Department of Justice Seal

Prepared Remarks of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales
at the U.S. Business Leadership Network National Conference

Minneapolis, Minnesota
October 5, 2006

Thank you, Kevin, Good Morning ladies and gentlemen.

I am pleased to be here with the U.S. Business Leadership Network. I'd like to start by thanking you for your efforts to increase access for people with disabilities to goods, products, services, and employment opportunities. Your work is invaluable to members of the disability community, who are eager to take their place as consumers and economically productive and self-sufficient citizens.

I also wish to thank Katherine McCary, for her work as president of the organization. She has been a leader in bringing together businesses of all sizes to advance these efforts, not as a matter of charity, but because it simply makes good business sense.

We live in the greatest country on the face of the planet. America is great because of our diversity—diversity of culture, race and religion. We are a great country because not only do we tolerate our differences, we celebrate our diversity. America is also unique because of the opportunities offered to every citizen, no matter the circumstances of birth or the challenges of life. I believe that we at the Department of Justice have a responsibility to create an environment where it is possible to achieve the American dream if you have the courage and imagination to persue it.

Under the leadership of President Bush, we at the Department of Justice are working to change negative attitudes about people with disabilities based on old and outdated stereotypes. We, like you, aim to establish conditions in this country in which the hopes and dreams of these individuals can be realized.

As members and leaders of the business community, you have a unique role to play here. Your presence at this conference demonstrates to me a strong interest, if not an outright commitment, to maximizing the inclusion of individuals with all types of disabilities. You appreciate the business case for tapping into the disability market and bringing on board qualified men and women whose abilities and perspectives will help your businesses succeed.

Make no mistake about the amazing individual and collective ability that you have to spread this philosophy to others in the private sector. Undoubtedly, both by what you say and what you do, you are raising the bar of excellence, and you are setting a worthy example for so many others to follow.

I also wish briefly to acknowledge leaders of the disability community who are here with us today. Your presence illustrates your ongoing commitment to work in close partnership with private business, to come up with innovative solutions, and to help tear down the barriers that still remain.

Finally, if there are any young people who are with us today who attended yesterday's Disability Mentoring Day event, which I understand was a great success, I congratulate you. For your fortitude, for your commitment to excellence, and for your dedication to obtaining the kind of internship and employment experience that will help you to contribute to the economic lives of your communities.

I want to talk to you today about what we're doing at the Department of Justice to create opportunities for people with disabilities. But first I'd like to take a minute to tell you about who we're protecting, and why we work so hard on this cause. I'd like to tell you the story of ten year-old Justin Tokioka, who everybody calls Pono.

Pono was a star player for his community baseball team in Lihue, Hawaii, despite being profoundly deaf. For five years Pono had excelled at second base, with the assistance of a sign-language interpreter in the dugout.

But when he traveled to the state All-star tournament last summer, Pono was told that tournament rules prohibited the team from having an interpreter in the dugout. The failure of league officials to make reasonable modifications to those rules meant that a ten year-old boy who just wanted to play baseball was told he would not be allowed.

After the Department of Justice got involved, the league agreed to alter its rules to allow players the use of sign language interpreters during games, and to make other accommodations for disabled athletes. Pono had the opportunity to participate—just like his teammates—in the All-star tournament this summer, and he played well.

I can tell you, from my own experience playing baseball when I was young, that even something that might seem so small can make a tremendous difference in a young boy's life.

In August we reached a settlement with PONY Baseball Inc., a youth baseball and softball organization with 3500 leagues throughout the U.S. Under this agreement, thousands of other young athletes with disabilities will get the same opportunities as Pono. As many of you know, on a beautiful summer day in 1990, President George H. W. Bush welcomed people with disabilities to the White House lawn and signed the Americans With Disabilities Act. Since that time, the Department of Justice has been at the forefront of implementing this revolutionary law, which is now in its seventeenth year.

Upon taking office, President George W. Bush noted how much our country had accomplished since it resolved in the ADA to eliminate barriers preventing people with disabilities from fully participating in all aspects of American life. The ADA has made employment, public accommodations, housing, schools, and polling places dramatically more accessible.

The President also observed, however, that significant challenges remained. In 2001 he announced the New Freedom Initiative, a comprehensive plan of action to ensure that people with disabilities face no further obstacles to full participation in our free market economy and society.

As President Bush said at the time, "Wherever a door is closed to anyone because of a disability, we must work to open it. Wherever any job, or home, or means of transportation is unfairly denied because of a disability, we must work to change it. Wherever any barrier stands between you and the full rights and dignity of citizenship, we must work to remove it, in the name of simple decency and simple justice."

Today the Justice Department is issuing a report, Access for All, which celebrates the ADA achievements of this Administration over the past five years and looks forward to future accomplishments.

Since the start of the New Freedom Initiative, the Department of Justice has achieved results for people with disabilities in over 2,000 ADA actions including lawsuits, settlement agreements, and successful mediations. We have accomplished this through an aggressive program of enforcement and public education. In Fiscal Year 2006 alone, we resolved nearly 300 such actions.

Each of these actions represents a victory for individuals like Pono, but each also represents the fall of another barrier for Americans with disabilities.

In Detroit, Michigan, Willie Cochran needed dialysis three times a week, and he depended on the city's bus system for a ride home after treatment. The five mile trip would often take two, three, or even four hours. Bus after bus would pass him by until one would finally arrive with a working hydraulic lift that could handle his wheelchair. He was once stranded in midair for two hours when a lift broke as it was raising him on board.

