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Paralympic Sports: Wheelchair Rugby

Chuck Aoki: Should the US ratify the UN Convention?

The wheelchair rugby player blogs about the first steps in changing perceptions in America about people with an impairment. 16 May 2014
Chuck Aoki

Wheelchair rugby bronze medallist fist bumps US President Barack Obama at the White House following the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

ⒸGetty Images
By Chuck Aoki

While I realise that ratifying the Convention won't change the mindset in the US overnight, it is the sort of top-down change that can affect the Paralympic Movement and people with an impairment in the US for decades to come.

This summer, the United States Senate could attempt to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Some people in the US might ask why this is necessary. After all, we already have the Americans with Disabilities Act. Why do we need the UN Convention?

Ratifying the UN Convention in the US is important for many reasons, but I'll focus on my area of expertise, which is the benefits that ratification would have on Paralympic sport in the US.

First off, for those who do not know, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), was passed in 1990 in the USA. This law prohibits any discrimination toward people with an impairment in areas such as employment, access to public locations and transportation, and it requires telecommunications, such as phone services, to be accessible to all.

This has been a monumental step for people with an impairment in the US and has created accommodations for thousands, if not millions of people across the country. The US has given accommodations to people with an impairment on an unprecedented level across the world.

So why doesn't this translate to Paralympic sport performance and popularity in the US?

To set the frame of reference, the US finished first in both the gold medal count and overall medal count at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

In the Paralympics? Not so much.

The US was fourth in the overall medal standings and sixth in gold medals.

But no one noticed.

Why is that?

While the easy answer is to say lack of media coverage, an absence of education on Paralympic sport, or any of the usual talking points, I would like to look at a different possibility.

I feel that the overall attitude toward people with an impairment in the US is not necessarily a positive one.

ADA, while great, has portrayed people with an imipairment as a hassle for able-bodied people to deal with. The focus becomes on how people with disabilities are different from able-bodied people, rather than similar. This has created a situation in the U.S. where people with disabilities are second class citizens, which of course translates to Paralympians being seen as second class to Olympians.

By ratifying the UN Convention, however, the mindset in the US can begin to change.

The language in the Convention is one of empowerment toward people with an impairment, and recognising that people with an impairment are equal to able-bodied people. The Convention explicitly says that one of the goals of the Convention is to “To promote awareness of the capabilities and contributions of persons with disabilities.”

How to promote this awareness isn't specifically laid out, but the general goal is to create more positive perceptions of people with an impairment. Specifically toward sports, the Convention reads, “To encourage and promote the participation, to the fullest extent possible, of persons with disabilities in mainstream sporting activities at all levels.”

Hear that? All levels.

To me, that means Paralympians are treated equally to Olympians.

While I realise that ratifying the Convention won't change the mindset in the US overnight, it is the sort of top-down change that can affect the Paralympic Movement and people with an impairment in the US for decades to come.

If the US government can agree to inform the entire country of the importance of the Paralympics, then it will be done. Thousands of potential Paralympians from childhood to people hurt late in life will be reached, and the Paralympic Movement will grow in power and influence and reach the iconic status of the Olympic Movement in the US.

As a US Paralympian, this is something I hope will happen in my lifetime, and ratifying the Convention is the first step toward this.

What do you think? Should the US ratify the U.N. Convention? Join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter, and maybe we'll get some politicians to listen to us.

Thanks for reading as always!