Proximate and Peripheral: Ableist Discourses of Space and Vulnerability surrounding the UNCRPD

I recently published an essay in a book on The Politics of Place and Space (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2012) about the UNCRPD. Of course, because academic publishing, particularly in edited volumes, takes years, my essay was written during the Bush administration and revised during the early Obama presidency. My research interests shifted to other concerns with disability, particularly access and the built environment. However, given the recent defeat of the treaty in the U.S. Senate, I have been thinking a lot about this essay again because the same discourses seem to be circulating.

As with any UN treaty, there has been substantial opposition on the grounds of U.S. sovereignty. The Bush State Department issued a memorandum that I analyze in my article that claimed that the U.S. did not need to sign the CRPD because the Americans With Disabilities Act was already sufficient in promoting a global signal to other countries that they need to get on board with disability rights. The State Department claimed that it would prefer to conduct the business of disability rights domestically rather than subject the U.S. to outside attacks on its sovereignty. In the article, I argue that claims about the CRPD infringing on U.S. sovereignty construct the nation as a normate body vulnerable to invasion and disease. I write,

The metaphor of the sovereign homeland as a biological body becomes all the more clear  in this context. The coherence of U.S. disability law is characterized as a key element of the well-being of the geopolitical body (such as, in this case, the country’s disability rights regime requiring immunity from international law). In turn, this body engages in strategic interactions outside of its own boundaries only when they enable it to display its autonomy, avoid vulnerability, and therefore to re-assert its self-determination […] The spatial articulation of the ideology of exceptionalism has epistemological significance for the representation of disabled people and non-U.S. agents as lacking the knowledge and experience to enact disability rights regimes. Rather than participating in the mutual enforcement of international norms, the United States claims to influence disability rights efforts unilaterally, inserting its local knowledge into a global framework that should merely extend U.S. values. Privileging itself as a knowing expert in this case maintains the “center/periphery” dynamic by making the United States’ experience with disability practices more relevant or universal, casting other nations as disabled and passive and their knowledge as local and particular.

While I have not been surprised by the rhetoric of American exceptionalism in the most recent debates, I am struck by how illogical this exceptionalism has become. If it is true that the U.S. already has adequate disability rights protections (it does not), then signing and ratifying the treaty would not change anything or require sovereignty-reducing actions by the UN. The only way to argue that ratification would threaten sovereignty would be to admit that the ADA is an inadequate legal regime, rather than one that serves as a model of excellence to other countries.

In the most recent course of events, the rhetoric of exceptionalism has accompanied the escalation of constructed dangers: the loss of parental control over children and danger to homeschool families. The language used by opponents like Michael Farris (“They’re aiming at children with special needs. But ultimately, everyone is in the crosshairs.”) is remarkably dramatic and militarized, as if at any moment UN peacekeeping troops may come in and start shooting at children. Or governments at any level may for the first time in history tell people what to do and make them do it! As Farris claims, “Article 6(2) is a backdoor method of requiring the United States to comply with the general provisions of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. This treaty enshrines abortion rights, homosexual rights, and demands the complete disarmament of all people.” Logic and silliness demand that I inquire as to what “crosshairs” we would all be caught in if all people were disarmed?

(Anderson Cooper’s interview of Senator Mike Lee is especially illuminating on the unevidenced and creative hypothetical fictions spun by these slippery slope arguments.)

On the other side of this debate, we also have the construction of American vulnerabilities. I frequently hear that if the U.S. does not sign the treaty, people in Uganda will not know what to do with their disabled children. The early Obama administration claims about the treaty were that the U.S. would lose its human rights leadership vis-a-vis other countries if it did not ratify. These kinds of claims ignore the leadership role that developing countries and international NGOs have had in crafting the CRPD, which is not, in fact, modeled after the ADA. As I write in my article, the way that the U.S. has taken credit over global disability rights leadership

ignores the contributions to the treaty by the UN general assembly, which includes states in the “global periphery,” such as Brazil and India, that contributed significantly to the drafting process. What this process of expert/local knowledge differentiation exposes is the false dynamic between able-bodied expert nations and disabled nations needing leadership.

