How the United States Could be a Global Leader on Disability Rights

In 1992, a United Nations General Assembly resolution established December 3 as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities in order to “promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.”

Today, 22 years after that initial proclamation, the United States can still do more to protect the rights of people with disabilities. Despite signing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) more than five years ago in July 2009, the United States has yet to ratify it.

The CRPD is an international human rights treaty that provides a vital framework for creating legislation and policies around the world that embrace the rights and dignity of all people with disabilities. It has been ratified by 138 countries and – though we aren’t one of them – it was inspired by U.S. leadership on disability rights and is modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which protects individuals with physical and mental disabilities against discrimination in areas such as employment, public accommodations, and transportation.

Two years ago on December 4, 2012, a Senate vote (61-38) on the treaty fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority required to adopt an international treaty, disappointing disability rights advocates and the broader civil and human rights community.

The United States inched closer to ratification this July when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced the treaty, a move Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said “sends a signal that the U.S. needs to be a global leader in honoring the dignity of people with disabilities.” Nearing the end of the 113th Congress, the world is still waiting for that global leadership. Now, it’s up to the Senate to finally ratify CRPD.

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Transportation Equity Caucus Lifts Up Advancements in Equitable Transportation

By Kaidia Pickels, a Fall 2014 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

On November 12, the Transportation Equity Caucus held a tele-briefing to learn how state and local transportation ballot initiatives can be used to ensure access to mobility and advance equity in communities across the nation. As we reflect on the recent midterm elections, these initiatives will be more important than ever in ensuring equitable access to public transportation.

Three transportation advocates joined the meeting to share the work that they’re doing to develop and support these ballot initiatives: Ashley Robbins of the Center for Transportation Excellence, Brionte McCorkle of the Georgia Sierra Club, and CeCe Grant of Americans for Transit.

In recent years, state and local ballot initiatives related to public transportation have had a 71 percent success rate, which indicates that work needs to continue on these levels as long as Congress continues to stall comprehensive transportation projects. However, one of the main priorities for transportation advocates is that these local ballot initiatives include methods to ensure equity for all populations. An example of this would be offering free or reduced fares for those who are economically disadvantaged and structuring service to transit-dependent populations that most need access. Ensuring this type of equity can be done by working with the communities themselves to develop initiatives that are equitable and don’t impose a financial burden. Ashley Robbins also talked about ballot initiatives in Detroit and Indianapolis that will be introduced as early as 2016, which provide opportunities for advancing an equity agenda.

One local ballot campaign demonstrates the importance of the engagement of diverse voices from equity leaders. A coalition of 25 environmental, religious, transportation, and civil rights groups, led by the Georgia Sierra Club, worked to bring public transportation back to Clayton County, Georgia. In 2010, Clayton County lost its bus service, leaving many county residents without transportation options. In response, the coalition pushed for new elected leadership that would support transit, having learned a lesson in ensuring local support from a 2012 statewide transportation referendum that failed to pass. On November 4, 2014, the county voted to raise its sales tax by 1 percent to fund the expansion of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority into the county with 74 percent of voters in the county in support of the measure.

CeCe Grant shared Americans for Transit’s groundbreaking voting model that advocacy organizations and local practitioners can use to understand the political climate where they are campaigning to conduct more efficient work. Despite the majority of transportation ballot initiatives being passed in recent years, there were still some losses. This model will allow campaigners to understand their data, where their support is, and when they can confidently go to the polls in hopes of successfully passing their ballot measure. The model identifies voters who can be persuaded to vote for transportation ballot initiatives and the number of transportation riders and supporters in the region. With this information, strategies can be developed to cultivate persuadable voters and transit riders into full-fledged transit supporters.

With recent reports highlighting dangerous trends in transportation funding and the 114th Congress set to convene in January 2015, now is the time to increase efforts to ensure equitable transportation at the local and regional levels. To learn more about transportation equity, please visit the Transportation Equity Caucus’s website.

