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The ADA Goes Global

The ADA Goes Global: United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Access the Worksheets, Guides and Charts for these Activities


Instructional materials developed by Kansas University Council for the Social Studies in partnership with the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics

Description: During this two day lesson, students use primary sources to analyze arguments that were presented in 2012 when the U.S. Senate considered the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). In separate groups students first consider one argument in depth and then present each argument to their peers in a second group. The class then comes together to deliberate whether the U.S. should ratify the CRPD. This lesson helps students to understand the mechanisms for treaty ratification, as well as the consequences of ratifying the CRPD. Additionally, students practice valuable skills in document analysis and argumentation.

Grade Level: 9-12 (Civics, Government)

Authors: Kelsey Consolver, Sean Duff, Ben Honeycutt, Joey Franzitta, Josh Lutz, and Julie Bergene

Contributors: Joe O'Brien and Tina Ellsworth

Lesson Information

Title: The ADA Goes Global

Unit of Study: Legislation and the Legislative Branch

Course(s): Government, Civics, US History

Grade Level: 9-12

Time: Two days, 50 minute periods


Day 1: Bill vs. Treaty Flow Chart, Senator Dole's A Vigorous Voice letter and related article, National Archives Document Analysis Form, Excerpts from statements from those in support of and opposed to U.N. Convention (Documents A, B, C, D, E, F located at the end of this lesson)

Day 2: Document Comparison Chart, Argumentation Guide

Essential Questions

  • How do/should government policies and their implementation impact persons with disabilities?

  • Why should or should not governments enact policies that impact persons with disabilities?

  • What are the benefits and consequences of signing the U.N. Conventions?

Goals & Objectives

The student will be able to:

  • Compare and contrast the effects of legislation and treaty ratification.

  • Identify and assess arguments in favor of and against ratification of the U.N. Convention.

  • Evaluate consequences for individuals and groups before and after governmental policy change looking at both the ADA and U.N. Convention.

Day 1

Introduction Activity (10 minutes)

  • Have students line up by birthdays (oldest to youngest). Then tell them that today they will vote on a bill that says "The oldest 51% of the students in the class will receive 5 extra credit points." Give students a chance to talk about the bill among themselves. Tell them that in two minutes, they will vote on the bill. Remind them that a bill only needs a simple majority to pass.

  • Have students vote.

  • Then, after they have voted to pass the bill, explain that now we will act as if this is a treaty instead of a bill. This means we will vote again, but this time, we need 2/3 majority to pass. Tell students that in two minutes, we will vote again. Give them a chance to discuss among themselves. They may even try to convince others to vote in favor even though it doesn't benefit everyone.

  • Have students vote.

  • When the treaty doesn't pass, explain why treaty ratification failed when the bill passage was successful. (If the treaty somehow passes, change the parameter one more time to say "The oldest 51% of the class will get 5 points extra credit, while the younger students will lose 5 points" to hopefully force a failure.)

  • The teacher should explain that no students will actually get the extra points.

  • Show students the Bill vs. Treaty Flow Chart and explain how the activity relates to what Congress does when passing bills or the Senate does when ratifying treaties.

  • Tell students that today, they will learn about differences between the two differences between the two procedures by learning about the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 and then about the U.S. Senate's considerations of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Activity Description

  • Today, we are going to look at a bill and treaty that were both before the U.S. Senate for consideration. These two pieces of legislation both dealt with bringing equality to persons with disabilities: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
  • Begin by distributing A Vigorous Voice. Tell students that this 1991 letter from Kansas Senator Bob Dole articulates how the ADA could alter the daily lives of individuals with disabilities inside the United States. The article gives students the background on the accessibility debate in the U.S. in the early 1990s, and describes how the ADA provided accommodations that students today accept as normal. Have students read the letter, and answer the questions on the National Archives Document Analysis Form. Have students share their answers with the class.

Jigsaw Activity (20 minutes)

  • Use the previous discussion to segue into examining the situation for individuals with disabilities on a global level, leading into a discussion over the UNCRPD.

  • Briefly introduce the UNCRPD and what happened when it was introduced in Congress. Explain that there were people both in support of and opposed to the treaty for a variety of reasons. Today, students will analyze those arguments.

