  The UN Disability Treaty gives international affirmation to the rights of people with disabilities to equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.

In 2009 our UN Ambassador signed the UN Disability Treaty on behalf of the U.S.  As per UN requirements, it now must be ratified by the U.S. legislature.  By U.S. law that means it takes a two-thirds majority senate vote.

Last winter, your voices helped bring the CRPD to a vote in the Senate, where it disappointingly failed by just five votes.  This summer, the Disability Treaty is to be considered for ratification once again by the U.S. Senate.

Therefore, we must define Hillel’s “what we are” by once again speaking out loudly – this time for those other than ourselves.  We all must educate our communities to write letters, make calls or actually visit senators and tell them, “You must vote YES to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities!”

We must especially urge all Republicans to vote “yes” and we must communicate our support of the “yes” leanings of Democrats.

We have many Americans who are “for us” now – Americans with and without disabilities. Let us take their hands.  Lead them to do what’s right.

The Disability Treaty is based on U.S. law.  The United States needs to continue to lead this effort on a global scale. According to UN procedure, the U.S. cannot formally have a leadership place at the table if we do not ratify it.

Those forces that oppose the Convention are small but mighty.  Senators are receiving 100 “anti” letters to one “pro” letter.  Many use unfounded religious reasons for opposition so we need to use our religious voices when we urge our senators to vote “Yes.”

And we must all ask ourselves, “If not now, when?”

Here are 3 easy ways you can help pursue justice for the one billion people around the world who live with a disability:

  1. Email your Senators, and urge those in your community to do the same. If you’d like sermon starters or talking points, let the RAC know.
  2. Your Senator will be home this week for the July 4th recess. Set up a meeting to speak with your Senator by calling his/her office.  To find your senators’ local office information, please go to:    This meeting can have exponentially more effect than an email or a phone call. If you’d like talking points or tips for the meeting, the RAC would be happy to help you out!
  3. The press can amplify your voice. Submit a letter to the editor or an op-ed to your local papers. The Religious Action Center has sample language you can use and can help you place the article as well.

Thank you for your continued support towards equal opportunity and full inclusion for all. With your help, we hope to see our country step up once again to its role as a global civil rights leader.

If you have any questions or for more information, please feel free to email RAC Eisendrath Legislative Assistant Raechel Banks at  or call 202.387.2800 to speak with Raechel.

Rabbi Lynne Landsberg is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s senior adviser on disability issues, co-chair of the Jewish Disability Network and co-chair of the Committee on Disability Awareness and Inclusion of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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