December 7, 2012

COMMENTARY: US should take point on rights for people with disabilities

Dan Berschinski

For the first 25 years of my life, I was as an able-bodied American. I played football and soccer and even ran a few marathons. All of that changed three years ago.

Having graduated from West Point, I was serving my country as an Army infantry officer in Afghanistan when I was seriously wounded: I stepped on the unseen trigger of an improvised explosive device, and both my legs were instantly torn from my body. From that moment on, my life has been drastically different.

Today, after three years of hard effort, I'm proud to be able to walk using prosthetic legs. Yet obstacles that might seem inconsequential to the fully able-bodied, such as sidewalk curbs and stairs, take on a whole new meaning for people like me who struggle to walk, or who use a wheelchair.

Fortunately, the United States leads the world in accessibility and equality of opportunity for the disabled. Unfortunately, the advantages we take for granted here at home -- the policies that allow people like me to live fulfilling, independent lives -- don't exist in much of the rest of the world.

Eight months after being wounded in combat, and while still a patient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I joined a few friends in a trip to South Africa to watch the World Cup.

There I found myself in a different country, with no legs, a brand-new wheelchair and a lot of apprehension. While I should have been enjoying this once-in-a-lifetime trip, I was constantly worried about my ability to get around.

South Africa had done a fairly good job on accessibility, but there were still plenty of curbs that had to be jumped, ditches that had to be crossed, and flights of stairs that had to be, well, hobbled up.

As a disabled American at home, I can depend on accessible accommodations; as a disabled tourist abroad, I had to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.

Today, the United States has an opportunity to show leadership and reduce the challenges that millions of disabled people around the world face every day: The Senate can vote to join the U.N. treaty on rights for people with disabilities. By encouraging other nations to strengthen their own accessibility laws, we can improve the lives of our 56.7 million disabled U.S. citizens, including 5.5 million disabled veterans like me, when we travel and work abroad. Many of those opposing this treaty claim to support military veterans, but a vote against ratifying this treaty undercuts that support.

I am honored to join fellow veterans, Republicans and Democrats, including Sens. John Kerry and John McCain and former Sen. Robert J. Dole, to say that the case is clear-cut: Only by voting in favor of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities can the Senate truly honor the sacrifice of those disabled while answering this nation's call. I am proud to have served my country; I am proud of how my country has taken care of me. And I will be proud when we extend our leadership on disability issues beyond our borders.

Dan Berschinski, a retired U.S. Army captain, is a small-business owner in the District of Columbia. This column was distributed by The Washington Post, where it first appeared.

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