Caroline Reed, who has spina bifida, lost her job because she could rarely find a bus with a working wheelchair lift to get her to work on time. She had to cut back even routine events such as socializing and going to the store, for fear that she would be left with no way to get home. And Elbert Davis was unable to pursue further education and job opportunities because of the state of Detroit's bus system.

The Department of Justice stepped in and was able to reach a settlement with the City of Detroit that ensured the availability of accessible buses. That's real progress not just for these three individuals, but for thousands of others in Detroit who benefit from improved transportation. And that's just one example in one city. During the past year we have obtained injunctive relief and compensatory damages in cases across the country, and set major ADA precedents in a number of important areas. Our victories have come in matters involving hospitals, gas stations, movie theaters, restaurants and universities. But much more needs to be done. Beyond law enforcement, a Department of Justice program called ADA Business Connection is bringing together local business and disability leaders, helping them facilitate access of people with disabilities to products and services, which in turn expands business markets. We have held 17 ADA Business Connection Leadership meetings in cities across the country with more than 600 participants from small and mid-sized businesses, large corporations, and organizations of people with disabilities.

These meetings have generated some valuable discussions and innovations. Following one meeting in Houston, Texas, three of the participants decided to collaborate and draw on their areas of expertise. The three -- a business technology consulting firm, a large technology corporation, and a disability assistance organization -- set up a design competition to encourage Houston businesses to create accessible websites.

And after another meeting, one participant, who is an executive at a large hotel chain, developed a policy for all of the company's television ads to carry closed captioning. She also recommended to her employer that they include a representative of the disability community on the corporation's diversity advisory board. And she recommended to a university's new hotel management school that they include coursework on serving patrons with disabilities.

The main goal of the ADA Business Connection initiative was to help local businesses collaborate with people with disabilities. But at our meetings we began hearing a lot of talk about the difficulty businesses face with employee turnover, and how that affects their ability to maintain a staff that's well-trained on ADA issues.

The Department of Justice took these comments to heart. We created a short course for our ADA website, where employees can learn how to comply with the law and welcome a whole new group of customers.

We believe that people with disabilities are an underserved market for customers as well as a vast pool of potential employees, and that compliance with the ADA makes good business sense. As you know, there are more than 50 million Americans with disabilities who are potential customers for businesses across the United States. These 50-million-plus people visit museums, restaurants, stores, and theaters with others -- their families and friends -- all of whom purchase additional goods and services, exponentially increasing the potential market.

It's not surprising to see restaurants, auto makers, neighborhood stores, and performing arts centers tailoring products and services to meet the needs of this audience. The ADA is also bringing about significant changes in our home towns and communities. Thanks to the ADA, people with disabilities are participating in unprecedented numbers in civic life and are gaining equal access to the benefits and services that local government provides. The Department of Justice's Project Civic Access, or PCA, is one of the President's top priorities under the New Freedom Initiative. This program is a wide-ranging effort to ensure that towns and cities comply with the ADA.

All across America, communities are taking steps to make their programs and services accessible. Town halls and courthouses are installing ramps and providing accessible parking and restrooms. The use of sign language interpreters and assistive listening devices is increasing at public meetings and in court proceedings. Our public safety officials are saving lives by making 911 systems directly accessible to those who use TTYs. Communities are reshaping recreation and social service programs to allow full access by people with disabilities.

On September 20th we reached a milestone with PCA—our 150th agreement. This agreement involves Kanawha County, West Virginia, which includes West Virginia's capital, Charleston. Twenty-two percent of the county's population are people with disabilities. Under the agreement, the county will, among other things, modify parking facilities and building entrances, and will ensure that polling places are accessible.

Today we have 151 agreements with 142 communities, making lives better for more than three million Americans with disabilities in those communities since 2001. In Davenport, Iowa, for example, PCA will make a real difference for John Sparks, who became disabled as a result of a motorcycle accident. Mr. Sparks has a daughter who loves to dance and sing, and her mother takes her to classes at Davenport's Junior Theater.

Under a PCA settlement agreement, the city arranged to make several modifications to the theater, including widening the main entrance to make it accessible, fixing the exterior ramp, and adding wheelchair seating in the auditorium. As a result of our agreement, Mr. Sparks will be able to take his daughter to classes and enjoy her performances.

In Fiscal Year 2007, we will conduct PCA reviews in eleven additional jurisdictions around the country.

In addition, to build upon this success and broaden the impact of Project Civic Access, I have directed the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice to compile a PCA Best Practices Toolkit. The purpose of this toolkit is to help state and local governments to conduct their own evaluations of their facilities and programs, and to take the necessary steps to achieve ADA compliance.

Through a comprehensive program of law enforcement and technical assistance, we have helped provide people with disabilities greater access to health care, public facilities, education, employment, and other settings in communities across America. Every day, through our website and our toll-free ADA Information Line, we help thousands of businesses and governments comply with the ADA.

We at the Department of Justice are proud of these accomplishments, but we are not done. Every single one of us in this room has a role to play. The President is committed to this work, as is his Administration, through the New Freedom Initiative. This is demonstrated through the various endeavors currently under way throughout the federal sector.

In fact, Ollie Cantos, whom you know from his previous work in the Civil Rights Division, is with me today, representing the White House as Associate Director for Domestic Policy.

We stand ready to work in collaboration with all of you to advance equality and access for the millions of people with disabilities we serve. The protection and preservation of the civil rights of all Americans are among our highest priorities. I am proud to lead in the work of the Department of Justice, and I am honored to be with you here today and I am honored to stand with you, fighting shoulder to shoulder for the rights of the disabled.

Thank you. May God bless you and your families. May he guide all of your decisions and may he continue to bless the United States of America.