Jessica Cox Encourages Senators to Ratify International Disability Treaty


Jessica Cox, the world’s first person without arms to obtain a pilot’s license, visited Washington, D.C., from June 4 to 6 to encourage U.S. Senators to support the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

This landmark disability treaty protects the rights of people with disabilities and was modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It has been ratified by 130 countries, where, in many countries, it is the first convention to extend human rights to people who are all-too-often denied their basic rights. The U.S. Senate came within five votes of ratification in December 2012. All Democrats and 38 Republicans voted for the Treaty.

Cox met with Republican Senators who she thought might be persuaded to support the CRPD, including Senators Jeff Flake (Arizona), Johnny Isakson (Georgia), Mark Kirk (Illinois), Thad Cochran (Mississippi), and Roy Blunt (Missouri). She also met with legislative affairs staff from the offices of Senator Rob Portman (Ohio) and Senator Saxby Chambliss (Georgia).

In her meetings, Cox learned that many Senators disliked the fact that the treaty came to a vote during December’s “lame duck session,” when a new Senators had been voted into office in November, but outgoing Senators were still able to vote. Other concerns included constituent fears that the treaty would alter existing U.S. law, that it would encourage abortion, and that it would take rights away from parents homeschooling their children.

In fact, the disability treaty will not alter U.S. law. (Read "Myths and Facts" about the CRPD here) The treaty makes no mention of abortion, nor of homeschooling. Cox emphasized that the treaty in fact affirms the right to life for people with disabilities and their families and that it does not infringe on the rights of parents, but rather protects them.

The right of persons with disabilities to an educations—Article 24—is especially important to Cox. She told the Senators the story of Hodan, a 17-year-old Ethiopian girl with disabilities. Hodan was kept at home for the first 16 years of her life. “Her parents didn’t see the point in educating her,” Cox said. “One year after Handicap International staff encouraged her parents to send her to school, she is reading, she is happy, and she has friends.” As the treaty cannot alter U.S. law, “homeschooling parents can instead rest assured that while they can continue to decide how and where to teach their children, the U.S. is sending a message to the world that all children, regardless of where they are born, and their abilities, they deserve equal rights, and the opportunity to learn.”

Cox, a devout Catholic who met the Pope Emeritis, encouraged Senators and anyone doubting the disability treaty to read the document and celebrate the treaty’s values and protections. She also stressed how, in practice, the treaty is saving the lives of people with disabilities.

“I was lucky enough to be born in the U.S. where disability laws enabled me to go the same schools and participate in the same activities as other kids,” Cox said. “Traveling to Ethiopia with Handicap International, I saw how new disability laws, including the CRPD, were changing lives. It only makes sense that the U.S. Senate should also support the CRPD.”

Despite being born without arms, Cox earned a degree from University of Arizona and a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, runs her own business, and flies an airplane. She also skydives, snowboards, surfs and drives a car.

Elizabeth MacNairn, Executive Director of Handicap International U.S., attended the meetings with Cox to encourage Senators to support of the treaty. “We see it working, but we know its potential to impact the lives of people with disabilities would be strengthened if the U.S. put its name to the treaty,” she said. “Ratifying this disability treaty tells the world that people with disabilities deserve access to their human rights and fundamental freedoms—their lives are worthwhile, too. It’s simply the right thing to do, and the time for action is now.”

Cox praised Senator John McCain’s (R-AZ) strong support for the treaty. She also met with staff in the office of disability champion, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), as well as with a fellow pilot, Illinois Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth.

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