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Section 504 Is a Powerful Tool for Disability Rights, How about Extending Its Reach?

February 16, 2015

by Dr. Patricia MorrisseyWhite woman with short, blond hair wearing a white blouse, pearl necklace, and black suit jacket smiles at camera

Patricia Morrissey is President of the U.S. International Council on Disabilities.  She has played a central role in drafting major federal disability legislation and she was a member of the U.S. Delegation to a United Nations Committee while it drafted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).  Read other blog posts by the USICD president.

With the new Congress many are wondering about if or how to continue the ratification campaign for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The Republicans have control of the Senate now. Most Republican Senators opposed ratification of the CRPD in the last three years. There are 54 Republican Senators, 44 Democrat Senators, and two Independent Senators. To ratify an international convention like the CRPD, we need 67 votes. Last time a vote was held on the CRPD, December 4, 2012, 6 Republicans joined the Democrats and the Independent, for a grand total of 61 votes in favor of the CRPD, six short of what was needed. Today we would need all the Democrats, the two Independents, and 21 Republicans. Given these daunting numbers, I recommend that we spend the rest of this Congress concentrating on things on which we can forge broad consensus. On example is more bilateral international partnerships from which persons with disabilities benefit.

The simplest way to make this highly likely is to amend section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Right now that provision prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in anything funded with federal dollars IN THE UNITED STATES. If we amended section 504 by removing those four words — IN THE UNITED STATES — then the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability would apply to anything funded with U.S. Dollars in the U.S. AND anywhere overseas. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and the House Committee on Education and the Work Force are the two committees that have the authority to remove the words “IN THE UNITED STATES” from section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

I think many members of Congress would support such a change. All of us want the U.S. to be a powerful force for disability rights. This goal does not divide Republicans and Democrats. There is a great increase in the number of people with disabilities because of conflicts in many places. There is the growing volume of the voices of people with disabilities asking more of their governments and societies. So it would make so much sense for us to help more. It would be right for us to change the Rehabilitation Act. Everyone around the world wants his/her own Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The 25th birthday of the ADA is this July. If we amended section 504 that would be a great present to the rest of the world from the U.S.A.

Pat Morrissey

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