(The Justice Beat Theme Plays)
Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband (AAG Dreiband): That we remain committed to protecting disability rights throughout the United States, there has been accomplished quite a bit in the Country in the last 30 years, but we have a lot of work to do.
Host: From the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, this is the Justice Beat
Welcome to the Justice Beat where we sit down with top leadership to chat about the Department’s mission, activities, and priorities. Today we welcome the Civil Rights Division or what we call CRT. Created in 1957, CRT works to uphold the Civil and Constitutional Rights of all Americans, particularly some of the most vulnerable members of our society. They enforce federal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the bases of race, color, sex, disability, religion, familial status, and nation origin. Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, discusses CRT’s role within the Department, and specifically, their role in enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act. We will also touch on various cases the Division has won in support of the Act and where Assistant Attorney General Dreiband see the Civil Rights Division in the future. Special Litigation Counsel, Robbie Kirkendall, leads the conversation. Here is Robbie.
Robbie Kirkendall: On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act, landmark legislation affording broad civil rights protections to people with disabilities. The ADA, as it’s known, prohibits disability discrimination in employment, in State and local Government programs and services, and in private businesses that are open to the public. The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division plays a central role in enforcing the ADA. I’m Robbie Kirkendall, I’m a Special Legal Counsel in the Division’s Disability Rights Section, and I’m pleased to be talking today with the head of the Civil Rights Division, Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, about the Division’s ADA efforts, 30 years in. Welcome, Eric.
AAG Dreiband: Thank you Robbie, it’s a pleasure to be here and good morning.
Ms. Kirkendall: Good morning. First can you talk a little bit about your role as the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division?
AAG Dreiband: The Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, is a position that I hold. I was nominated in 2017 by the President and later was confirmed by the United States Senate for the position, then sworn in. My responsibilities are to lead and run the Civil Rights Division at the United States Department of Justice. So what I do, is I’m essentially responsible for and manage and direct the Civil Rights enforcement of the federal government throughout the United States working with you and your colleagues and our colleagues here at the Justice Department.
Ms. Kirkendall: Can you talk a little bit about the work that the Division and the Department does on disability rights.
AAG Dreiband: Sure and I look forward to talking a lot about that this morning. So, this year and very soon we will be celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act and we do a lot of work throughout the United States to both enforce that law, to bring public attention to it, to educate individuals with disabilities about their rights and federal law protections that they have under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And today we’re going to talk about some of the work of the Civil Rights Division and the Justice Department, in general. And I think it’s important to note, as well, that we remain committed to protecting disability rights throughout the United States, we’veaccomplished quite a bit in this Country in the past 30 years, but we have a lot of work to do and I’m confident that you and your colleagues, here at the Civil Rights Division will continue to do fine work in this area and seek equality of opportunity and other opportunities for individuals with disabilities throughout this country.
Ms. Kirkendall: Before we get into a discussion of more of the work of the Division, have you had experience, in the past, in working with disability rights laws, or when you came to the Division was that when you started working with the ADA?
AAG Dreiband: No, my first introduction to the Americans with Disabilities Act came when I served as a law clerk, shortly after President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. I --for 2 years, just after the enactment and effective date of the law – I worked for a judge in the United States Court of Appeals in Chicago. I also served at the United States Department of Labor where we enforced disability rights protections related to wages for certain individuals with disabilities. And then more recently, in the mid 2000’s served as General Counsel of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, known as the EEOC, and that agency is primarily responsible for enforcing the employment discrimination protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act with respect to investigations against private sector employers, so I’ve done a lot of work with them. On a more personal level, I think like most Americans I’ve had family members who have had various kinds of mental and physical impairments that are disabling. And I have had very close family members, including my brother who was 3 years younger than me, who had suffered his whole life with a seizure disorder and other impairments. And so when I think about protections, I often think about my brother and how important protections are for individuals with disabilities through the lens of my relationship with my brother.
Ms. Kirkendall: That’s helpful to know. As someone who has worked in this area, in the Department for many years, I do think it’s interesting because we all come close to disability at some point in our lives and I think that is a very interesting part of disability rights law. So, for us to get started, I’d like to hear what you see as the promise of the ADA.
