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March 14, 2014

Paralympics reignites debate over U.N. disabilities treaty

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As the Paralympic Olympic Games are played in Sochi, Russia, this week, attention has been focused on talented athletes with physical disabilities from around the world. At the games this year is a wall commemorating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which looks to ensure that disabled persons have equality under the law, access to public places and facilities and the right to a basic education.

The U.S. is one of the few dozen countries that has not yet ratified the convention, despite the fact that the convention was based on the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1990.

Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who lost the use of his right arm after being injured in World War II, supports ratification, saying, “Primarily it prevents discrimination against disabled people who might be traveling abroad, and it also gives us a seat at the table.”

Opponents say that it would give the U.N. jurisdiction over local and state laws.

“We already have laws that protect everything that is in this convention,” said former Sen. Rick Santorum, who has a young daughter with a developmental disorder. “We already meet or exceed what this convention calls for. There’s no benefit to the United States from passing it.”

The convention was adopted by the U.N. in 2006. President Obama signed the treaty in 2009. It went to a vote on the Senate floor in December 2012, but fell six votes short. Last fall, opponents managed to scuttle another attempt to get the treaty before the Senate. So far, a vote on the issue has not been scheduled for 2014.


Warm up questions
  1. What does it mean to have a disability?

    “…a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.” – the American with Disabilities Act

  2. What are some examples of physical and mental disabilities?
  3. What is the difference between the Paralympics and the Special Olympics?
    • The Paralympics is a major international multi-sport event, where athletes with physical disabilities compete. This includes athletes with mobility disabilities, amputations, blindness, and cerebral palsy. They are held immediately after their respective Olympic Games
    • The Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
  4. What did the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed in 1990, do?
    • It protected the rights of those who might experience discrimination because of their disability, just as the Civil Rights act in 1964 protected the rights of those who experienced discrimination based on race, religion, sex and national origin.
  5. What are the Paralympics? How are they different from the Olympic Games or the Special Olympics?
    • For a great two minute clip to help students understand what the Paralympic games are about please click here.
Discussion questions and writing prompts
  1. Why has the U.S. Congress not ratified the U.N. convention to protect people with disabilities around the world?
  2. The U.N. treaty would protect those with disabilities from discrimination as well as protecting their right to basic education. Why would it be important to secure rights to education for those with disabilities? Hint: think about how people with disabilities are treated in some countries that don’t have a national law in place to protect everyone.
  3. How does an event like the Paralympics help to dispel myths about the capabilities of those with physical disabilities?
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