Rights for the disabled


I was watching television the other afternoon and for a moment I saw my father. He was on the floor of the United States Senate.

My father died a decade ago. He was born in Conway County, in 1910, when already the Little Rock newspapers were bringing accounts of an invisible malevolence creeping across the country, a horror called polio. There was little to be done for its victims save pleas to the Almighty and cold compresses against the searing fever. Often, prayer and poultices were outmatched by the virus. Millions died.

Polio slipped into my father’s home when he was three. Among his earliest memories were the visits, almost every afternoon, by his uncle, a physician. It is not unreasonable to assume their blood bond gave my dad an extra measure of his doctor’s attention, and that whatever therapies the doctor undertook made it possible for his young patient to regain the ability to walk, if forever after with a pronounced limp. Pop’s mobility finally faded when he was in his eighties, when post-polio syndrome set in, confining him to a wheelchair.

So was that him, on C-Span, in the Senate? No, it was Robert Dole, only one day out of Walter Reed Medical Center, where he had undergone treatment for ailments stemming from his World War II wounds. Dole survived the virus of Nazism, if barely, and his useless right arm was an emblem of his sacrifice.

Former senators are permitted the privilege of the floor. Dole, who had been first majority leader, then minority leader and, in 1996, the Republican presidential nominee, exercised his prerogative on this Tuesday afternoon to lend silent support to a lost cause — the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Approved by almost 130 countries including not only all the world’s accepted democracies but China, Russia, Iran and — for Heaven’s sake — Syria, the treaty enjoins discrimination against the blind, the bedridden, para- and quadriplegics. Now U.S. ratification was before the Senate, 36 members of which previously had pledged to oppose the treaty, enough to deny its advocates the two-thirds majority required. Along the way opponents picked up three more votes, counting the single senator who did not vote.

Now, one might imagine that a treaty negotiated during the George W. Bush administration might attract substantial Republican support. As would one supported by Dole and another wounded war hero, Sen. John McCain, also a GOP presidential nominee. As would a treaty supported by veteran’s organizations. And one endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But no. Every vote in opposition to the treaty came from a Republican caucus that, with shamefully few exceptions, is hostage to an assortment of bizarre, far-right think tanks, conspiracy theorists and paranoid religionists. Their arguments against the treaty (they tend to oppose every treaty) are of a piece with black helicopters, bogus birth certificates, immunization plots, secret FEMA concentration camps and the “war” on Christmas. And what better band of zanies to sum them up than the American Family Association.

The treaty, it claimed, “represents a grave threat to U.S. sovereignty, parental rights and the well-being of disabled children.”

That is a flat lie.

It “would authorize bureaucrats rather than parents to decide what is best for all children with disabilities.”

That is a flat lie.

It “could grant the UN the ability to force America to provide abortions or sterilization to the disabled at taxpayer expense.”

That is a flat lie.

In fact the treaty would bring the rest of the world up to the present U.S. standard, one denied some of its citizens — Dole, McCain, my father — before society finally deemed them worthy enough for curb cuts and wheelchair ramps and the like, not to mention job opportunities.

How many Republican senators might have supported treaty ratification were they not fearful of far-right opposition when they stand for re-nomination in less than two years? Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a Democrat up for re-election, ignored the inane arguments against the measure and voted for it. But with his next election four years distant and his lockstep voting record with the GOP leadership unassailable from the right, why did GOP Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas side with the crazies?

“We can continue to advance our ideals and be a global leader in this area without our commitment to an international treaty,” his press secretary quoted him in an e-mail.

Maybe — but not with the credibility the U.S. would have had.

Credit Boozman for eschewing the specious nonsense of the treaty’s most vociferous opponents, though I don’t know if Dole will, or McCain, or my old man.

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week n AETN.