AAG Dreiband: I think there are many promises of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I think the law stands for a fundamental American principle, that every human life, every individual in this country, has value. That we are all equal before the law. We should all be treated equally before the law without respect to a disability or other protected characteristics. This is something that our country has struggled with for a very long time since its founding, and I think extending civil rights protections, to individuals with disabilities, I think is a recent relatively recent example, of how our country has come to understand the value of extending protections, liberty and freedom to all Americans, in our country. I think it’s important, Robbie, to recognize that Congress saw this as well. One of the things that the Congress found was – and I am going to quote from what Congress actually said which is that - “the Nation’s proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for such individuals.” I think this is a critical statement about the value we place on individuals and the notion that is in this country we do not have royalty, we don’t have dictators, we don’t have people born into aristocracy, we have Americans. And I think all Americans should be protected by civil rights protections and I think the Americans with Disabilities Act ensures or at least strives to ensure that. In addition, I think what’s interesting about the statement is it reflects the fact that we are all in this together. Every person, every American, every state or local government, every business and other institutions, have an important roles to play to ensure that not only all Americans enjoy equality of opportunity, equal treatment before the law, the ability to pursue happiness as they see it within the realm of our legal framework, but also full and equal opportunities to participate in everything this county has to offer.
Ms. Kirkendall: Thank you. I know you’ve been in the Division, you’ve been the head of the Division for a short period of time in the 30 years of the ADA, but I’m wondering if you could talk about how you think we’re doing in achieving the goals that you talked about that Congress identified.
AAG Dreiband: Well I’m very proud of the work that the Civil Rights Division has done. It is for me a real privilege and honor to be a part of that work. And I just admire so much the work that you do, Robbie, as well as others in the Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division and throughout the Department of Justice. And we do that in various ways, we do through enforcing the law, through investigations, through possible lawsuits in federal courts, which we bring. And we also do it through technical assistance, that is advising the public about the obligations and the protections that are available under the law, and through outreach – that is through educating the public in various ways through information on our website, training sessions, all kinds of things that the Department does. In addition, we have several of the Sections of the Civil Rights Division that focus on enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act and disability rights. I just want to mention a couple of them. Obviously, the Disability Rights Section plays a principal role in enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act, but other Sections do as well. Our Special Litigation Section has many very dedicated attorneys and investigators and others -- paralegals and staff --who help enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act. Our Housing and Civil Enforcement Section, likewise bring disability rights cases under the Americans with Disabilities Act and often times those cases relate to housing as one might imagine. And, so they oftentimes will pair up investigations and lawsuits under both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act – the landmark 1968 civil rights federal law that we enforce. And our Educational Opportunities Section is very good at enforcing and seeking protections for individuals with disabilities in education both in the grade school level, high school, and higher education as well. In addition, the Justice Department is I think well positioned throughout the country. We have over 90 United States Attorney’s Offices with thousands of lawyers in every judicial district in the country and every state in the country. And they work with our team, with you and others, in the Disability Rights Section to prosecute violations of disability rights laws including especially the Americans with Disabilities Act. And one other thing that I do want to mention, that regrettably in this country we have a history of what federal law now protects as hate crimes. And our Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division works with United States Attorneys’ Offices, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, other law enforcement to prosecute criminally any kind of hate crime against individuals with disabilities and I think the breadth of the work that the Civil Rights Division does reflects, of course, the breadth of the Americans with Disabilities Act itself and the importance of this work both here at the Justice Department and for Americans throughout the country as well.
Ms. Kirkendall: So let’s talk about how the Civil Rights Division enforces the ADA. What does that look like? Can you share a bit more about how the Division commits resources to enforcing the ADA?
