First Human Rights Treaty of 21st Century

In August 2006, the first human rights treaty of the 21st Century entered the books of the United Nations.  The treaty, signed by a nearly unanimous collection of member nations, addressed the rights of people with disabilities and is the first international treaty of its kind.  The United States, the only notable nation who refused to join as a signatory, claimed that it already has ADA and, therefore, didn’t need to join.

Perhaps, the Bush Administration and its UN pit bull, John Bolton, actually realized that the new human rights treaty for people like us reached further and afforded far greater rights, rather than just laws and regulations under ADA, than those provided by the very ambiguous language in ADA.  Our law, which surely should be celebrated as it is the best thing we have in this country has seen much criticism when compared with similar laws and actual constitutional guarantees embedded in the laws of Canada, the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.  

Simply put, the weakest portion of the ADA are the words “reasonable accommodations” which, without a definition for “reasonable” can mean almost anything a court may want it to.  The Supreme Court and a number of other Federal Courts have ruled that it doesn’t apply to state governments (Alabama), that it doesn’t apply to people with HIV and some, but not all, other diseases and in a decision I support, it doesn’t apply to people who can have 20/20 vision if they wear glasses or contact lenses.  Possibly the least reasonable portion of the various court rulings have decided that, although the law states that it applies to, “all places of public accommodation,” (the operative word being “all,” it does not, according to case law, require that all places of public accommodation make accessibility changes prior to a complaint being filed by a person with a qualified disability.  Thus, if a student with a vision impairment enrolls in a public school, there is no guarantee that JAWS, OpenBook, Braille or audio texts or anything be available on the day they arrive.  In some notable cases, this has meant that the student had to study without any assistive technology for months on end while, following the court rulings, the backwater school system took their sweet time finding the tools the student required, sending out for bids, finding someone cheap enough and with the knowledge of how to install such things to come to the schools and, finally, providing the student with something to use.  Then, getting the student any training on such products might take months more.  All of this is acceptable under decision of the Federal Courts.

Thus, the definition of “all” as in “all places” actually means “all places where a person with a disability and the strength and wherewithal to file complaints must provide reasonable accommodations” for as long as the person with disability doesn’t get frustrated enough to find a more accommodating situation.  Thus, “accessibility” is not a right but, rather, a legally mandated set of things that a person with a disability can force a “place of public accommodation” to perform.  You have a right to free speech but, under US Federal law, a set of regulations that you can, sometimes with great effort and expense,  employ to push an uncooperative society into providing the accommodations you, as a person with disability, need to perform activities everyone else takes for granted.

Many states have passed their own local versions of ADA and some of these reach further than the Federal law.  Massachusetts provides one of the widest reaching sets of state laws in the nation.  Massachusetts also provides the rights for its gay citizens to get married and, likely, provides basic rights considerably further reaching than most other states.  Wyoming, a state that celebrates the rights of individuals, has no provisions for the rights of people with disabilities, gay people and many other classes of human who they do not believe need such rights.  Alabama, due to a direct ruling by the US Supreme Court, is, along with any other state that chooses to behave in a backward manner, specifically exempt from requiring its state government to provide “reasonable” accommodations to its employ; hence, blinks need not apply for government jobs in the state of Rosa Parks and the Selma church bombings.  As George Wallace, prior to his reformation said as governor of Alabama, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”  In Alabama, little changes over time.

If the United States, the “freest nation in the world,” according to our leaders, chose to sign the treaty, it would, like other treaties (except perhaps the Geneva Conventions) have to follow the language within the treaty.  Thus, when the WTO ruled that US law banning the import of fish that was caught using nets that cause the death of sea turtles, the US had to abdicate some of its sovereignty to the WTO because its environmental laws were trumped by the treaty.  In the case of the Human Rights for People with Disabilities Treaty, it would have to force Alabama, Wyoming and other piss ant backwaters to provide rights for people with disabilities.  As the US has roughly 25 “blue” and 25 “red” states, one can use the electoral map to find the states without local laws providing protections to people with disabilities.  Can you guess which color wins?

To really hammer this point home, one should take a look at the list of nations that did sign the treaty.  They include nations so poor that most people still need to gather water from wells and carry it home on their heads, countries where the average income is roughly $100 per day, countries where electricity is considered a “big city” luxury, dictatorships of all sorts, nations which have no right to free speech or laws against torture, nations which, when we hear them mentioned on the news, we need to go to wikipedia to find out on which continent they reside.

So, now that international lawyers in and outside of the US have started pouring over the treaty, what might it mean to people with vision impairments in and out of the US, the technology we use and access thereto?  Everything I can say here comes from conjecture on my part, that of various international law experts to whom I have spoken and of a handful of CEO types from AT companies to whom I’ve spoken in the past couple of weeks about this topic.

First, one thing that the lawyers and some of the AT CEOs and, to some extent, my brief reading of a synopsis of the treaty caused me to believe is that mainstream products may be required to include accessibility in some native form “out-of-the-box” at no extra charge to its consumers.  Today, the automobile industry cannot charge extra for a version of a vehicle that would work better for blacks or woman as, effectively, such a version of the automobile would be no different from that sold to the majority of the population.  A vehicle adapted for use by a person without legs, the controls mounted on the steering wheel, etc., may now be something that the motor vehicle manufacturers will need to eat as part of the cost of doing business rather than charging extra – in all countries that signed the treaty and not, however, in the US.

