Explaining American Exceptionalism to People with Disabilities in Uzbekistan

Photo: American writers Christopher Merrill. Ann Hood, Chinelo Okparanta, and Stephen Kuusisto, posing with disability rights advocates from Tashkent, Uzbekistan at the United States Embassy.

Last December when the United States Senate failed to ratify the UN treaty on disability rights I said to a friend: "only people who do not travel abroad or who do not have any friends or family members with disabilities could be so cruel." As I recall, I also said that "cruel" is related to "crude" by way of its French origins–the etymology highlights the worst aspects of American "exceptionalism". Opponents of the treaty (all of them on the far right) argued that ratifying a treaty affirming disability rights around the world would compromise American independence–a position so absurd and willfully ingrown one might conceivably treat it with penicillin.

The GOP's opposition to a treaty that calls for human rights for people with disabilities worldwide was hard to stomach for most decent citizens. USA Today wrote:

"This week, when the Senate rejected a United Nations treaty banning discrimination against the disabled, the vote received relatively little attention. And why would it? The United States already has laws that prevent such bias. They've made curb cuts and wheelchair ramps common sights across America.

But the Senate's failure to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was nevertheless remarkable — for what it said about the state of domestic politics. Despite GOP efforts to recalibrate after last month's election losses, the treaty vote reflected the continuing influence of a fringe that gets frantic about anything involving the United Nations."

What scares the right more than an African-American president? The specter of "black helicopters" –some kind of international government takeover of the United States by forces too dreadful to name but that didn't stop Senator Jim Inhofe (R) Oklahoma:

“I do oppose the CRPD because I think it does impinge upon our sovereignty. Unelected bureaucratic bodies would implement the treaty and pass so-called recommendations that would be forced upon the United Nations and the U.S. … This would especially affect those parents who home-school their children. … The unelected foreign bureaucrats, not parents, would decide what is in the best interests of the disabled child, even in the home.”

In addition to the canard that affirming disability rights around the world would prevent Americans from home schooling their children (perhaps the most fatuous argument they mustered) opponents also claimed that children with congenital disabilities might be euthanized by sinister UN forces which of course do not exist–but they might you see?

After the treaty ratification failed CNN wrote rather sensibly:

"There is a broader and more disheartening message that the world hears from Washington on this year's International Human Rights Day: The United States is losing its moral voice on human rights because it is not leading by example."

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The passages above offer the background. As an American who has a disability and who teaches disability studies, I am counting on Senator Harry Reid's promise to bring the UN treaty's ratification back to the Senate floor this year. But the word "cruelty" won't go away. I find myself thinking of blind children in North Africa who are believed to be demotic and are denied education; of people without basic prostheses or job training in every part of the world. Certainly I think of my own experiences with international travel. In Italy I was denied entry to a historic site with my guide dog. I was even denied entry to the hotel restaurant. In short, I might have rights abroad, but then again, I might not. The world wide violations of disability rights are not imaginary like the silly prospect that the UN will prevent you from home schooling your disabled child. Shame on Rick Santorum who pushed that dishonest argument for all it was worth. In the end it was worth 38 votes in the Senate, just enough to derail a treaty that promised hope to vulnerable people–the most vulnerable people in the world.

Enter Tashkent: in May I was afforded the opportunity to travel as a cultural ambassador under the auspices of a program sponsored by the US State Department and the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Picture, if you will, four American writers speaking to Uzbek disability rights advocates about literature and self-affirmation (among other things). Chris Merrill (who directs the U of Iowa's International Writing Program) is a poet and journalist who has written a good deal about the effects of war, and he spoke about how writing clarifies our understanding of human experience. Ann Hood is a widely read and honored American novelist who has written about the death of her daughter and how to find a path after grief. Chinelo Okparanta is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the author of a brand new collection of short stories due out this fall–stories that draw on her experience as an immigrant to the US from Nigeria. Together we spoke about the abiding and peculiar nature of America–that almost everyone comes from someplace else, that we tend as a nation of readers and writers to value stories that exemplify the struggle for human rights. I spoke about my experiences as a blind person–how I struggled with my identity, fought for an education, and described what it was like to live my childhood and early adult years before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This is when the question came. A man who uses a wheelchair asked how it was possible–how it was at all conceivable–for the US to refuse to sign the UN treaty on disability rights.

I told the truth–the truth with a wishful forecast. I said that the broad majority of Americans is unhappy with the Senate's failure to ratify the treaty. I said that even people who presently have no direct connection with disability were horrified by the Senate vote. I pointed out that Senator Reid has vowed to bring the treaty vote back this coming year. And I said it would pass. A blind guy can dream can't he?

But the question persisted–someone else asked again "how was it possible for the treaty to fail?" (128 countries have signed the treaty, even China has signed it.)

Explaining there's an extremist fringe in Washington that doesn't like the United Nations is, to say the least, an unenviable task. At best all you can do is explain the embarrassment of exceptionalism, which, in turn, is a high minded way of saying the US has abandoned moral leadership–an abandonment the world can ill afford, whether you have a disability or not.