LiveAtState Virtual Town Hall: Disabilities Treaty

PBS NewsHour Co-Anchor, Managing Editor Judy Woodruff; International Disability Rights Special Advisor Judith Heumann; The Honorable Patrick Murphy
Washington, DC
November 19, 2013

Co-Anchor and Managing Editor of PBS NewsHour Judy Woodruff hosts a discussion with Special Advisor for International Disability Rights Judith Heumann and the Honorable Patrick Murphy.

MS. WOODRUFF: Hello, and welcome to the State Department’s first LiveAtState virtual town hall. This is an online video and webchat platform that allows the public to engage with the United States State Department with its officials on foreign policy issues.

Today, we are going to be speaking with Judy Heumann and Patrick Murphy about the Disabilities Treaty and its connection to people with disabilities at home in the United States and abroad.

And before I begin the conversation, I just want to make a few housekeeping notes, very straightforward. You can start submitting your questions right now on the bottom of the window that is titled “Submit Your Question.” We welcome those questions. We’re going to try to get to as many of them as possible in the time that we have, which is about 30 minutes. If you have any difficulty at all, you can submit your questions via email to or you can submit using Twitter using the hashtag #AskState. So keep trying. There are all sorts of ways to get your questions in.

And with that, let’s get started. First of all, Judy Heumann is Secretary Kerry’s Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the Department of State. She’s an internationally recognized leader in the disability community, a lifelong civil rights advocate for people who are disadvantaged. Judy had polio as a young woman, as a child. She has experienced firsthand the barriers that people with disabilities experience when traveling abroad.

Patrick Murphy is currently a partner at Fox Rothschild, the law firm in Philadelphia. He’s a retired Army captain and Iraq War veteran who served in the United States House of Representatives representing Pennsylvania’s eighth district. He’s also currently working for the Department of State in supporting efforts to secure ratification of the Disabilities Treaty. So thank you both for being with us today.

Judy Heumann, I’m going to start with you by asking: The United States already has the American – the ADA, which provides for people with disabilities to have rights. This is something that was passed, what, 20 years ago, 23 years ago.

MS. HEUMANN: 23 years ago. Right.

MS. WOODRUFF: Why then does the United States need to have a treaty like the one we’re talking about?

MS. HEUMANN: So we believe that ratification of the treaty will allow the United States to regain our position as the leader in the area of disability rights and that it will enable us to be able to work with other governments and civil societies in countries that have ratified and to work with other countries to encourage them to ratify.

The main premise for why we believe the treaty is so important is because, as the world becomes smaller through globalization, it is critically important that disabled individuals, veterans and civilians, be able to have equal opportunities overseas to what their non-disabled peers have, so the ability to study abroad, the ability to travel abroad, the ability to work abroad. When we ratify the treaty, it will enable us to have a much clearer ability to work with other countries, to help them learn about how we’ve developed our laws and how those laws over the last three or four decades have really made a significant difference in our country.

MS. WOODRUFF: Patrick Murphy, what would you add to that? I mean, we – this country already has the Americans with Disabilities Act. Why is this international treaty important?

MR. MURPHY: Well, it’s critically important because, Judy, we have 5.5 million veterans who are disabled and their families. And that means that when they go overseas they don’t have the things that they’re used to here in America. The ADA is the gold standard, as Judy said. And that’s why we need to make sure that our friends, our allies, ratify – that we ratify here at home and they become, frankly, more like us.

I was very blessed. I came back. I was in Baghdad 10 years ago. I served in Iraq. It was my second deployment. And I lost 19 men in my unit, and I know that I was one of the lucky ones. But I came back and then I ran for the U.S. Congress. And I wanted to be the voice of the returning veteran. And that’s why we passed things like the new Post-9/11 GI Bill and repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But there’s tens of thousands of my fellow veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan who came back without limbs, who are disabled. And they need a level playing field when they travel overseas, whether it’s for pleasure or, frankly, with work.

Right now with the global economy, a lot of these veterans, when they go back in the private sector, their jobs demand that they go overseas and that they travel, and I want to make sure they have a fair shake to succeed when they come back home.

MS. WOODRUFF: All right. We’re already getting questions coming in from our virtual audience out there, and we appreciate that. We’re watching those and we’re going to start taking them, but I have a couple of questions first that I’d like to ask.

To Judy Heumann, to you again, since this treaty does not, as I understand it, have enforcement mechanisms – there’s no way a country can be required or forced to make accommodation for people with disabilities, to give them rights – what’s the point of a treaty like this?

MS. HEUMANN: When other countries are ratifying the treaty and when the U.S. ratifies the treaty, they’re obligating themselves to do the best they can to implement various articles. So it’s kind of a good-faith effort. There is no entity that can say you’ve done this wrong and you must do such and such.

But for example, in the United States, one of the things that we discuss overseas is we have good laws that have been developed involving the Congress and civil society. A good law to us also has good implementation provisions and also has enforcement provisions. If a law is to mean anything, it needs all of those characters. And we want to be able to work with other governments and civil society to get them to understand if they’re going to be developing laws, for example, on new construction, they need good standards. We can work with them to help them look at what a good standard is, because we’ve got decades of experience. We can help them get a better understanding of when a standard is not enforced, is there a government agency that can go back in, a government agency of the government that ratified the treaty, to go back in and say you have not done this correctly, this is what you need to do, which is what we have in this country.

MS. WOODRUFF: All right. And I’m sure – or perhaps some of the questions coming in later may pick up on that. I want to ask you, Patrick Murphy, a different question, and that is one of the – I’ve been, of course, doing some reading on this, and one of the questions that recurs among people who are critical of this treaty is they say well, this means that the United States would be subjugating U.S. law to international law, that by signing onto a treaty, the U.S. could end up being in a position where we are required to do things that our Congress and our – the American people don’t want to do.

MR. MURPHY: And that’s not true. And we’ve tried to make sure that we get the word out there that that isn’t the case, and that’s why we have a question-and-answer on the website with the Frequently Asked Questions. And that’s why we – Judy and I were just with a bunch of VSOs, Veteran Service Organizations – the VFW, the American Legion, IAVA, Iraq-Afghanistan Veterans of America – and we came together and we talked about the – and they brought those concerns to us as well, Judy. And I will tell you that when we walked them through to let them know that we have the gold standard in America through the ADA, the American Disabilities Act, which we passed 23 years ago, we should be proud about that.

And what we’re asking by ratifying this is other nations, our friends, to say please join us and make sure that our 5.5 million veterans have a fair shake, that our American citizens can travel overseas and not worry that they can’t get over an eight-inch cutout in a curb walking across the street or going across the street in a wheelchair. These are simple, common-sense measures that we have already done in our own country that we’re hoping to – that they follow our lead overseas.

MS. WOODRUFF: I ask because the – and Judy, you want to follow up – because what – from reading some of the critics, they’re saying, “But wait a minute. This – it sounds good, but we fear what it could lead to is that there could be an international law that the U.S. is then required to go along with.”

MS. HEUMANN: I’m not a lawyer, but the United States has ratified many, many treaties. We clearly understand that when the U.S. ratifies a treaty, there is not an external body that can come in and make us do something we don’t want to do.

But the point that I want to make is, as a disabled person, there is no way that I would be working on a treaty that in any way, shape, or form would even have the possibility of making our laws weaker. Our laws are clearly the strongest laws in the world. The disability community around this country would not be supporting ratification of a treaty that could remotely weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act.

MS. WOODRUFF: Well, let’s take now some of the questions, if I can figure out how to get back up to the top question, and I’ll do that. Let’s see if I can do it. I may have to go to question two.

MR. MURPHY: Someone texted me, Judy, and they said – instead of LiveAtState they want to call this the Two Judy Show with the two Judys here. (Laughter.) I’m just one of your guests. This is my first time.

MS. WOODRUFF: Well, I’m not able to get back to question one, but I’m going to start with question two. This comes from Paul Grossman in California, and he asks – and Patrick, I’ll put this to you: “Will the convention – the treaty – make it possible for American college students engaged in semester abroad programs to get accommodations?”

MR. MURPHY: Exactly. And that’s one of the great, great advantages of this treaty that allows not just the 5.5 million veterans that travel overseas, but college students and everyday Americans. So they – because this is such now a global economy and we have to compete against other countries and we have to travel for our jobs overseas oftentimes, we’re at a disadvantage, or some of our disabled Americans are at a disadvantage if they can’t do their job that they’re asked to do.

MS. HEUMANN: So I think the way to look at this is also the United States, since our first law, Section 504, prohibiting discrimination with – in programs that receive federal financial assistance, which covers all universities and community colleges, so we’ve had an obligation since 1973 to have our community colleges and universities become accessible. And accessible has been more than just physical accessibility. It’s also meant that universities have an obligation to ensure that disabled students can have access to those programs that they need to successfully achieve in order to graduate.

So in answer to Paul’s question, again, if we’re looking at the model that the U.S. can help export the work that we’ve done in the United States overseas to help benefit U.S. students that would be traveling overseas, I would definitely say yes, that the ability to demonstrate that over the last number of decades we have – we have data on this.


MS. HEUMAN: We’ve increased the number of students going on to higher education who are graduating from higher education who have all types of disabilities, so we should believe the same thing will be true when we ratify.

MS. WOODRUFF: All right. Now we have another question. This one identifies herself or himself as a participant in the program, but this came in the form of an email: “I’m a parent of three adopted children with disabilities. It’s my understanding that the treaty, the CRPD, will have the force of law if it’s accepted, and it’s also my understanding that it will essentially take away parents’ rights to choose what is best for their children with disabilities and give these rights to the state. And I hope you’ll address this.”

Patrick Murphy, how would you answer it, and then Judy?

MR. MURPHY: Well, I would say – and I appreciate the question, but that isn’t true. We would never take away a parent’s right to raise their children. We just are trying to empower them to have the same opportunities as other disabled children in our country to go overseas with our allies.

And Judy, did you want to comment? I didn’t mean to cut you off.

MS. WOODRUFF: And I want to ask you also because I’ve read other comments from parents who expressed concerns about this saying they are – they fear that it would lead to, for example, their not being able to continue to home school their children.

MS. HEUMANN: So if I could please address that, again, the treaty would require no additional obligations on the United States. So the laws, the policies, the practices that exist now in the area of home schooling would stay in place. We have something called Reservations, Understandings, and Declarations that are a part of the treaty when it would be ratified, which clearly articulate the fact through a federalism RUD. And if the listener would like to speak to me further afterwards, I’d be happy to do that. But the federalism RUD ensures and makes very clear that nothing in ratification of the treaty would take away the rights of parents or the rights of others in other areas.

Let me say, however, that one positive thing that I actually would hope that the home schoolers were looking at is home schooling is done more in the United States than most other countries around the world. And we have been able in the U.S., both at the federal level with laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and then states as they implement their own states’ provisions, be able to ensure that families can, in fact, home school their children. So for us, if we ratify the treaty, that gives us an opportunity to speak with other governments and other parents to say, oh, if you’re interested in home schooling, this is what we do in the United States, and we can help you meet other people to talk about what we see as the value of home schooling.

So I don’t think this is something that families should be concerned about, but rather look at this as an opportunity.

MR. MURPHY: Can I just mention something else real quick?

MS. WOODRUFF: Sure, yeah.

MR. MURPHY: I think it was in a broader context, Judy. And I understand, there’s concern – there was concerns and I think most of them have been addressed, but we have been ratifying treaties for centuries now in our country. I mean, the U.S. constitution – I used to teach at West Point constitutional law. It’s in our constitution that the Senate ratifies treaties, and we have done it. And this is a clear no-brainer. It doesn’t cost us any money. We’ve already – because we’ve already implemented the ADA decades ago, and it’s just allowing our American citizens to get a fair shake.

And for those who sometimes – and there are people out there that sometimes bring up issues that aren’t necessarily true and they know aren’t true – to stand in the way of men and women who have bore the cost of war and have lost their limbs for our country – and not to give them the same fair shake as other Americans is disturbing to me.

And I will tell you that there has been no greater champion for the American veteran than John Kerry. And I am proud that he’s the Secretary of State. I’m proud that he’s a friend. And when he asked me to join this effort – and I did my homework before I agreed – I was proud to put my name behind this, and make sure I could do everything in my power to make sure those veterans have a voice and a fair shake across this globe.

MS. WOODRUFF: I hear you. I hear you. All right. Well, the questions continue to pour in. Here’s another one. This question comes from Marge – I hope I’m pronouncing this correctly – Plasmier. She is with an organization, She says: “How do you foresee the U.S. ratification of the treaty impacting employment for people with disabilities in both this country and abroad?”

Judy Heumann.

MS. HEUMANN: So I would say that following the line that we’ve been discussing, we look at the record of the United States, we look at the various pieces of legislation that we have in place in the United States to help advance employment for disabled people here. We will then be able to speak with other governments and businesses overseas to talk with them about the work that we’ve been doing. We have organizations in the U.S. like the United States Business Leadership Network and other groups. USBLN is made up of major corporations – at least 65 companies – that work together specifically on advancing employment opportunities for disabled people in the U.S., and many of those companies are supporting ratification of the treaty because they see this as something important that they will then be able to also use what they’re doing here as a model overseas.

MS. WOODRUFF: And I just want to remind those of you who are watching, you can submit questions by going to – I’m going to get this right – the bottom of the window in the place that’s titled question – “Submit your questions.” So you can do that. You can also submit a question by email to or via Twitter using the hashtag #AskState.