  • Divide students into six, equal sized groups. Assign each group a different article that covers debate over the U.N. Convention on Disabilities. Three of the articles will be in favor of ratifying the U.N. resolution, while three others will be opposed to the resolution. The resources for this activity include articles on the following people's positions on UNCRPD:

    • In support of: Senators Dole and Harkin, and the Paralyzed Veterans of America

    • Opposed to: Senators Inhofe and Lee, and Mr. Farris

  • In these expert groups, students will review their assignment text or video source. Using a second or digital copy of the National Archives Document Analysis Form, students will record source information and summarize the author's argument on the ratification of the UNCRPD.

Closure (5 minutes)

Tell students when 5 minutes remain in class and have them wrap up their small group annotation of their document. Tell students to consider what the main argument their document makes, and encourage them to be prepared to share about that document in the next class. (Collect all document analysis forms)

Day 2

Opening (20 minutes)

  • The teacher will review with students the process of passing a treaty, as well as review the text of the ADA and the UNCRPD. Students will then return to their expert groups from the day before. The teacher will then hand back the reviewed document analysis sheet and give students an opportunity to review their materials from the day before.

  • Then, have one student from each group stand up. Those students standing have now formed a new group. Repeat this process until all students are in a new group.

  • Give each student a copy of the Document Comparison Chart and the Argumentation Guide.

    • Note to the teacher: This handout is designed to have students assess the arguments made by their sources based upon their merits and content. One measurement on the handout is the presence of specific evidence to support a claim. This takes the form of explicit references to either the text of the UNCRPD or relevant U.S. legal precedent. For example, in the Senator Harkin resource, the press release explicitly references the US v. Bond Supreme Court Case decision. The second criterion is whether or not the argument is supported by the experiences of individual persons. An example of the second criteria could be the Veterans Association, which explicitly references the experiences of veterans with disabilities overseas.

  • Explain that today, all students will be expected to fill out both charts as students report out.

  • In these new groups, each student will report out his/her findings from the first group using the Document Comparison Chart as a guide. Have non-reporting students fill out the Document Comparison Chart on the presenter's information to allow them to keep notes and do a quick comparison of the information upon completion. After each member in the group has shared his/her document, individual students should consider which argument was the most compelling and the reasons why this is so. Repeat this process until every student has reported out. 

  • Then, students will move their desks into a circle for a large group discussion over the documents and their importance.

Activity Description (25 minutes)

Students each have their documents, as well as their Document Analysis Form. Begin by asking the students about the Dole letter that the class had analyzed the day before. Make sure to highlight all of the different arguments that the piece makes, specifically noting the following:

  • The economic benefits of expanding access for persons with disabilities to the workplace and market.

  • The importance of defending the rights and dignities of persons with disabilities.

  • The ADA provides the framework and guarantee that the United States will be considerate of the hardships for persons with disabilities in the future.

After highlighting these arguments, ask how these arguments could be made with regards to the UNCRPD. Ask the students if any of their documents today make a similar argument. If students are struggling with connecting these issues, try these questions:

  • Why is it beneficial to expand access for persons with disabilities?

  • How does or did American society exclude or discriminate against persons with disabilities? Why does that discrimination matter?

  • Does the spirit of the ADA encourage the United States to expand access for persons with disabilities everywhere? Explain your answer.

Closure (5 minutes)

Using their Argumentation guides, have students choose what they believe was the most compelling argument that either supports or opposes the UNCRPD. Students must also choose the most compelling argument for the opposite side. Students must then defend why those two arguments are the most compelling.


Using the sources, students write an essay for or against the UNCRPD. Students should make an argument for or against the Senate's ratification of the treaty, citing the most compelling arguments they just identified. In their response, students should argue why that author's point was the most compelling out of all of the documents. In their answers, students must also refute at least one argument made by the opposite side.

Document A: Senator Inhofe

A vote to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities fell short in the Senate Tuesday, with the measure receiving 61 votes, six less than the 67 needed for ratification. Thirty-eight Republicans voted no....