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Faith Leaders Gather in Washington to #StopTheDebtTrap

This week, representatives from more than 20 states are in Washington, D.C., for Faith & Credit Advocacy Days, an effort to launch a collective initiative by faith, financial reform, and consumer protection groups to support strong action on payday lending by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Civil rights groups also want stronger regulation of the industry. At its annual meeting in December 2013, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights voted unanimously for a resolution urging states, Congress, and federal agencies to increase regulatory oversight and enforcement of payday lenders.

Why does the civil and human rights community care?

As the resolution notes, payday lending is similar to other discriminatory financial practices – like redlining and predatory mortgage schemes – that target minority and low-income communities. Payday loans can provide a quick route for consumers who may otherwise not qualify, but many must be fully repaid in a short period of time. In fact, payment is often due when the borrower is next paid, and many lenders require advance access to borrowers’ checking accounts.

According to a CFPB report released last year, this repayment structure and lack of underwriting creates for many consumers a cycle of indebtedness. “To the extent these products are marketed as a short-term obligation,” the report says, “some consumers may misunderstand the costs and risks, particularly those associated with repeat borrowing.”

The Center for Responsible Lending, which organized this week’s activity, notes that these consumers are disproportionately African American and Latino, and found in a 2009 study in California that “Payday lenders are nearly eight times as concentrated in neighborhoods with the largest shares of African Americans and Latinos as compared to white neighborhoods, draining nearly $247 million in fees per year from these communities.”

Last month, The Leadership Conference joined more than 450 groups in signing on to a letter urging the CFPB to stop the payday loan debt trap. “Beyond the research, all one needs to do is travel a street in a low-income community or community of color to witness the strikingly high concentration of payday and high-cost lenders,” the letter says. “Additionally, these loans are particularly devastating to individuals with a fixed-income, such as seniors on retirement or Social Security Income.”

Starting this week during Faith & Credit Advocacy Days, advocates are using the hashtag #StopTheDebtTrap to begin an online conversation around payday lending issues. To learn more about payday lending, visit Center for Responsible Lending’s resource page here.

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Series Leads with Discussion on Street-Level Profiling in America

By Angela Pavao, a Fall 2014 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

Yesterday afternoon, individuals from organizations around Washington, D.C., gathered at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to participate in the first “Faces of Profiling” discussion, a three-part series organized by Leadership Conference interns on discriminatory profiling in the United States. This week’s event examined street-level profiling in its many manifestations, including profiling based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Jennifer Bellamy, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, and Sarah Reece, director of the Academy for Leadership and Action at the National LGBTQ Task Force, shared their perspectives on profiling in its many forms, in addition to some real profiling stories.

A primary message presented was one of action and change. Throughout the discussion, the focus was on overcoming challenges and finding solutions. Jennifer and Sarah emphasized progress being made, such as a law passed in California that will protect transgender individuals and others from sex work charges, an increase in sensitivity training by police departments across the country, and the continued push by the civil rights community for legislative reform and more effective language in the administration’s profiling guidance. The event attendees themselves were another reason to be optimistic. Their presence alone demonstrates the type of engagement we need, and their questions were thoughtful, dug deeply into the issue, and focused on how we can push for solutions.


The desired change, especially its legislative component, won’t happen overnight and may not even happen over the next couple of years. As Sarah pointed out, the solution is complex and must also include a shift in societal attitudes and how people interact with one another. In pursuing this goal, much of the work falls on the individual. In recognition of this, Leadership Conference interns compiled a comprehensive toolkit that contains background information on the issue, a fact sheet on street-level profiling, and a call to action that lays out tips so that anyone can take action. It is our hope that the influence of this series resonates far beyond the content of each discussion.

On November 13 at 12 p.m., we will discuss counterterrorism profiling, and on November 20, also at 12 p.m., we will talk about profiling in immigration enforcement. Light refreshments will be provided during both discussions. For more details and to RSVP, please email

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How Voter ID Laws Prevent Americans from Voting

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder last year, a number of states and jurisdictions formerly covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act have considered – and some have enacted – new discriminatory voting laws, such as the introduction of voter ID requirements. Further, in 2014, there have been a series of court decisions concerning these issues, particularly in states including North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Texas.