AAG Dreiband: Yes, the Civil Rights Division takes, what I guess I would describe as a multi-faceted approach to advancing rights protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and I’d generally say there are kind of three different categories of types of work that we do. First, is technical assistance, second mediation is another area, and finally, of course, is enforcement of the law through investigations and federal court actions. So, first we review around 16,000 complaints a year from individuals or organizations who allege disability discrimination of various kinds. We refer them, as appropriate, to our sister federal agencies and United States Attorney partners. We also take some of those and we see whether we can resolve them through our mediation program and attorneys in the Civil Rights Division and the Disability Rights Section, in particular, obviously, open and pursue investigations into various allegations about violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We also have a team of specialists who respond to, on average, over 500 calls a week providing what we call technical assistance to people with disabilities, and to covered entities, you know the employers, state and local governments, various other places of public accommodation, and what we try to do there, as with all of our work, is to help members of the public, whether they’re individuals with disabilities or organizations that are covered by the law to understand both the rights that individuals with disabilities have and the responsibilities that employers, places of public accommodation, state and local governments have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Just a moment about our mediation program, because I think it’s important to understand the Justice Department doesn’t always have to go into federal court, file a lawsuit in order to accomplish a positive result for individuals with disabilities. And our mediation program is something that the Justice Department funds and it’s free, therefore. And we have a very high success rate, by one measure, 83 percent of cases mediated resolved in a successful resolution. In other areas, that involve construction of buildings or housing we have dedicated architects who support our efforts. We have web specialists who help put information on our website, www.ada.gov, and that website has a breadth of information about the law, the regulations, other information that is helpful to everyone in the public. It’s one of the Justice Department’s most visited websites. In addition, in terms of outreach, just in the last three years, for example, our attorneys and other disability rights specialists have presented at well over 100 conferences. By doing that they’ve directly reached out to thousands of individuals and other members of the public.
Ms. Kirkendall: I think it’s interesting that you talk a lot about technical assistance and outreach. I think for many people they see the Department of Justice as the Nation’s biggest law firm and don’t recognize that there’s efforts for technical assistance and outreach. Can you talk about why in the ADA context we found this need or role to provide TA and outreach?
AAG Dreiband: Well, yes, Robbie. The first reason we provide technical outreach is that Congress has required us to do that right in the law itself. And I think this is an important and in some ways unusual element of the law, in that, I think the Congress that enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act and President George H. W. Bush who signed it, understood that the goal here, is to create opportunity, equality of opportunity, and other protections for individuals with disabilities. The goal of the statute is not simply to file lawsuits. Our goal is to educate the public both individuals with disabilities and organizations that must comply with the law so that, by doing that in addition to the enforcement efforts that we do and that individuals enjoy all aspects of American life through various ways other than an adversarial process that can occur in litigation when people tend to get very upset and be defensive and so forth. So, we take the responsibility seriously, obviously increasing awareness we believe is crucial to compliance with the law. And in general I think our website, the one I mentioned a few minutes ago, ADA.gov, is a fabulous source of information. It provides regulations, technical assistance information and other information about our enforcement work as well. And beyond that we have something we call the ADA Technical Assistance Program and that provides free information and technical assistance directly to businesses, to state and local governments, to various other people who are covered by the law or may be interested in it, or nonprofit organizations, for example. Of course, individuals with disabilities, and the general public. We also have a nationwide confidential toll-free information line and that enables people to call in and report allegations of violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and to do it in a confidential way so they don’t they have to worry about retaliation from making such reports.
Ms. Kirkendall: Thank you. Now let’s focus on enforcement. Because that’s what most people understand about the Department of Justice. Can you talk about the resources that the Department is putting into enforcement of the ADA?
AAG Dreiband: Sure. As I mentioned, Robbie, it is our very strong preference to seek voluntary compliance and we often do that and prefer to do that. On the other hand, the Department of Justice is a law enforcement agency and we are the government’s lawyers and litigators. So, the law authorizes the Attorney General to file enforcement actions that is, lawsuits in federal court, and as the Assistant Attorney General I essentially act on behalf of the Attorney General to bring lawsuits and I think it’s very important that the public know, and especially organizations covered by the law know, that if necessary we will go into federal court and seek to vindicate rights protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. We have over 50 attorneys in the Disability Rights Section and we have many, many more lawyers, paralegals, and support staff around the country in the United States Attorneys’ Offices who are dedicated to this work. And so, for example, since 2017, we’ve entered into more than 200 agreements with employers, with state and local governments, and private business to remedy disability discrimination allegations and so we will continue to do that. We remain committed to enforcing the law in the federal court if we need to, but we do have a preference for voluntary compliance.
Ms. Kirkendall: Can you share a recent case that exemplifies for you the Division’s unique place in enforcing the ADA?
AAG Dreiband: Sure, in fact I’d like to talk about several of our cases.
Ms. Kirkendall: Sounds good.