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Olka., voted against the treaty because he said he opposes "cumbersome regulations and potentially overzealous international organizations with anti-American biases that infringe upon American society," the Associated Press reported. Critics suggested the treaty could prevent home-schooling parents from making their own decisions concerning disabled children and that it could increase abortions worldwide.

Supporters of the treaty included two former Republican presidential candidates, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, both of whom suffered from disabilities as a result of their military service. Dole, who is 89 (at this time) and has been battling health issues, lobbied senators from a wheelchair in the Senate chamber before the vote was taken.


Read Article: "U.N. treaty on disabilities falls short in Senate," December 4, 2012. Brian Montopoli, CBS News


  • How many votes short of ratification was the U.N Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?

  • What reason did Senator Inhofe give for opposing the treaty?

  • Do critics in this article point to a particular portion of the UNCRPD as leading to the negative consequences above?

Document B: Senator Mike Lee

Senator Pat Toomy and I passed around a letter to my colleagues requesting that Senate leadership not bring treaties to the Senate floor for consideration during my the lame-duck session of the 112th Congress. Here is an excerpt:

"Under Article 6 Section 2 of the Constitution, treaties that receive the advice and consent of the Senate will become the 'supreme law of the land.' ...[and] should undergo the most thorough scrutiny before being agreed upon. The American people will be electing representatives and senators in November, and new and consider any international agreements that are outstanding at the time of their election."

Treaties require a two-thirds majority in the senate for ratification and with the signatures of 37 of my colleagues, we will be able to prevent Senate leadership from hastily passing any new "supreme laws of the land..." ...My colleagues and I expressed concerns with UNCRPD when it came under consideration in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for a variety of reasons:

Concern #1: Sovereignty - Treaties by their very nature affect our sovereign authority to govern ourselves. In this case, parties to this convention are subjected to the direction of an independent committee charged with the duties of making regulations and enforcing the,. In the past similar independent committees have been known to make demands of state parties that fall outside the legal, social, economic and cultural traditions and norms of state parties.

Concern #2: "Best Interests of the Child" - The convention states "in all actions concerning children with disabilities, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration." Subjecting the protection of children with disabilities to an independent committee's definition of the "best interests of the child" is not something I'm comfortable with. Several parental rights groups (including the Home School Legal Defense Fund) have shared this concern and fear this treaty could strip parents of fundamental rights. For example, a right that could be stripped could be the ability to home school a child with disabilities if the Committee (or those carrying out its recommendations) believes it is in the best interests of their child.

Concern #3: Dangerous Precedent for Treaties - By obligating the U.S. to recognize economic, social, and cultural entitlements as rights, this convention sets a precedent for treaties that would actually allow an international body to define our own domestic law. We have never allowed this type of precedent to be set by treaty. While the sentiment of the treaty is admirable, it would be better addressed in a different venue than a binding international law.

Concern #4: Superfluous Treaty for American Rights - The U.S. already has the most comprehensive legislation in the world to protect the rights of Americans with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 provides a private cause of action for the disabled for instances of discrimination in employment, public accommodations, transportation, etc. This treaty does not address any actual need the U.S. is experiencing....

Concern #5: Abortion - There is specific language in the convention that requires parties to "provide persons with disabilities with the same range, quality and standard of free or affordable health care and programs as provided to other persons, including in the area of sexual and reproductive health and population-based public health programs." The Obama administration has declared that abortion itself falls under "sexual and reproductive health" and therefore would fall under the requirements of this language.


Read Article: "Lame Duck Session Not the Time for New Treaty Ratifications," September 24, 2012. Mike Lee, 2012 Annual Report to the State of Utah (pg. 19-20)


  • What are Mike Lee's most compelling arguments against the UNCRPD?

  • What similarities or differences does Mike Lee's stance have with Glenn Beck's stance?

  • What bias does Mike Lee bring to his argument?


Document C: Michael Farris

JUDY WOODRUFF: ...why do you oppose the ratification of this convention?

