With over 80% of the world's population now covered by the treaty, what does it mean for assistive technology?
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) continues to make impressive headway. To date, 153 nations have signed the CRPD and 112 have ratified it. According to Axel Leblois, executive director of the G3ict (a UN initiative promoting inclusive information and communication technologies), this means that over 80% of the world's population is now covered by the treaty, representing one of the fastest rates of adoption of any international treaty in history.
This progress is significant, not only for the basic rights of persons with disabilities, but also for AT awareness, research, access, and adoption on a global scale. The CRPD makes the failure to provide "reasonable accommodation" an act of discrimination. And it specifically requires the promotion of accessible information about AT, research and development of AT and accessible information and communication technology (ICT), as well as training for professionals and staff working with individuals with disabilities. It also requires States to provide accessible ICT on par with the built environment and transportation. For ratifying parties, notes Leblois, this means it is as much a legal requirement to provide accessible Web sites and ATMs as it is for public buildings to have ramps.
So how will it happen? After all, treaties are one thing, action is another...
The G3ict is working to advance the treaty's aims through various initiatives and partnerships (see, also, the AT Centers Leadership Network article, this edition). One funding mechanism the G3ict is promoting is the use of Universal Service Funds (generated by telecom providers worldwide). 17 countries, including the U.S., have expanded their Universal Service Obligation (USO) to include funding AT for persons with disabilities. It's a model the G3ict believes has enormous global potential. Originally conceived for hardwiring telephone access to rural areas, Universal Service today generates billions of dollars that can go unspent due to the growing wireless infrastructure. The G3ict is aware that the treaty adds logic and urgency to expanding Universal Service in this way. In its December, 2011 report, Universal Service for Persons with Disabilities: a Global Survey of Policy Interventions and Good Practices, the authors emphasize that nearly all countries with a telecom regulatory authority are parties to the CRPD.
Back in the U.S. of A...
The U.S. signed the CRPD on July 30, 2009, and is now moving toward a Senate vote for ratification. Ratification requires a Senate super-majority (two-thirds in support or 67 senators). Two weeks ago the Obama administration submitted the CRPD to the Senate for its advice and consent for ratification. On May 25th a bipartisan group of seven senators (John McCain [R-AZ], Dick Durbin [D-IL], Jerry Moran [R-KS], Tom Harkin [D-IA], John Barrasso [R-WY], Chris Coons [D-DE] and Tom Udall [D-NM]) issued a press release in support of ratification. "Senate consent to U.S. ratification of CRPD," the statement asserts, "will recognize the fundamental values of non-discrimination and equal access for persons with disabilities in all areas of life and help protect Americans with disabilities who work and travel abroad from discrimination, including disabled veterans."
Once the Senate votes to ratify, the CRPD is then signed by the president at which point it becomes enforceable. U.S. ratification, however, would likely not impact U.S. laws. According to the U.S. International Council on Disabilities (USICD), in cases where existing U.S. law (i.e. the ADA) is not consistent with the CRPD, the U.S. can ratify the treaty subject to Reservations, Understandings, or Declarations (RUDs). So why should the U.S. bother? The USICD is seeking ratification because "[It] would present the opportunity for a reaffirmation of these values and provide the forum to advance them worldwide." 
1. Leblois, Axel. "New Opportunities for Assistive Technologies," Friends of ATIA Newsletter, November, 2011.
2. Bhartur, Deepti & Leblois, Axel & Narasimhan, Nirmita, Universal Service for Persons with Disabilities: a Global Survey of Policy Interventions and Good Practices, The Centre for Internet and Society & The Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies, December, 2011.
3. http://www.usicd.org/index.cfm/crpd-faq (May 27, 2012).