AAG Dreiband: I want to start with a recent example of what we refer to as our Olmstead work. What I’m referring to here is the 1999 Supreme Court case called Olmstead v. L.C.. And in that case, the Supreme Court of the United States found that the unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities is discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and can be illegal. So in the last more than 20 years, we have taken the Supreme Court’s decision and enforced it in our own work. And by doing that, our work has impacted, we believe in a positive way, over 50,000 individuals with disabilities, just through that work alone. And what we try to do is assess whether or not it’s possible in a particular case, for individuals with disabilities who are institutionalized, whether there might be another way under the law where they can participate fully in community life. I want to talk very briefly about one case I’m very proud of and very privileged to attend last year, [an] announcement of a settlement agreement with the state of West Virginia. So, in the spring of 2019, after long investigation and hard work by the Special Litigation Section as well as the United States Attorney’s Office, we settled with the entire State of West Virginia after we found that the State was unnecessarily putting children who have serious emotional or behavioral disorders in residential treatment facilities, instead of providing them in-home and community-based mental health services and in fact in that case many of these children were being housed or “warehoused” several hours away by driving from where their families lived or where they were from. Some of the children were being shipped out of state to facilities outside of the State of West Virginia. And so I was very happy that we were able to resolve that. We worked as a team with the state government in West Virginia, led by the Governor of West Virginia, and others and the U.S. Attorney Mike Stewart there was instrumental in working with our team to bring about what I regard as a very positive resolution.
Ms. Kirkendall: What sort of remedies did you get in that settlement agreement; what sorts of things does the State do?
AAG Dreiband: Well, that’s a good question Robbie. The state of West Virginia agreed to many things that I think will enhance life and opportunities for these children and for their families and the communities in West Virginia. So, for example, West Virginia agreed to expand and improve in-home and community-based mental health services throughout the State. Rather than sending children so frequently to residential facilities away from their families. So, the children will be either in their home or with their families or they will be more frequently in the communities and as a result of that they will have access to community-based mental health services that will help them address emotional and behavioral disorders that they have. In addition, the State of West Virginia agreed to expand, to create, mobile crisis services, a case management system, therapeutic foster care, in-home therapy, and assertive community treatment, and I just think this is a terrific result. The settlement will ensure that children are no longer unnecessarily put in institutions, especially institutions that were far from their home and I think everyone can agree that children need and, I think, deserve stability in their lives and especially the ability to be near or with their families, as much as possible. So, I was just thrilled with both the work that our team did with United States Attorney Mike Stewart and his team in West Virginia and especially the state government of West Virginia, that they worked with our team and came up with I think something that will last a long time – hopefully for generations in West Virginia to improve the lives of children and their families there.
Ms. Kirkendall: We are in 2020, and voting is a hot topic and I know that the Disability Rights Section and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices have done work in the voting space. Can you talk a little bit about the efforts that have been undertaken or are being undertaken on voting for people with disabilities?
AAG Dreiband: Well, I’m extremely proud, Robbie, of the work that we’ve done in [and] with respect to voting rights of individuals with disabilities. I mean I think it’s critical in our country that every eligible voter with a disability enjoy an equal opportunity to vote that all Americans who have the right to vote enjoy. This is I think something that defines us as a country, the right to vote. As I mentioned earlier we do not have aristocrats, we don’t have people born into royalty, we don’t have dictators, we don’t have emperors, we don’t have kings and queens in this country. Rather, the American Revolution rejected all of that and we continue to reject that today for our country. Instead what we have is Americans who can go to the ballot, can vote for the candidate of their choice, and who can select for themselves who our leaders are going to be and who is going to run the government of this country. This is a fundamental right that secures participation in our democracy and oftentimes individuals with disabilities become discouraged because if they, for example, have mobility impairments and they are in wheelchairs, they have a hard time just getting to the ballot box and may just give up and not vote at all and this is a terrible thing when in happens in our country because if effectively means both that we have a violation of the law when it happens–when individuals with disabilities cannot vote because of their disability. We also have then a restriction on the right to vote that we believe in this country should be as nearly universal as it can be. So we have what we call the Americans with Disabilities Act Voting Initiative. And I just want to talk, Robbie, about one case, that I think is indicative of the type of work we do, with respect to voting and disability rights. Last year, in 2019, we reached an agreement with Harris County, Texas. That’s the County where Houston, Texas is located. And that resolved a Department of Justice lawsuit against Harris County, in which we alleged that Harris County violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it did not provide an accessible voting program to voters with disabilities including, especially accessible polling places. Now, Harris County’s voting program is one of the largest in the country. That county has millions of people that live there, obviously Houston is one of the largest cities in the country. And by one measure it is the 3rd largest voting program in the entire United States. It includes nearly 800 polling places and through the agreement, which came after nearly 3 years of very hard fought, tough, adversarial litigation, Harris County has agreed to make their polling places accessible to individuals with disabilities, especially mobility impairments. But, I think what is more important is what Harris County is doing and I commend them for coming to an agreement with us to do what they’re doing there. I think it will open up the right to vote in a way that has not been present once they’ve done all that they need to do under the settlement. But more importantly, I think that case provides notice to election officials all across the United States that the Department of Justice will vigorously enforce the voting protections contained in the Americans with Disabilities Act. And we hope too that it will send a message to voters, that as individuals with disabilities who want to exercise their right to vote, and may have been discouraged from doing so, in the past due to what they’ve seen in their local polling places or their local communities.