MICHAEL FARRIS, Home School Legal Defense Association: Treaties are not merely as operational documents. They're international law. They have binding legal effects. And the legal effects have different approaches in different nations, depending on that nation's own constitution, relative to how they treat international law. But they're creating a binding legal obligation to obey the standards that are set forth in the treaty. There were aspirational documents. The U.N. has a declaration on the rights to persons with disabilities. Nothing wrong with the declaration. I am all for these as aspirational statements...I don't believe that using international law to control domestic policy is the most effective way to deliver the kind of services that we need for our disabled community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even though the language here is based on existing law in the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act. What is it that would be different about the U.N. convention from what is already law?

MICHAEL FARRIS: Well, there are several differences in the U.N. treaty. The rules on guardianship are different. The rules on families with disabled children are different. Right now, the law in the United States for families with disabilities are, parents are presumptive decision-makers for their children in every case, unless there is proof of harm. Article 7 of this treaty changes that rule from a presumption of parental authority to a presumption that the best interests of the child standard controls, which is not a equation about what is decided, but who makes the decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that is a reference to the educating of children.

MICHAEL FARRIS: That's right. Right. There are...people...on the moderate side of the Republican Party that have supported the treaty. we want to make our policy decisions for this country using international law or American law? The congressman has properly described his view as setting an as aspirational standard. What we don't need is more aspiration. We need more implementation. And the disabled community has some legitimate complaints about the way families are being treated right now under our own policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ...very quickly, the congressman's point about the United Nations - I'm sorry - that the Supreme Court has said that this kind of language wouldn't supersede American law.

MICHAEL FARRIS: Well, I have filed briefs in the Supreme Court on this very issue. And I have a degree in international law. They're just - his point is relative to the technical meaning of implementation. Do the judges implement it or does Congress have the implementation power? We have a duty when we ratify to obey it. Congress has a duty to implement.


Read Article: "What prevents the U.S. from signing the U.N. disabilities treaty?" March 13, 2014. Excerpts. Michael Farris, Home School Legal Defense Association (PBS)


  • What arguments does Michael Farris make regarding UNCRPD?

  • How do his arguments differ or mirror the previous arguments you have read?

  • What bias does Michael Farris bring to his argument?

Document D: Paralyzed Veterans of America

The CRPD has been ratified by 138 countries and was signed by President Obama in 2009. Despite bipartisan support in the Senate, ratification of the treaty failed late last year on a 61-38 vote, with 67 votes needed for ratification.

Page believes bringing the treaty up for a vote in the Senate will come at a slower pace than even last year, particularly as some senators want more detail on whether the treaty has to potential to supersede U.S. law. Opponents of the treaty argue that because a treaty is an international obligation, international law would trump state laws and be used as a binding precedent by state and federal judges.

But advocates contend that the CRPD reaffirms the U.S. commitment to international disability rights, allowing the nation to lead the effort to ensure that each disabled person is able to live, work, learn, and travel around the world without barriers to access.

"We set the gold standard in disability access, yet our legitimacy to lead other nations is weakened because we have not yet ratified the CRPD," Rep. Temmy Duckworkth, D-Ill., testified at the Nov. 4 hearing. "The CRPD will allow veterans with disabilities to have greater opportunities to work, study abroad, and travel as countries implement this treaty. Veterans, active service members and their families who are affected by disability will be able to lead active lives around the world."

Press Release

Read Press Release: "PVA president reflects on 25 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act" July 7, 2015. Brittany Ballenstedt (Paralyzed Veterans of America)


  • How would signing the UNCRPD indicate that the United States was affirming the international rights of persons with disabilities?

  • How does the UNCRPD benefit United States veterans?

  • Why does the issue of the rights of persons with disabilities particularly affect veterans?

Document E: Senator Tom Harkin

The Senate should act to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) now that the Supreme Court has ruled in the case of Bond v. United States, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) said today. Harkin is the Senate author of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and has helped lead the fight in the Senate to ratify the CRPD. He serves as Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

"The Supreme Court's ruling in Bond has removed any possible remaining reason for hesitating to enact the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Court's decision clearly shows that such a treaty can be ratified, through the use of appropriate reservations, understandings, and declarations, without undermining and, in fact, preserving states' rights.

