Transcript: Sen. Tom Harkin’s floor remarks in support of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Edited by Jenny Jiang

Transcript of statements by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in support of ratifying the U.N. Convention the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on the Senate floor on Dec. 4, 2012:

Mr. President, first I thank Senator Kerry, Senator Lugar, and Senator McCain for their great leadership and their dogged persistence in making sure we can get this treaty through the committee and to the floor. It has been inspirational to watch them work together in a bipartisan fashion to bring us to this point. I hope we don’t lose that in terms of the vote.

I just came over from the Dirksen building where we had a wonderful ceremony honoring former Senator Bob Dole. Some time ago I went back and I read Senator Dole’s maiden speech on the Senate floor, dated April 14, 1969.

Mr. President, I commend these remarks to my colleagues.

Senator Dole spoke of the future of people with disabilities in America and what we need to do to change our society. That was in 1969. It was 21 years later when we passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. The country has changed so much for the better because of that.

We are sitting here now with a convention by the U.N. which basically says to the rest of the world: You have to do what America did. In establishing this convention, the U.N. was informed by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and a lot of it is based upon what we did here.

As the committee showed, not one of our laws or anything has to be changed. Not one. We are the best in the world at this. Yet what this convention gives us is a seat at the table. When other countries have signed on to the treaty, it gives us a seat at the table to be able to work with other countries and to help them upgrade their laws so that people with disabilities have more opportunities in other countries. Why would we deny ourselves a seat at the table when we have been a leader in this effort for so long?

I listened to the speeches by both Senator Inhofe from Oklahoma and Senator Lee from Utah. These are unfounded fears. I repeat, there is nothing in there that is going to allow anyone from the United Nations to take a child away from a family or tell a family they cannot homeschool a kid or anything such as that. There is nothing in there. These are totally unfounded fears. We should not be driven by unfounded fears. We should be driven by what we know of our experience, what we have done, what the wording of the convention is, and the fact that none of our laws has to be changed because of it.

The Senator from Utah made the point that we all know people with disabilities. We have family members or friends, and we value them. We truly do value people with disabilities in our society. Well, if we truly value them, why don’t we listen to them?

There are over 300 disability rights groups that support this. Not one said they won’t support it. So if we value them, why don’t we listen to them? Do we want to keep patronizing people with disabilities and say, you are all right, but we won’t listen to you because we know what is best for you? We don’t know what is best for people with disabilities. We know who knows what is best for people with disabilities: It is people with disabilities. They all said this is important.

There are 300 disability organizations that asked us to support this ratification. I think we should listen to them and get their advice. Think about what the disabilities community here in America could do with that seat at the table and how we can work with other countries to help them upgrade their laws. I have a hard time understanding why people would be driven by unfounded fears to vote against this with all of the evidence from 22 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act, including the hearings held by Senator Kerry and Senator Lugar which brought out all the information and pointed out that not one of our laws has to be changed at all. In the face of all of that evidence, someone will vote on the basis of an unfounded fear.

I remember when we passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. It took a long time. There were a lot of fears out there. There were fears of: Oh, my gosh, we are going to have to do this and that. Buses have to have lifts on them, and we have to build those curb cuts. What, kids with disabilities get to go to school?

They were unfounded fears. We became a stronger and better society because of it. This treaty will make us a better world in which to live for all people and not just those who have disabilities.
I urge all of my colleagues, don’t give in to unfounded fears. Take the good advice of Senator Bob Dole, President Bush, former Congressman Steve Bartlett, John McCain, John Kerry, and Dick Lugar, people who have been in the trenches on this, and take the advice of the disability community here and abroad. If you will do that, we will win a resounding victory today.

Thank you, Mr. President.



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