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Originally published Friday, February 28, 2014 at 4:54 PM

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Guest: Why the U.S. needs to join the U.N. on disability rights

Congress should ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, according to guest columnists Shandra Benito and Terhas Clark.

Special to The Times

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — We are not a likely pair of Americans to end up as roommates in Addis Ababa.

Terhas is an introvert, who was born in the desert-like highlands of Tigray, located in the north of Ethiopia, and immigrated to the U.S. after contracting polio.

Shandra, on the other hand, is an extrovert born to a middle-class family in the green, liberal mecca of Seattle.

Yet we are united by the opportunities the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 has provided us. Terhas is physically disabled and uses a wheelchair, and Shandra is deaf. Today we work at the same nongovernmental organization dealing with issues of disability and economic development.

Our time in Ethiopia has given us a perspective on being Americans with disabilities in a developing country, where the rights we take for granted don’t exist.

Recently, Terhas went to a coffee shop where the owner blatantly denied her access to the building. That night, enraged, Terhas told Shandra what had happened, exclaiming, “It was my right to have access.”

Shandra responded, “Does the right to equal access actually exist for us here in Ethiopia?” This raised the question: What does it mean to be an American with a disability in a foreign country?

Born in the early 1990s, we are the ADA generation. Thanks to the work of U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, former Sen. Bob Dole and other advocates, we have never known a United States where we could not proudly hold our heads high. We know that we are viewed as equal and deserving under our Constitution.

This has allowed us to be scholars, leaders and now public servants overseas. However, those rights are threatened by congressional failure to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a treaty that draws on the principles of the ADA to establish international standards for equal access and opportunity for people with disabilities around the world.

Opponents argue that adopting the treaty would threaten U.S. sovereignty and supersede already strong domestic policy on the rights of people with disabilities. These arguments are weak compared with the benefits for Americans and the harm done when we are not a part of the conversations on international regulations and policy by treaty members.

People with disabilities are the single largest minority group in the United States. U.S. Census Bureau statistics tell us that close to 20 percent of the population identify as having an intellectual, psychosocial, physical, sensory, developmental or medical disability.

According to the U.N., as life expectancy climbs, the average person in America is predicted to experience disability for at least 11 years of his or her life. Whether you currently identify as having a disability or not, the issues of disability rights affect you. If you plan on traveling or living abroad, your rights depend on international disability access.

In today’s global economy, more young people like us are traveling, living and working abroad. There are more job opportunities abroad for young professionals than ever before. We are looking to a future where global understanding and cultural competency are required skills to be competitive in the job market. Failing to ratify the U.N. convention makes this participation in the global economy harder for us.

Secretary of State John Kerry has said that by not ratifying the convention, the U.S. is excluded from discussions on education, accessibility and employment standards.

“And the bottom line is when we’re not there,” Kerry said, “other countries with different, and unfortunately often a lower standard, a lower threshold, wind up filling the void.”

We have seen the impact of this void not only on the disability community here, but also on the impact it has on our own liberty.

Shandra Benito is an intern from the Seattle University International Development Internship Program. Terhas Clark is an inclusive training and employment officer on a USAID-funded project.

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