Furthermore, I question the basis of human rights claims as a construct of leadership rhetoric:

We must ask what is at stake in the loss of leadership and why such an aspiration functions as a persuasive device. How does the CRPD, a document unrelated to U.S. military or economic power, come to count as part of official discourses about American political, economic, and military leadership? Who is the audience of these press statements, and to what broader discourse over the CRPD do the statements respond? […] What does the U.S. enforcing the treaty within its own borders do to help people with disabilities in non-ratifying countries? The answer, once again, lies in the assumption that when the United States leads domestically, others follow in international spaces beyond its geographic borders, an approach to interdependence that does not emphasize equal partnerships but collective action led by a global hegemon.

Let us also not forget the way that the passage of the ADA itself was rooted in the language of the Cold War and U.S. human rights leadership as proof of its triumph. When the ADA became law, George Bush Sr. gave a speech likening its passage to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Said Bush Sr.,

And today, America welcomes into the mainstream of life all of our fellow citizens with disabilities. We embrace you for your abilities and for your disabilities, for our similarities and indeed for our differences, for your past courage and your future dreams. Last year, we celebrated a victory of international freedom. Even the strongest person couldn’t scale the Berlin Wall to gain the elusive promise of independence that lay just beyond. And so, together we rejoiced when that barrier fell.

And now I sign legislation which takes a sledgehammer to another wall, one which has for too many generations separated Americans with disabilities from the freedom they could glimpse, but not grasp. Once again, we rejoice as this barrier falls for claiming together we will not accept, we will not excuse, we will not tolerate discrimination in America.

That’s funny. Because I’m pretty sure that being terrified of a UN treaty that would promote those same rights to people all over the world because you think it will force your church to put in more disability access spots is a discriminatory attitude. So much for America.

In some ways, I think the sovereignty arguments against treaties have forced treaty proponents to take a defensive position and claim that ratification would actually increase sovereignty through soft power and leadership. As a result, the content of the treaty and its unique approach to disability civil rights are completely papered over. Although the treaty tries to get away from disability as an object of pity and charity, nearly every outraged article I have seen about the Senate defeat of the CRPD has evoked pity as a way of shaming the GOP.

Both sides are completely missing the point, and disability has been further marginalized as a  civil rights category in the process. To quote from my conclusion,

Paradoxically, territorialized and diffuse notions of American leadership’s spatial reach are two sides of the same discursive coin. Invoking vulnerability as related to space, security, and the projection of American power is a paradoxical maneuver that undermines the spirit of the treaty and dilutes its more radical potential. That advocates with opposite positions share the same spatial, ableist, and somatophobic ideological assumptions tells us, as the previous section demonstrated, something about the subtlety of self/other and proximate/peripheral in relation to medicalized difference.

Rather than advancing a social model of disability or challenging the medical model, the rhetoric of vulnerability makes disability a condition to avoid or cure. Recognizing human rights for people with disabilities, however, requires a confrontation with the fear of vulnerability, not just in individual bodies, but also of the geopolitical that U.S. foreign policy strives to secure. Strategically, such a confrontation must include not only further action on disability rights, such as CRPD ratification, but also attention to the way that the fear of vulnerability and disability is ideological, articulated discursively in multiple arenas, and closely tied to geographies of difference.

I want to clarify that I am all for the CRPD. It is an incredibly important human rights treaty on its own terms without any of the gobbeldygook about added value for U.S. sovereignty. I especially like the CRPD’s approaches to addressing structural and socioeconomic issues that disadvantage people with disabilities globally. I appreciate the ways that it has drawn connections between processes of globalization and development, war, and barriers to employment that intersect between disability, gender, and class. Can’t we just, for once, discuss the merits of the content of the treaty and the goals that it sets for a consensus about disability justice within an international community?

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