Ms. Kirkendall: So, another critical area is in the area of education. And I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how the Americans with Disabilities Act addresses education issues?
AAG Dreiband: Yes, we all know, I think, Robbie that education has the potential to serve as a great equalizer in our country. And this is no less true for individuals with disabilities and so the Department of Justice has played and will continue to play a significant role in ensuring that schools and other entities that provide educational programs, understand and comply with their obligations with respect to students with disabilities. I just want to mention briefly, one case initially anyway. This is a case involving Northern Michigan University. The Justice Department recently settled a case with Northern Michigan University, and in that case the issue was whether or not the University discriminated against students with mental health disabilities, which we alleged they did. Specifically, what we found after an investigation was that the University threatened to expel or disenroll certain students who had major depressive disorder. And, in addition to that, the University required these students to sign contracts that barred them from talking, even with their friends at the University, about suicidal or self-destructive thoughts that they may have, related to their major depressive disorder. Fortunately, the University saw the error of its ways, at least as far as we think, and entered into an agreement with us. They agreed to pay $173,500 in compensatory damages to 4 students who were injured by what the University had done. They also agreed to adopt a nondiscrimination policy and develop training for faculty and staff and hopefully we won’t see this again from Northern Michigan University.
Ms. Kirkendall: Excellent. These have been a lot of great examples of things that seem to be on a larger scale. But the Department doesn’t always do big systemic cases, does it, under the ADA? Is it, there are smaller cases as well, aren’t there?
AAG Dreiband: That’s correct, Robbie. I think it’s important to understand that there are times when the Department of Justice will bring a case, a lawsuit or even a criminal prosecution where there is one victim or a very small number of victims of a violation of the law and this could be as important as the big cases. Because each of these cases both sends a message to the public, but also vindicates the rights of the individual who may have been victimized by a violation of his or her civil rights in a particular case. So I do want to mention in that regard, one case, I think that reflects this kind of work. It involves the Iowa City Community School District. Just a few weeks ago we entered into a settlement agreement with that school district and we resolved a complaint that was filed by parents of children with disabilities, who alleged that playgrounds in the school district were not accessible to children who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices. The settlement agreement requires the school district to ensure that playgrounds comply with Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But now the school district is going to comply and they are going to remedy the violations related to various aspects of these playgrounds such as; benches, picnic tables, accessible routes to play areas and things of that nature. I think it’s important to think about here, we’re talking about children who want to play on a playground. It’s very possible that the people who designed the playgrounds there, weren’t thinking in some kind of hostile way towards children in wheelchairs or with mobility impairments, but hostility is not something that is an element of the claim here. Rather what matters is these children now will be able to join their peers and will be able to enjoy a playground just like any other child. This is not a case in which millions of dollars were at stake, it’s not a case which is going to make the front page of the New York Times or something, but it is a case that I think that is important because for these children in Iowa it’s heartbreaking to think that they couldn’t go to a playground. I commend both the Iowa City Community School District for agreeing to do what they are doing now, by fixing these playgrounds, but also the parents of the children who came forward to us and brought this to our attention. And, I just want to read, Robbie, if its ok, something I said when we entered in publicly to the agreement with the Iowa City Community School District. “Nearly 30 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, no child with a disability should be prevented from accessing a playground, because it has been constructed in violation of the ADA. This settlement agreement will ensure that children with disabilities can access their school’s playground and play alongside their classmates.”