But obtaining an ID can be more challenging than some people think. Read a new fact sheet here from The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and share the infographic below explaining some of the ways voter ID laws prevent Americans from voting.

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Upcoming Documentary Explores Transportation Equity

How is transportation a civil rights issue?

Free to Ride,” an upcoming documentary by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University, explores the connection between the two.

Access to safe, affordable, and reliable transportation widens opportunity and is essential to addressing poverty, unemployment, and equal opportunity goals like access to good schools and health care services – but transportation funding programs don’t benefit all areas and communities equally.

In a newly released clip from the documentary, Lexer Quamie, senior counsel at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, underscores the need for transportation equity, stating, “The preservation of civil rights with respect to transportation is crucial…Transportation provides individuals and communities access to fair housing and adequate housing, employment, [and] educational opportunities.”

“Free to Ride” will be released next spring, but you can watch the new clip here:

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How College Students Are Fighting for Campus Inclusion

This post was written by Jennifer Tran, a Fall 2014 Leadership Conference Education Fund intern and a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is involved with diversity and inclusion issues on campus.

It is said that political consciousness often emerges on college campuses. A time of self-discovery and exploration, college is a place where many students first develop their organizing and political skills, especially around ensuring that all students have equal access to colleges and universities.

In recent years, this has taken the form of various student-led efforts like #BBUM (Being Black at the University of Michigan), “I, too, am Harvard”, The Black Bruins at UCLA, #BeyondTheStereotype at USC and UCLA, as well as the Undocumented Longhorns on my campus, the University of Texas at Austin.

In recent weeks, another effort has made the news rounds. Students at Colgate University in upstate New York organized a five-day sit-in to petition university administrators for policies to address long-building campus climate issues in regards to race, gender, sexual orientation, and other marginalized identities.

Last week, I spoke with Olivia Rauh, a senior political science and philosophy and religion double major at Colgate, and one of the students involved in the sit-in. Olivia helped coordinate media and communications during the sit-in, especially with advocacy organizations like The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Like many campus protests, “this was about an overall atmosphere of marginalization, not just of race, but of gender and gender identity and other forms of marginalization,” Olivia said. “The administration was sweeping issues under the rug and not changing…it was pretty clear that we had to do something to make them listen.”

With savvy planning and persistence, their efforts garnered the attention of Colgate administrators and national media. After long and heated negotiations with student leaders, Olivia told me, the administrators finally agreed on a detailed plan to address diversity and inclusivity on campus, including hiring two student workers to keep the administration accountable.

But the students at Colgate are not done. Their organization, the Association of Critical Collegians (ACC), is committed to keeping a vigilant eye on the administration.

Student-organized protests on campuses like Colgate are some of the most visible examples of a youth-driven movement spanning the country today.

I have personally seen the power of student-led efforts on my campus. UT Austin’s enrollment of 52,000 includes students from all types of backgrounds, making it a hotbed for diversity and inclusion issues. In the last few years, we have had issues ranging from bleach-bombs targeting students of color to challenges to the school’s holistic admissions policy in the Fisher v. University of Texas U.S. Supreme Court case, in which the school prevailed.

But UT Austin’s history is also filled with many successes, thanks in large part to student efforts. Our Center for Asian American Studies is the result of students who protested and were arrested in the university president’s office. Our Multicultural Engagement Center, one of the main hubs of student organizing, and of which I am a proud product, is the result of marginalized students who came together to create a space (at the time, an abandoned closet) for themselves.

Each of these efforts were driven by passionate and dedicated students who knew, like their contemporary peers at Colgate, that one of the key ways to get their administration’s attention was to demonstrate and make their concerns known. Campus organizing has been one of the predominant ways through which university policy on diversity and inclusion issues has changed.

When my peers and I organized around Fisher on campus, national outreach was outside the scope of our consideration. It was not until we were approached by various advocacy organizations (and in the case of Fisher, The Leadership Conference Education Fund) that we began to understand how we could expand our campaign with media, demonstrations, and other events.

This knowledge and skill set is certainly not intuitive to most students, but can catapult movements into the national spotlight, much like it did for Colgate.

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