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Commentary: Time for international independence for people with disabilities

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: This week Americans celebrate independence. Yet nearly 20 percent of our own citizens – citizens with disabilities -- must fight for their independence every day. This holiday presents us an opportunity to reflect upon those still seeking independence, and ask our leaders to further the cause of freedom and independence for all in the United States and around the world.

I have been working in the field of disability rights since 1973, when I met my husband, Max J. Starkloff. At the time there were really no disability rights in our country. Max lived in a nursing home and hated it.

He worked so hard to get out and to fight for the right of others with disabilities so they wouldn’t have to live in isolation and oppression in nursing homes. He fought for independence. And he got out. He got married; and he led our community, joining with other disability-rights advocates to lead the world in changing attitudes toward people with disabilities.

In the late ’80s we worked for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. That law, which recognized that people with disabilities have rights, began to change how disabled people live in our nation.

In 2000, Max and I went to Hawaii to meet with other disabled leaders from around the world and discuss how we could impact the quality of life of our brothers and sisters in the many nations that do not have laws, policies or societal attitudes that recognize rights for the disabled. Out of that meeting, and many subsequent meetings, came the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

The CRPD is a framework for creating legislation and policies around the world that are modeled after our own Americans with Disabilities Act. It is designed to give all people with disabilities worldwide the rights and dignity we’ve fought for them to have here in the United States. Ratifying this treaty will allow the U.S. to be a leader in the international fight for people living with disabilities. It will have no effect on any domestic U.S. law; rather, it will export the model we’ve developed here to other countries.

The treaty has bipartisan support, along with support from faith communities, disability advocates, business leaders, and veterans’ advocacy groups. This support comes from a broad spectrum of advocates because CRPD opens opportunities abroad for American industry, and it allows Americans with disabilities to travel abroad without fear of discrimination.

Most important, it will help ensure moral treatment for the 1 billion disabled people worldwide, many of whom are currently subjected to inhumane conditions and denied basic civil rights. The United States has an obligation to act in the interest of independence and justice.

For these reasons, and in memory of my late husband’s dream of a world that welcomes all people with disability, I call upon Sen. Roy Blunt to return to his previous support for the CRPD.  I ask him to join with Sen. Claire McCaskill and lend support from the “Show Me state” and show the world that recognizing and protecting the rights of all disabled people is a just cause.

Colleen Kelly Starkloff has been an advocate for disability rights for 40 years. She is the co-director of the Starkloff Disability Institute in St. Louis.