This kind of universally accessible feature set will likely apply to computers and operating systems as well.  Companies like Microsoft and Apple, especially, and Sun to some extent will be asked by signatory nations why they cannot provide truly accessible solutions and, more aptly, why these big companies point to little ones with expensive adaptive products to solve their big time accessibility issues.  Sun and IBM are both working on their open source screen readers for gnome but neither has gotten too far and gnopernicus, the only precedent in this arena, turned into such a failure that Sun had to scrap it outright and start over so this model has no real history of success.  Microsoft and Apple now include no cost “screen readers” in their operating system distributions but the XP version of Narrator, according to its own documentation, cannot truly function as a replacement for a “real” ” screen reader but, word around the campfire says that the Vista version demonstrates profound improvements.  I’ve written before about the fraud Apple perpetrates by calling VoiceOver, its pathetic excuse for a screen reader, a truly accessible solution (come on Gabe, post your comment defending the poison fruit but do so with a feature matrix comparing it to JAWS or Window-Eyes or even the alpha of the IBM GNU/Linux screen reader and see what real accessibility means)..

So, if presented with, “You can’t sell your operating system in this country unless it provides a no cost universally accessible solution,” how will Microsoft and Apple respond?  Apple will state that VoiceOver does such and the very tech savvy European accessibility experts will laugh them off of their shores.  Microsoft, generally more politically smart than Apple, will probably respond in any number of ways.  They could acquire Freedom Scientific or GW Micro, which would make those of us who own stock (or options to) in those companies very happy.  They could release Narrator as an open source product, letting the community of hackers take responsibility for its future while also subsidizing universities and blind consultants to ensure further developments of the software.  Finally, Microsoft could hire an army of attorneys to fight accessibility in world governing bodies but this would probably buy very bad press and cost more than either of the other solutions.

We must also consider countries like Brazil, which choose to use GNU/Linux systems for national security and cost reasons.  In this case, the open source programs from IBM and Sun have a leg up in that, while tragically incomplete at this late point in time, do have something that consultants can start pounding on if subsidized by wealthy nations, corporations and other groups if they grow frustrated with a lack of progress from Microsoft or Apple.

All of this remains purely conjecture and I hope to spend a little time in the coming weeks reading the treaty in its entirety, calling friends in government roles in nations who actually signed the document, read the email from friends who will respond to this item and comments posted here and likely reform my own opinion on the matter a few times.

As I have written here before, I think the optimal results come today from the AT companies.  I truly believe that JAWS is the best screen reader in history and that Window-Eyes is also very, very good, especially when compared to the sad excuses provided on the GNU/Linux and Macintosh graphical desktops.  Some theorists in this area will argue that the text based GNU/Linux screen readers provide the best accessibility and that, instead of trying to square peg a blind friendly user interface into a graphical world, programmers should take graphical programs and create a text interface for them and, consequently, provide 100% accessibility to all of the features in all of the programs; this idea is probably the best but I don’t believe that, outside of a perfect world, this will actually ever be able to provide a collection of applications as broad as that in the mainstream.

So, what do you think?


Blind Confidential declares that the day this treaty language found agreement (August 25) to be a new holiday.  I will suggest the name, Helen Keller Day, as, to my knowledge, she is probably the most well known advocate for people with disabilities in history.  Franklin Roosevelt already has an international award named for him and he did his best to hide his disability.  I must admit, that I can’t think of too many advocates for people with disabilities outside of the US but I am fairly sure that most people with any sort of education around the world have probably heard of Ms Keller.  To celebrate this holiday, I suggest that all people with a disability take a day off with pay from their job and do something to celebrate our rights as human beings as described in this treaty.  People with disabilities in the US should take the day off in protest and, if their employers refuse to pay them for the day, make sure they spend a day at work shirking so they get paid for a day in which their cheap bastard employers refuse to acknowledge their rights as human beings as now recognized in the rest of the world.  Yes, folks, I am suggesting a general strike among people with disabilities beginning on August 25, 2007 and continuing on every August 25 until Helen Keller Day (or something with a different name but same intent) is officially acknowledged by all employers in all states in all nations.  Yes, I know that inciting a general strike is officially illegal under United States Federal laws and is probably illegal under Florida Labor laws as well so, to quote President Bush, “Bring it on!”  I dare any employer or agent of a government, domestic or foreign, to take action against me for calling for this strike.  I double dog dare any AT company on Earth not to start celebrating this holiday when they publish their holiday calendars for 2007 without removing a single other holiday.  It is, now and forever, a holiday because Blind Confidential declared it so.

I ask that that our readers forward this edition of BC to all of their friends and so on.  I will ask my friend Daryl how to start an online petition like he did in the google case to demand that the United States join the treaty and, a second one, to demand that all nations add August 25 as a holiday celebrating the human rights of people with disabilities.  In nations where, for some reason, August 25 is already a holiday, another day should be chosen for this purpose.  

According to United Nations there are more than 635 million people with a disability worldwide.  We represent the world’s largest minority.  Bush and Bolton may work against our interests but we can work for our own revolution.  As the BPP says, “Blinks of the World Unite, You Have Nothing to Lose but Your Canes!”

To any of you weenies who want to criticize me for bashing the soft portions of ADA, the state of Alabama or President Bush (whose Justice Department has taken the side against the person with disability in every case that reached the Supreme Court during his administration) please do so with an explanation of why most of our proud veterans who have returned from Iraq have found gainful employment but less than 10% of those with a qualified disability (VA statistic, not mine) has not.  This means that our patriotic soldiers who sacrificed part of their body fighting for our nation at President Bush’s bequest is less likely to be employed than all other people with disabilities, let alone people without, in this nation.  This statistic, in and of itself, should make all Americans feel tremendous shame.


Subscribe to the Blind Confidential RSS Feed at: Blindconfidential

Published by


I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

One thought on “First Human Rights Treaty of 21st Century”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *