The road to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) has been a long one. In 2012, this international disability rights treaty was defeated by just five votes in the U.S. Senate. Emboldened by that set back, supporters of UUSC, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and EqUUal Access have rallied together and made over 3,000 calls to the Senate expressing support for CRPD. Disability justice can no longer remain an invisible issue. With another opportunity for a vote coming this week, it’s crucial to call your senator to ask them to vote in favor of CRPD. Even if you have already called, please do so again now. We’ve provided instructions and a brief script to help you get started.
Recently, UUSC had the chance to chat with Suzanne Fast, president of the board of directors of EqUUal Access, to discuss disability justice in a spiritual setting, the benefits of CRPD ratification, and some myths. Read the full interview below.
EqUUal Access has been partnering with Unitarian Universalist organizations, including UUSC and the UUA, to advocate for and promote equality for people living with disabilities. What are some of the specific issues EqUUal Access prioritizes?
EqUUal Access has been primarily an education and advocacy organization. We’ve been focused on raising awareness among staff and leaders within the UUA of the experiences of people living with disabilities in our congregations, in other Unitarian Universalist settings, and in the broader society. Last year we published a reflection and resources paper on the stigmatization of people with mental health disabilities, and now we are working on one about exclusionary language and imagery.
Having passed our fifth birthday as an organization, we are working on ways to engage congregations more directly. We’re currently pilot testing a congregational certification program developed in partnership with the UUA, to encourage congregations to deepen their awareness and commitment to accessibility and inclusion. Being engaged with disability justice work is one aspect of becoming a certified congregation.
One of the things we’ve heard over the years is that disability justice isn’t obvious to people. It’s invisible to many. Unitarian Universalists are very aware of the school-to-prison pipeline, voter suppression, educational outcomes in our public schools, income inequality, etc. Often people don’t realize that these same issues disproportionately impact people living with disabilities. So we’re very interested in drawing attention to them. Our partnership with UUSC is a wonderful opportunity to model justice work partnerships for our congregations. And we’ve been working with secular organizations, like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, which lets us add our efforts to the advocacy work of others (and another way we can model accountable disability justice partnerships for our congregations).
You are the president of EqUUal Access’s board of directors. What has been your experience working with the organization?
When I first got involved, EqUUal Access was in its second year. My personal involvement started with people with mobility disabilities meeting over the phone on a monthly basis. It was helpful to hear that I was not alone. Afterwards, I started consulting for the board and hosting workshops at the UUA General Assembly (GA) on the behalf of EqUUal Access. When the 2010 GA made the decision to go to Phoenix in 2012 despite the boycott, we needed to be very focused on why we were there. So, the 2010 GA created an accountability group to help hold the focus, and that group included youth and young adults, and DRUUMM [Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries], LUUNA [Latino (a) Unitarian Universalist Networking Association], TRUUsT [Transgender Religious Professional Unitarian Universalists Together], Interweave, EqUUal Access, and ARE [Unitarian Universalist Allies for Racial Equity]. I served on that group, which was a wonderful exercise in solidarity. Since then I’ve gotten involved in a lot of projects, including serving on the development team for the certification program. Getting a chance to hear people tell their stories has made me realize that, even though we have a long way to go, we have come really far.
How long have you been involved in advocating for the rights of people living with disabilities? What drew you to the work?
Before EqUUal Access I was not involved in disability justice work. My involvement in justice work had been in issues where I’m an ally. During my own training and work as a spiritual director, I would encounter people for whom justice work was their primary spiritual path. What intrigued me was the relationship between the inward process and what we do in the world, what we do for justice. How are these things intertwined? Being involved in justice work where I’m on the margin, not the ally, became important for me in my life. It adds another dimension to my own spiritual journey.
UUSC, the UUA, and EqUUal Access have worked together to advocate for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), an international treaty that would strengthen and protect the rights of persons living with disabilities. UUSC supports this treaty because it provides greater legal protections for vulnerable populations, including people who lack access to safe drinking water and sanitation. In your opinion, what are some other key benefits of the treaty?
This treaty is about countries around the world making a promise to treat people living with disabilities with dignity and respect. The dehumanization of people living with disabilities is so ingrained in society, and as a result it has left many unable to participate in the same opportunities that others take for granted. CRPD helps the 650 million people inside and outside the United States living with disabilities be recognized when they say, “I’m a person.” It’s the foundation and it sets the standards for access to housing, education, employment, and health care. It even protects the opportunity to marry and have children.
What are common misconceptions about CRPD? How do you respond?
If the United States ratifies this treaty then other countries will be able to criticize and tell us how our laws could be different.
I’m not a legal expert, but I know enough to know that the argument is specious. Legal experts in the Senate would agree. If we want to be seen as partners in or active members of the global community, we have to be held to the same standards that we request other countries to be held to. Voting to ratify this treaty is a good place to start.
Parents will not be able to continue making decisions about the welfare of their child living with a disability.
The “lack of choice” is similar to the scare tactic used to dissuade support for the Affordable Care Act. It was not true then, and it’s not true now. Unless, of course, someone is hurting their child — but that is because of U.S. laws we have in place to protect children, not because of the treaty. The ratification of CRPD will not affect parenting or homeschooling or create new rights. It will, however, bring attention to the current rights of people living with disabilities everywhere by tackling the discrimination and marginalization we face.
We’re getting closer and closer to a vote. Last year, the treaty failed ratification in the U.S. Senate by just five votes. Why is it important that people continue their advocacy efforts?
We are making a difference! When the convention came to the floor last year, it had the support of hundreds of veteran and disability organizations, but it got caught up in domestic politics. It was a small group, but a very vocal one, that stopped CRPD. What we see now is that our voices have swelled. Before we were quiet and drowned out by the minority. This year, lots of people have gotten involved. We have turned the tide enormously. But the opposition is still present, so we need to keep up the pressure. We need to continue to tell our senators that this issue matters to us. Let them know that CRPD is about people and civil rights.