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Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez Speaks at the Justice Department Celebration of the Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act
Washington, D.C. ~ Thursday, July 26, 2012

Thank you all for joining us today to celebrate 22 years of a landmark law that has altered the landscape of our nation.

 

Many of you in this room are leaders in enacting the ADA and in moving the disability rights movement forward.  Following in the footsteps of civil rights leaders before you, you have broken down both physical and attitudinal barriers.

 

I want to thank all of you here today who have worked so hard to ensure that individuals with disabilities can no longer be turned away from schools, buses, stores, or jobs.

 

I especially want to thank Kareem Dale, Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy.   In his role at the White House Kareem coordinates the Administration's efforts related to people with disabilities and supports all of us who work on disability issues across the federal government.

 

Also, Yoshiko Dart is here with us today.   Yoshiko and her husband Justin traveled the entire country meeting with people with disabilities about disability discrimination.   They then brought the real-life experiences they heard back to Washington with them and advocated tirelessly for passage of the ADA.   And Yoshiko has been a wonderful mentor to many many young people with disabilities as they step up to take on leadership roles in the movement and in the world.    And John Wodatch, who recently retired as the Chief of the Disability Rights Section here at the Division.   John truly led the Division’s disability rights work for the last 22 years.    You all have left a legacy of commitment to advancing equal justice for people with disabilities in this nation, and I thank you for being with us.  

 

Thanks to the work of so many of you in this room, the ADA has both literally and figuratively opened millions of doors for individuals with disabilities across this nation.   Just as importantly, it has revolutionized the way our society thinks about individuals with disabilities, and it has revolutionized the way people with disabilities live in our communities.

 

As we look back on all we have achieved and consider the opportunities before us, there is still much more we can do here at home to fully implement the Americans with Disabilities Act. So on this important anniversary, I want to spend a few moments considering the work that remains, and what the Civil Rights Division is doing to help Americans with disabilities achieve the equal rights they are promised under the law.

 

Every single day, the Division still sees barriers facing individuals with disabilities that stand in the way of allowing all people to fully participate in and contribute to society.  

 

 We still hear stories like Michelle’s. Michelle was in a motorcycle accident and became a quadriplegic.   When her family could not provide her with round-the-clock care, she was told she would have to go into a nursing home and stay there for 90 days.   After 90 days, she would be eligible for services in the community. Michelle filed, and won, a lawsuit under the ADA and Olmstead, requiring the state to provide community-based services without requiring her to move into a nursing home first.  The department filed a brief in support of her claim. 

 

Today, Michele is still living at home with the community-based services she needs.  She says “Olmstead allowed me to stay at home versus being forced to be institutionalized.  To be able to remain in the community means all the difference in the world.  It gives me the freedom to live as normal of a life as I possibly can after my life altering accident.”    You can read about a few of the the thousands of people like Michelle that the Division's Olmstead work has helped on our Olmstead website in our “ Faces of Olmstead ” document.

 

Michelle’s story is a reason the ADA and Olmstead exist, and why this division exists to uphold every citizen’s civil rights under those laws.

 

So is CC’s story.   CC is a seven-year-old boy with autism. He relies on a service dog named Eddy, who was independently trained to resist when C.C. attempts to bolt; to ground C.C.’s focus; to calm C.C. when he becomes anxious; and to help C.C. learn to communicate and socialize.

 

Eddy has made such a difference in CC’s life that his first word was “Eddy.”

But CC’s school excluded Eddy because its administration thought C.C. would become over-reliant on his service dog, and, somehow, undermine his independence and self-control.

 

The department filed a statement of interest explaining that students and their parents have the right under title II of the ADA to self-determine whether to use a service animal.   The district court agreed with us and required the school to allow CC to bring Eddy to school. That decision makes an enormous difference to CC every day.

 

Under the leadership of President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, we in the Civil Rights Division have the privilege of confronting these kinds of challenges.   We are committed to making the promise of Olmstead a reality for the tens of thousands of Americans living and working unnecessarily in institutions. We are committed to ensuring that new technologies break down, rather than build up, barriers to full access for people with disabilities. We are committed to ensuring full access to all aspects of civic life. We are committed to continuing to change both our physical world and our perceptions, so that all individuals with disabilities can live the lives they choose without having to answer to people who believe they can’t.