"The CRPD would build on the work of the ADA and help ensure that people with disabilities can enjoy equal access around the world. I am hopeful that in working on a bipartisan basis with my colleagues, and by continuing to educate other members of the importance of the treaty, we can get the support we need to ratify the treaty during this Congress.

"The unanimous decision of the Court provides a clear pathway for the Senate to ratify the CRPD and protect states' rights. We should hold a vote as soon as possible."

An American delegation under President George W. Bush negotiated and approved the Convention in 2006. The United States signed the treaty in 2009 and submitted it to the U.S. Senate last may for its advise and consent for ratification; a vote on the CRPD fell five votes short in 2012. The treaty requires no changes to U.S. laws or new appropriations.

Press Release

Read Press Release: "Harkin: Senate Should Act on Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Following Supreme Court Decision in Bond," June 2, 2014. Senator Tom Harkin (U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions)


  • What is Bond v. United States?

  • How does Bond v. United States effect the passage of the CRPD?

  • What laws in the United States would ratification of the CRPD require to change?


Optional Video Resources

Video resources for lessons to incorporate multiple means of presentation.

In Support of Ratification

Watch Video: "Harkin Supports U.S. Ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities," July 13, 2012. Testimony of Senator Tom Harkin before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (0:15 - 1:55)

  • Who would ratification of the UNCRPD benefit?

  • How does the UNCRPD expand access for persons with disabilities?

About the Failure of the Treaty

Watch Video: "The Senate Fails To Ratify The United Nations Convention On The Rights For Persons With Disabilities," December 5, 2012. Senator Tom Harkin Statement on the Senate Floor.

  • Why did the UNCRPD fail?

  • Of what were opponents of the UNCRPD fearful?

Document F: Senator Bob Dole

Statement of Senator Robert J. Dole on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Treaty Doc. 112-7) before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Thursday, July 12, 2012.

"Chairman Kerry, Ranking Member Lugar, and members of this Committee ---

"When I delivered my maiden speech on the Senate Floor on April 14, 1969, the anniversary of the day I was wounded in World War II, it was customary to speak about something in which you have a deep interest, and something about which you could offer some leadership. I chose to speak about a minority group...the existence of which affects every person in our society, and the very fiber of our nation. It was an exceptional group I joined during World War II, which no one joins by personal choice. It is a group that neither respects nor discriminates by age, sex, wealth, education, skin color, religious beliefs, political party, power, or prestige. That group, Americans with disabilities, has grown in size ever since.

"When we passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in was a remarkable bipartisan achievement that made an impact on millions of Americans. The simple goal was to foster independence and dignity, and its reasonable accommodations enabled Americans with disabilities to contribute more readily to this great country.

"Americans led the world in developing disability public policy and equality and, while there are places that still have no rights for people with disabilities, many countries have followed our too many countries, people with disabilities remain subject to discrimination.

"The U.S. supported approval of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) [and] in 2009, the U.S. signed the CRPD. This landmark treaty requires countries around the world to affirm what are essentially core American values of equality justice, and dignity. Now the package has been submitted to the Senate for your advise and consent. I want to express my personal support for U.S. ratification of the CRPD and ask that you continue the proud American tradition of supporting the rights and inclusion of people with disabilities.

"U.S. ratification of the CRPD will improve more physical, technological and communication access outside the U.S., thereby helping to ensure that Americans -- particularly, many thousands of disabled American veterans -- have equal opportunities to live, work, and travel abroad. The treaty comes at no cost to the U.S. [and] will create a new global market for accessibility goods... and other new technologies engineered, made, and sold by U.S. corporations.

"The CRPD works to extend protections pioneered in the U.S. to the more than one billion people with disabilities throughout the world. This is an opportunity for the U.S. to join its continuing our historical leadership on disability rights.

"I urge you to support U.S. ratification of this important treaty. Thank you."


  • Senator Dole begins by describing a particular group of Americans that he joined during World War II, which group is this?

  • Senator Dole spoke with the Secretary of State to add conditions of persons with disabilities in the annual report on human rights, why was this change significant?

  • It is argued that the UNCRPD will improve the "physical, technological and communication access outside the U.S," so how would it improve the lives of Americans?