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Veterans Groups Urge Congress To Approve Disabilities Treaty

By Hayes Brown  

"Veterans Groups Urge Congress To Approve Disabilities Treaty"

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Veterans Mental Health

CREDIT: AP

Veterans groups are preparing for an increased push to convince U.S. senators to finally ratify an international treaty intended to raise the standard of living of people with disabilities after last year’s failure to reach the threshold needed to pass into law.

The United Nations agreed to the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2007, with the Obama administration signing on in 2009. Since then, it has been held-up in the Senate, lacking the two-thirds support necessary for ratification. A push during last year’s lame-duck session saw the treaty fail by just five votes, despite former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS) on the Senate floor whipping votes from his wheelchair. After the vote’s failure, current Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) promised that the treaty would come back in the 113th Congress.

ThinkProgress spoke with Chris Neiweem, a veteran and Director of Veterans Policy with Vets First, about how he and his fellow veterans view the chances of the CRPD moving forward and just how it affects veterans. Neiweem said that last week’s hearing was encouraging, because there was concern during the last round of debate over the treaty that senators hadn’t had time to properly consider the treaty before voting. Those process concerns are mostly gone, he said, leaving many Senate Republicans open to the learning more about the CRPD before making up their minds this time around.

Neiweem was more circumspect when asked specifically how many more Republican votes they believe can be obtained in the coming effort.”I look at it as a chessboard and it’s early to talk specific numbers as there’s so many minds that are now open,” he said. He insisted that there are many more senators being targeted for visits than the five who managed to sink the treaty last year. “It’s around nine, ten, eleven, somewhere in there,” Neiweem said.

Republicans in support of the CRPD are already attempting to change their colleagues’ minds. Particularly notable is Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week on behalf of, as he put it, his “fellow broken people.” Kirk suffered a stroke in January 2012, and has been recovering ever since then. His fellow Republican, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), also read out a message from Dole to the committee, urging its ratification.

Part of the reason for Neiweem’s confidence that the CRPD can pass this time around is that the treaty actually models itself after the U.S.’ own Americans with Disabilities Act, which has been lauded as the gold standard for disability rights around the world. As such, the treaty itself would not actually impact American law. Instead, the treaty will be used as a show of support, encouraging other countries around the world to sign on and bring their own standards up to the U.S.’ level.

That, Neiweem said, will greatly impact veterans who work and travel overseas, as well as soldiers currently in active duty and their families. “The fact is you have disabled children of vets and servicemembers overseas who have the same needs for access as you see here,” he said.

Neiweem specifically pointed to a veteran named Steve Baskis, who Kirk referenced in his testimony this week. Blinded while serving, he has spent the last few years as an avid climber, but has had a harder time getting though airport security in some countries than climbing a mountain. While traveling, he has experienced all sorts of inconveniences, including having his walking stick taken away.

“In some countries they think its a weapon, all because they don’t have experience and training in disability issues that we do,” Neiweem lamented, arguing that the U.S. should be at the table discussing these issues with the rest of the international community. Neiweem pointed out that there are roughly 5.5 million disabled American vets and over 3 million receiving disability compensation, “so if they travel overseas, very much impacts them.”

So far the coalition of veterans groups lobbying for ratification include some of the largest in the U.S. and the number of those who have signed on continues to grow. Among them include the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Vietnam Veterans of Americans. While there is clearly some overlap, together those four groups alone have almost 4.6 million members, a huge amount of people who can possibly be mobilized in pressing the Hill. As Neiweem also pointed out to ThinkProgress, the memberships of these groups aren’t exactly all progressives or Democrats.

In the weeks ahead, these groups intend to make the most of their numbers, continuing to have visits with lawmakers to educate them about the treaty and increasing outreach to the media. Grassroots lobbying efforts will also be engaged, according to Neiweem, to help counter the many phone calls Congressional offices tend to get in opposition to legislation. Another hearing is due to take place in the coming weeks, providing more opportunity for legislators to learn even more about the treaty.

Opponents to the treaty are also gearing up for a fight, something Neiweem is already preparing to counter. “You will hear opponents and the Heritage Foundation will say ‘you’re saying to vets that this treaty will help them overseas and it won’t and it’s an insult to them’,” Neiweem said. “I’m an Iraq War veteran, so I don’t want them speaking for me.”

This time around, Neiweem hopes, “as the hearings go on this year, the supporters are hoping that through more hearings and more time, people will see that the arguments that we heard last year were absolute misinformation and it’s not going to add up this time.”

Among the most vocal of naysayers during last year’s fight was former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) and his Patriot Voices campaign. Santorum specifically charged that signing onto the treaty would threaten the rights of parents of children with disabilities, like himself, turning the sovereignty of the United States over to the United Nations.

Neiweem isn’t very much impressed with Santorum’s claims. “I think our nation’s military understands something about sovereignty, having defended it since 1775,” Neiweem said. “When I think about ‘Patriot Voices,’ I think about our veterans service organizations, because they’ve been actually defending this country’s sovereignty.”

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