What makes a person disabled?

Is disability an individual condition created by a person’s physical and mental status? In more judgmental and inaccurate terms, is a person disabled because of what’s “wrong” with them?

Or is disability a shared condition, one created by a society and physical space (roads, buildings, systems for education, business, government) that don’t take all of its members into account? Is it helped along by a perception that people with disabilities are demanding something “extra” instead of the access to society that every person merits?

While the common usage of inaccurate terms like “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-bound” to describe a person who uses a mobility tool shows that we, as a society, don’t think a lot about the logistics and realities of disability, the U.S. is far more advanced than many countries.

We have the Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed more than 20 years ago, and other legislation that ensure a degree of inclusion in how buildings are designed and renovated, and give people protection against discrimination in employment and daily life.

These laws aren’t perfect, and examples of people being wronged and their rights violated because of their disability still exist. Living with a disability does, frustratingly, still make it more likely that a person will be unemployed and living in poverty.

Will any legislation protect people from the inconsideration and ignorance of others? No. If that were true, people wouldn’t say it was OK to park in a disabled parking space because they’re only running into the store for a few minutes or saying that “handicapped people don’t go out at night” (both examples are true).

But overall, the situation is better than it used to be. Still a work in progress, yes, but the United States is a world leader in disability inclusion. We have laws that protect people and the legal framework to enforce them. Some countries may have laws on the books that sound good, but there is no consequence for breaking them so they’re meaningless.

Because disability is so intimately tied to having the tools needed to successfully navigate situations and places, a person’s level of “disability” can be fluid. Say you need corrective lenses to see clearly. If you have your glasses, that need isn’t a big deal — but your vision is an obstacle if you can’t afford glasses or left them at home. Simplified example, but apt.

Which brings us to one of the many reasons the United States should join the 138 countries that have already ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, more commonly known as the Disabilities Treaty: Our nation can be a leader in helping Americans access the world for travel, study and work. And, along the way, we can help millions of people across the globe who are left out because of their disabilities.

In December 2012 the Disabilities Treaty came up five votes short in the U.S. Senate, the body that ratifies treaties. Opposition, led by Arizona’s own then-Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican, centered on a mess of misconceptions, myths and plain old incorrect statements about what joining the United Nations treaty would mean.

Judith E. Heumann, a special adviser for international disability rights at the U.S. State Department, last week told a group gathered by the University of Arizona that signing the treaty would not beholden the United States to the United Nations or any other organization or country. It would not require changes or additions to U.S. legislation or funding. It is in large part based on the ADA, so we’re the model for it.

Assertions that it would interfere with American families home-schooling their kids are wrong, and have the situation backward. Some countries do prohibit home schooling, and the Disabilities Treaty would give the U.S. a way to showcase our system.

The treaty mentions “registering” infants – in the U.S. we call this getting a birth certificate. In some places, especially in poor countries, Heumann explained, babies with disabilities aren’t registered, so never officially exist. As a result, they can be left to die or be killed without consequence.

The treaty states that a woman with a disability has the same right to medical care, including family planning and reproductive health care, as any other woman in her country. It doesn’t require particular services to be provided. It just states that if one woman has access to an HIV/AIDS test, a doctor can’t refuse the same for another woman because she has a disability.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican, has been a longtime and early endorser of the Disabilities Treaty, and he should be commended.

Our junior senator, however, Jeff Flake, also a Republican, has not been so supportive. He’s previously cited a court case, known as the Bond case, that involved U.S. legislation that was required by an international chemical weapons treaty, but isn’t analogous to the Disabilities Treaty, as a reason for his hesitation. I inquired about his current position, and his office sent this statement:

“The U.S. should not enter into treaties lightly. Though well-intentioned, I’m not convinced that this treaty is necessary for the U.S. to be able (to) work with other countries to ensure the rights of the disabled.”

Flake’s response is disappointing. Describing the drive — the responsibility — to enable all people the ability to fully participate in society as “well-intentioned” has the tinge of condescension, but beyond that, it doesn’t hold up.

If the United States can’t stand up for the civil rights of Americans with disabilities around the world and say with clarity that we support and value all of our citizens, whether they’re at home or abroad, then how are we to lead?

Email Sarah Garrecht Gassen at sgassen@azstarnet.com and follow her on Facebook.