 

I am proud to recognize and thank the attorneys, investigators, architects, technical assistance experts and other staff of the Civil Rights Division who make this commitment a reality.   We are proud to have all of you as our partners.

 

ADA Regulations and Civic Access

 

The Civil Rights Division is helping people like Michelle and Eddy in dozens of ways, and our toolbox is growing.  As you likely know, the most significant revision of the ADA Title II and Title III regulations since the law was passed went into full effect this March.   Those regulations will improve access to high-stakes testing, to accessible seating, to reservations at places of lodging, and to wheelchairs and service animals for individuals with disabilities who need them.  They also improve accessibility standards for judicial and detention facilities and recreational facilities.

 

Another one of the department’s longstanding initiatives, Project Civic Access, is designed to ensure that cities, towns and counties throughout the country comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  

 

First, Justice Department investigators, attorneys, and architects survey state and local government facilities, services, and programs in communities across the country to identify the modifications needed to comply with ADA requirements. Then the department reaches PCA Agreements with communities that require them to make those necessary modifications.  

 

Through Project Civic Access, the department has helped more than four and a half million individuals with disabilities gain access to public services and facilities. We have a PCA agreement in every state in the country and in communities large and small. As a result, for Americans with disabilities, the injustice of not being able to enter government buildings or participate in government programs is becoming a thing of the past.  

 

And yesterday, we moved another step forward: I am pleased to announce that the department has signed our 200th Project Civic Access agreement – with Kansas City, Missouri.  

 

As part of this agreement, Kansas City has agreed to make physical modifications to its facilities to make them more accessible to people with disabilities; use Missouri’s telephone relay service, which allows people with hearing disabilities to make and receive calls; improve accessibility of websites and sidewalks; educate members of the public about how Title II  applies to city programs they rely on — and implement a number of other measures that help provide equal access to civic life to every Kansas City resident.  

 

I commend Kansas City for this effort, and thank Mayor (Sly) James, City Manager (Troy) Shulte, and Assistant City Manager (Sherri) McIntyre for making it possible. This PCA compliance review was requested by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Missouri. So I also want to thank Acting U.S. Attorney David Ketchmark, Civil Chief (Jeff) Ray, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Thomas for their partnership with us on this PCA and other endeavors.

 

Olmstead

 

The department also continues to enforce the ADA’s integration mandate as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Olmstead v. L.C.   We have made this enforcement a priority, and the department has participated in more than 40 cases in 25 states since the start of this administration.  

 

For instance, we recently reached a settlement with the Commonwealth of Virginia to transform their system of services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities from one that relies heavily on state-operated institutional training centers, to one that offers a range of community-based services for people in their own homes.  

 

And the division has expanded its Olmstead work to look beyond just where people live to examine how people live as well.  

 

Simply moving someone from an institution to a community-based residence does not achieve community integration if that person is still denied meaningful integrated ways to spend their days and is denied the opportunity to do what we all do – work in the community.       

 

To that end, a few weeks ago we issued a letter of findings identifying Olmstead violations in Oregon’s system of employment and vocational services. We found that the state is violating Olmstead by unnecessarily segregating in sheltered workshops individuals who could, and want to, work in integrated employment.

 

Housing

 

We work to ensure that all individuals have the right to access housing free from discrimination – and we recently reached our largest-ever disability-based housing discrimination settlement.  

 

Under the settlement, Irving, Texas-based JPI Construction will pay $10,250,000 into an accessibility fund.  That fund will provide retrofits at properties they built that discriminated on the basis of disability in design and construction and will help increase the stock of accessible housing in the communities where these properties are located.  The settlement also requires JPI to pay a $250,000 civil penalty, the largest civil penalty the Justice Department has obtained in any Fair Housing Act case.

 

Education

 

The department works to ensure that school officials do not discriminate against students who have disabilities under Titles II and III of the ADA.   So in cases across the country we are challenging the argument that schools should be able to decide unilaterally what accommodations to provide or permit, as long as they follow procedures.  That understanding has held for too long, and it is not backed by the ADA.

 

In California, the department filed an amicus brief earlier this year on behalf of a public school student with a hearing impairment who asked her school to provide real-time captioning. And we filed another amicus brief in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of a medical student with a hearing impairment who need real-time captioning in class and an oral interpreter in clinics. In each brief, we argued that the student’s choice of auxiliary aid should come first; and that schools should only get deference in determinations about what the academic requirements should be – not in determining what accommodations need to be provided.

 

The department is also working to ensure that high-stakes tests – whether for higher education or business certification – measure knowledge or skill and not disability, and are accessible for everyone.

 

Just a few weeks ago, we filed a statement of interest in Department of Fair Employment and Housing v. Law School Admission Council in California.   We made clear that we agree with the plaintiffs in this case that testing providers discriminate against test-takers with disabilities when they require unreasonable levels of documentation of disability, when they fail to make sure that the test measures skill and knowledge rather than disability, and when they discriminate by “flagging” accommodated test scores.

 

Technology

 

And all of the department’s efforts are complicated by the explosive expansion of modern technology.

 

One underlying theory of the ADA was that, we wouldn’t make the existing world accessible all at once –but it would happen gradually – as old things were replaced with new things.   New technology is where the rubber meets the road for that theory. While it can create new opportunities for individuals with disabilities, we must also ensure that new technologies like websites and e-book readers don’t leave individuals with disabilities behind, and are accessible to everyone who needs to use them going forward.

 

It is the position of the Department of Justice since the late 1990s that the ADA applies to websites. Companies that do not consider accessibility in their website or product development will come to regret that decision, because we intend to use every tool at our disposal to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to technology and the worlds that technology opens up.

 

Most recently, we have pursued accessible technology through two statements of interest in National Association of the Deaf, et al. v. Netflix, Inc. The National Association of the Deaf sued to require Netflix to caption its online “Watch Instantly” movies.   Our brief made clear that Title III of the ADA applies to online-only businesses and requires their online services to be accessible and that the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act does not preempt application of Title III to online services.   And the Massachusetts District Court agreed.

 

Health Care

 

Finally, the department works to protect one of the most basic rights: access to hospitals and health care providers, including for individuals with disabilities.

 

While the Affordable Care Act is opening up greater access to people with disabilities, as long as we have inaccessible medical equipment or hospitals that do not provide sign language interpreters, many individuals with disabilities will continue to be unable to access critical care.   This issue is a top priority for us.

 

Individuals who are deaf or who have hearing loss are at particular risk because medical professionals and facilities, even today, simply refuse to make sure that key medical information is provided in a manner and form that is understandable to them.   Therefore, I am excited to announce a nationwide Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative between the Civil Rights Division and a dedicated group of U.S. Attorneys’ Offices.

 

This groundbreaking initiative will ensure that individuals who are deaf or who have hearing loss are not denied effective communication as they access the nation’s health care systems.   Each participating U.S. Attorney’s Office will investigate and resolve or litigate one or more cases on effective communication in health care in the next six months and we will all announce our results together.   That will allow us to focus our resources and echo our message that disability discrimination in health care is illegal and unacceptable.   And it is the first part of what I expect to be a multi-phase Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative, involving access to medical equipment and physical access to buildings and facilities.   Thirty-five U.S. Attorneys’ Offices have already agreed to participate.  

 

In the 22 years of the ADA, our nation has undeniably come a long way, and we are a better nation as a result.

 

So we’re happy to be able to show the film “Lives Worth Living” as part of this celebration.   The film highlights the work of some of the disability rights movement’s leaders – many of whom are here with us today.   I want to thank Jennifer Lawson, Senior Vice President of Television and Digital Video Content, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and filmmakers Alison Gilkey and Eric Neudel for creating a film about this transformative event in our country’s history and for sharing it with us today.

 

Once again, thank you for joining us to celebrate the Americans with Disabilities Act – its passage, its progress, and its power.

 

Now I’ll pass the microphone to Steve Dettelbach, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, who is the Chair of the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Working Group and who has been a leader in disability rights enforcement.

 

Thank you.

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