Now here’s another question that’s come in. This is from Amina Kruck with the Arizona Bridge to Independent Living. And I’m going to put this question to you, Patrick Murphy: “How does the Bond case relate to CRPD, the treaty? Our Senator Jeff Flake had a concern about the bond case.”

So I’m not even able to explain what the Bond case is, so I trust that both of you know what we’re talking about.

MR. MURPHY: Yeah. And I know – I served with Senator Flake when we were both in the House of Representatives, and I know Secretary Kerry has met with him and I think they addressed the issues. And I know on the website we actually addressed that case.

But from my understanding and my read of the case and the issues here, that there’s nothing that would hurt an American citizen; nothing that would hurt someone in Arizona or anywhere across our great country when it comes to the ADA or our obligations under this treaty.

MS. HEUMANN: So the Bond case is relating to the Chemical Weapons Treaty. And one of the issues in the Bond case is that after the Chemical Weapons Treaty was ratified, the Congress developed implementing legislation, and there’s a long story behind it which we don’t need to get into, but the crux for us is we do not need to have any implementing legislation to – for the Disabilities Treaty, because we have the Americans with Disabilities Act and many other pieces of legislation that we believe will enable us to implement the treaty as it is today.

MS. WOODRUFF: You mean that are already on the books?

MS. HEUMANN: Already on the books, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Section 504, the Architectural Barriers Act, various FCC laws we have many, many different pieces of legislation. And so we separate the Bond case from the Disabilities Treaty, and the Bond case was argued in the Supreme Court two weeks ago, and that’s why Senator Flake, I think, came forward and said let’s wait till we get an outcome on the Supreme Court’s decision.

We’re saying we do not need to wait because we do not need implementing legislation for the Disabilities Treaty. The two are very different. We can allow the Bond case to take the course that it will take, and the Disabilities Treaty should be able to move forward.

MR. MURPHY: And can I just add real quick, Judy’s absolutely right. And what – if I can make an analogy: When I served on my two deployments, we have what’s called SOFA agreements, Status of Forces Agreements. And a lot of times, folks back at home say, “Oh, don’t sign that. It would subjugate our American soldiers to foreign national lands under military justice or criminal justice issues,” which isn’t the case because we already had the UCMJ, Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is actually U.S. law. We’ve had court martials. When I was in Baghdad, unfortunately I had to court martial 16 soldiers over there – our own soldiers over there.

So those – our military justice system works because we already have U.S. law in place. The best analogy is we have – the ADA is already in place in America. We already have it. It’s working. And it’s – that’s the best analogy that I always give when I talk about the Bond case and why this has been brought up as an issue but really isn’t – it’s a difference without a distinction, I would say.

MS. WOODRUFF: All right.

MS. HEUMANN: And the bottom line is we need no implementing legislation.

MR. MURPHY: Right.

MS. WOODRUFF: All right. Again, we hear you. So here’s another question. This comes from Axel Leblois, President and Executive Director of Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs. Axel asks: “No one has mentioned so far the considerable benefits for Americans with disabilities at home that the U.S. can derive from promoting a global harmonization of accessible products and assistive technologies which the treaty dispositions call for. We see IBM on the agenda this coming Friday. Do you expect this topic to be discussed?”

And I think this coming Friday refers to what?

MS. HEUMANN: Thursday, he’s talking about.

MS. WOODRUFF: Thursday, okay.

MS. HEUMANN: Thursday is the next hearing.

MS. WOODRUFF: Okay. On Capitol Hill?

MS. HEUMANN: And IBM – exactly. And IBM will be one of the witnesses --


MS. HEUMANN: -- before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. So IBM, among other things, I presume, is going to be speaking about why they believe standardization is very important for companies – IT companies. The U.S., again, has developed very strong standards in the area of information technology, and we want to ensure that standards which are being developed around the world are harmonized with our standards. So the ability for us to ratify the treaty, again, puts us back in a leadership position.

Remember there are 138 countries that have now ratified the treaty, so we are becoming more and more of an outlier by not having ratified. And IBM and the other major IT associations have all come out supporting the treaty ratification.

MS. WOODRUFF: Okay, all right, straightened that out. Now we have a question. This person doesn’t give us a name. They just say a participant from ODS asks: “As you know, developing countries are faced with difficult choices from basic necessities for the population, which is where the majority of the funding is dedicated. What kind of assistance is the United States willing and able to provide to these countries to increase accessibility for individuals with disabilities?” This is a budget question.


MS. WOODRUFF: Patrick or Judy? Okay.

