Thank you Mr. Chairman and assembled delegates.
The United States is pleased to participate in the work of the Ad Hoc Committee on the important issue of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons with disabilities. We wish to express our appreciation in advance for the work of the Chair of the Committee, and to the distinguished members of the Bureau, persons with disabilities attending this session, and all States present here today to assist in this endeavor.
We recognize that UN General Assembly resolution 56/168, much like our efforts over the last several decades here in the United States, is intended to further the goals of human equality and dignity for those with disabilities, in keeping with the aspirations memorialized in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Adopted by consensus, the resolution called for the creation of this Ad Hoc Committee "to consider proposals for a comprehensive and integral international convention to promote and protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities."
Today, through the work of this Committee, the Member States reaffirm the core principle that equality and inherent dignity are the right of all human beings, and that all men and women should be able to enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms without discrimination. Unfortunately, persons with disabilities have too often been the targets of improper discrimination, and for the individual who is blind and cannot read a print newspaper, or who is paralyzed and cannot use the stairs, or who needs special assistance to learn to read or write, the activism and attention of UN Member States brings hope that one day they will be seamlessly integrated into the societies in which they live.
Because of these and similar circumstances faced by individuals the world over, the United States intends to join constructively in the work of the Committee, and we hope that our national laws will offer a useful model for some aspects of this Committee's work. The United States long ago chose to undertake the task of promoting the rights of persons with disabilities - to go beyond mere words and implement a comprehensive set of regulations and enforcement mechanisms ensuring real, observable improvement in the lives of persons with disabilities. For many years these laws have been enforced by our government, studied and discussed by policymakers in the public and private sectors, implemented by local governments and private businesses, and interpreted by our courts.
So we may have experience and expertise other countries will find useful. Our history, however, shows that while the cause of ensuring and promoting disability rights - indeed, the very integration of persons with disabilities into our society - requires firm commitment, it also requires careful thought. It is the position of the United States today that, given the complex set of regulations needed to canvass this broad area, and the enforcement mechanisms necessary to ensure equal opportunity for those with disabilities, the most constructive way to proceed is for each Member State, through action and leadership at home, to pursue within its borders the mission of ensuring that real change and real improvement is brought to their citizens with disabilities.
Thus we hope to participate in order to share our experiences - and to offer technical assistance if desired on key principles and elements - but given our comprehensive domestic laws protecting those with disabilities, not with the expectation that we will become party to any resulting legal instrument. This may be true also of other delegations representing States with well developed legal protections.
We look forward to working with other delegations to explore the most effective ways they can approach the vital - though largely domestic - mission of ensuring the rights of their citizens with disabilities. We in the United States have acted on our domestic commitment to protect the rights of people with disabilities through tough legislation spanning at least the past 30 years. For example, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in federal employment, federal programs, and in other programs receiving federal government assistance. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) - passed in 1975 - requires public schools to make free, appropriate education available to all eligible children with disabilities. The list goes on - the Telecommunications Act (1966), the Architectural Barriers Act (1968), the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act (1984), the Air Carrier Access Act (1986), the Fair Housing Act (as amended in 1988), the National Voter Registration Act (1993), and, recently, the Help America Vote Act (2002) - all of these laws protect persons with disabilities engaged in various activities, from air transport to voting.
But most of all our commitment to persons with disabilities, to open our society to their equal and full participation, is most clearly embodied in the Americans with Disabilities Act, landmark legislation adopted thirteen years ago through the leadership of the first President Bush, and with the active involvement of people with disabilities across the United States. President George W. Bush has called the ADA "a beacon of hope," a watershed moment in the history of how disabled persons are treated in this country. The law's reach is broad, guaranteeing equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities across a wide spectrum of activities ranging from employment to public transportation. Because of the ADA, and the commitment of the American people to fairness and equal rights, the more than 54 million people with disabilities in the United States now have more options - and more protections - in moving and working independently, in being a part of our state and local governments, and in enjoying cultural and recreational opportunities available to the broader public.
Today, employers are required to provide qualified disabled individuals with a range of reasonable work accommodations, including making work sites accessible to wheelchair users, providing adaptive computer equipment, and restructuring jobs for those who can perform the essential functions of a job, but not its ancillary requirements.
Today nearly every mass transit bus in America's cities is lift-equipped, and our cities provide supplementary para-transit service to people who are unable to use the accessible mainline transit system because of a disability.
Physical barriers are being removed in both public and private sector facilities, such as restaurants, theaters, sports stadiums, hotels, hospitals, doctors offices, and government offices; and newly constructed and altered commercial buildings and government facilities, including all office buildings and factories, must meet strict standards of accessibility. Through the ADA we also work to ensure that people with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate in civic life by ensuring access to legislatures, town halls, court houses, polling places, parks, and libraries.
People who use service animals enjoy a far greater degree of freedom of movement as restaurants, hotels, taxis, and other businesses have modified traditional policies that had excluded all animals. People who are deaf or hard of hearing now have access to sign language interpreters and other aids in hospitals, police stations and courts. Telephone services for people who are deaf or have speech difficulties are now available nationwide - without additional charge - through a telephone relay service established under the ADA.
And finally, the ADA, as recently interpreted by our Supreme Court in Olmstead v. L.C., prohibits the unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities. That decision recognizes that perhaps the most fundamental freedom we can help restore to those with disabilities is the freedom to live independently. The decision has spurred action at all levels of government to make medical and supportive services available in community-based settings, to help restore those with disabilities to the greater community.
To maintain our rate of progress on behalf of those with disabilities, and to encourage even more creative thinking in this area, in 2001 President Bush announced the "New Freedom Initiative," which is designed to provide federal leadership and increase access to assistive technologies, educational and workplace opportunities, and home ownership for persons with disabilities. President Bush last year proposed nearly $8.6 billion in spending for people with disabilities. Regarding public transportation needs alone, President Bush asked Congress to provide $145 million for grants for additional transportation services for Americans with disabilities, and for a pilot program to find innovative technological solutions for related transportation problems. Through this kind of government leadership - in conjunction with the hard work of community groups, churches, organizations of persons with disabilities, and many individuals throughout America - we're seeking to change our society - indeed our culture - in an elemental way, to unhesitatingly welcome those with disabilities.
All of these efforts are just a sampling of the evolving domestic changes in the United States over the last few decades, and they should give you a sense of the complexities involved in drafting effective legislation to assist those with disabilities. Those complexities will vary, moreover, with the social, architectural, and technological conditions in each Member State. Our experience pursuing this cause is deep and hard-won, and we look forward to assisting other States however we can. As President Bush noted last year on the occasion of the 12th anniversary of the ADA, "When someone is denied access to employment, to cultural activities, or to civic life because of disability, all of our lives are diminished." We know the other delegations here agree, and we are proud to assist in the work of the Ad Hoc Committee.
18 June 2003