MS. HEUMANN: So I would say that the treaty will not impact the budget that the United States Congress develops as far as our overseas aid. But the point that I think is very important is countries – any country, really, rich or poor – but particularly middle-income and poor countries that have very limited resources, it’s all the more important that we are able to work with them as they move forward, for example, in building new roads, building new buildings, building schools, health clinics, creating transportation systems and the like.

Our ability to come in and help them look at and learn about the standards that we have developed and improved on for many decades will help them do something right the first time. If you look at the United States – and I’m going to be 66 years old, so I have decades of experience when we had no such thing as curb cuts, ramps on the corners of streets. And as those curb cuts began to get – be developed, they were frequently put in really badly. And so when they were put in badly, we had to go back in and fix them.

Or in countries around the world where I travel and I see new sidewalks being built where no curb cuts are being put in, that is going to mean they either stay inaccessible for decades or they’re going to have to go back in and fix them and spend a lot of money. So we believe our getting in there now with the best standards will help those countries do things the right way.

MS. WOODRUFF: All right. I want to come back – and this may be the last question – to a question that was raised in – again, in some of the reading I did, from the critics, people who have been critical of the treaty until now. They point out – they say that the treaty guarantees free or affordable access for people with disabilities to, quote, “sexual and reproductive health and population-based public health programs.”

And they go on to say that this must mean that the treaty encompasses abortion and enshrines abortion rights in international law.

MS. HEUMANN: So let me say categorically that this is an antidiscrimination treaty. It gives no new rights to people in the United States. Abortion is not a part of the treaty. The word does not appear anywhere in the treaty.

But if I could very briefly say the issue of sexual and reproductive health came up in the treaty because many women with disabilities who were participating in the discussions regarding the treaty being developed were saying that as disabled women, they were being denied basic healthcare. So if they needed to go to a healthcare clinic, it wasn’t accessible. They would go to a healthcare clinic and people working in the clinic would say, “You have a disability. You’re not sexual. Therefore, there’s no need for you to be tested for things like HIV/AIDS.”

And we – that story was repeated and repeated. So the use of that language really had nothing to do with the issue of abortion. The use of that language also looked at things like women with disabilities not having to be forcibly sterilized or to have abortions against their will, as we’ve seen in many countries around the world. So if anything, it was to grant greater rights.

MS. WOODRUFF: All right. And I’m going to – this – again, this – now this may be truly the last question. I’m going to turn to you, Patrick Murphy.

John Williams with Assistive Technology News asks: “What must the U.S. do to ratify the treaty?” You’re someone who’s served in the Congress. You know how it works. What has to happen now for this – if this is to be --

MR. MURPHY: Well, I served in the House of Representatives, but it is the Senate.

MS. WOODRUFF: That’s right.

MR. MURPHY: So the next – we have a hearing this Thursday, Senator Menendez’s committee, and they will have a committee vote eventually if there’s testimony, and then it will go to the full body of the Senate, and that’s when you need two-thirds vote.

MS. WOODRUFF: Two-thirds vote, so 67 senators.


MR. MURPHY: Correct. So that’s the procedure. I would say to John this should be a no-brainer – this is me as an independent citizen – this should be a no-brainer. We should be so proud that the American with Disabilities Act that we passed 23 years ago is still the gold standard for the world, and we should put our name to it and be proud of that, and hopefully the U.S. Senate recognizes that, understands that this is no cost to the American taxpayer, this is the right thing to do, and it allows millions of Americans – including the 5.5 million veterans – to have a fair, level playing field when it comes to traveling overseas and the rest of the country.

MS. WOODRUFF: All right. Judy, final comment from you? I think we’re out of time. I’m waiting for a signal that we are. I think we’re close to the end. Is that right? We are. So final comments?

MS. HEUMANN: I just want to thank everybody who’s participating in this and say that what’s been very exciting over the last year is to see that hundreds and thousands of people around the United States are finally understanding the importance of this. There were more than 200 people who came to the hearing a couple of weeks ago, exercising our democratic rights.

MS. WOODRUFF: All right. Judy Heumann, Patrick Murphy, we thank you both. That’s all the time we have for today. We want to thank you for submitting so many questions. We were only able to get to some, as you heard, but I think we were able to cover a lot of ground with our conversation. And I want to say to all of you who are tuning in, just remember you can continue the discussion after this program. Use the hashtag #DisabilitiesTreaty. You can also follow on Twitter using @StateDept and @IntDisability. I think that’s right.

So keep up the conversation. This is not the end of it. Thank you very much, and on behalf of Judy and Patrick, I’m Judy Woodruff. Thanks.