Ms. Kirkendall: From my time in the Division, I know that we continue to receive a significant number of complaints regarding service animals. It’s just, for whatever reason, a continuous, longstanding complaint. Recently we’ve started to receive a high volume of complaints involving veterans with service animals. Can you talk a little bit about some of that work?
AAG Dreiband: Yes, that’s important work that we do, Robbie. I’m glad you mentioned it. The Civil Rights Division, of course, is committed to ensuring that individuals with disabilities including veterans --veterans who often have sacrificed their wellbeing for our country -- and so they can exercise their right under the Americans with Disabilities Act to use service dogs. We had a case recently in which a veteran drove many, many hours in her car accompanied by her service animal and by 4:00 in the morning she was tired, as any of us would be. She pulled into a hotel, the Deerfield Inn and Suites Hotel, and she wanted a room. There were rooms available but when the desk clerk learned that she was accompanied by her service dog, the desk clerk refused to honor a reservation that she had made. And insisted that no dogs were permitted at the hotel. The veteran, she explained that this wasn’t just any dog this was a highly trained animal who was required for her disability – and a disability that she acquired in the service of our country. Still the clerk would not relent and did not relent and as a result this veteran ended up sleeping in her car, in the parking lot of [a] church. This was wholly unacceptable to us and so we brought an enforcement action and fortunately the hotel agreed to adopt a service animal policy, and to train its staff, and compensate this veteran for her experience. And I think that it’s just one example of the things veterans and other individuals with disabilities experience in our country, but it’s something that we remain very committed to, in terms of pursing these kind of cases.
Ms. Kirkendall: So we’ve talked about a lot of businesses and state and local governments. Can we talk a little bit about employment? I know that’s near and dear to your heart because of your work with the EEOC, but can you talk about some of the employment results that the Department has achieved?
AAG Dreiband: Delighted to do that, and yes, Robbie I had a lot of cases involving individuals with disabilities when I served at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and we have a lot at the Justice Department as well. First of all, let me step back here and talk about what employment means to many of us. Work can provide more than just a paycheck to all of us. It provides a sense of purpose, dignity, independence, value, self-worth, and belonging. I wanted to mention one case, very briefly. First of all, we retain jurisdiction over litigation against public employers. The EEOC, my former agency, retains jurisdiction over other private sector employers for litigation. But we had one case recently in which an individual with dwarfism alleged that he was discriminated against while he applied for a job as a purchasing manager for York County, South Carolina. Now, the county, for reasons that are unclear, required applicants for the purchasing manager position to have a driver’s license, but having a driver’s license was not an essential function of the job of purchasing manager and what we found was that by requiring a driver’s license anyway, was that the county unlawfully screened out people with disabilities, so we brought an enforcement action -- we sued -- the case settled and York County agreed to revise its policies to ensure that its job listings contained only the essential functions of the job. They designated a coordinator for the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide training, they paid the individual $20,000. It wasn’t a huge case, but it was critically important both to the individual who suffered this kind of discrimination, but I think also to also send a message to the public that we won’t tolerate that kind of thing.
Ms. Kirkendall: Have we seen in the employment context much discrimination involving stereotyping? I seem to recall that we’ve recently entered into an agreement with Lanier Technical College, do you want to talk a little bit about that?
AAG Dreiband: Yes, so I think what happens oftentimes is that people make certain assumptions that if an individual has a type of physical or mental impairment, it must mean something for their ability or inability to do a particular job. And these kinds of stereotypes and assumptions about people, are something that I think the law attempts to discourage. The case you mentioned involved a college called Lanier Technical College, and in that case there was an individual who had multiple sclerosis and the college fired her because of the multiple sclerosis, and that’s what we alleged anyway. And so we sued and the college agreed to revise its policies, to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, to train staff, to file periodic reports with the Department of Justice about its compliance. It also agreed to pay $ 53,000 to the individual in back pay and compensatory damages. I thought that was an excellent result for both her and for Lanier Technical College too because it’s in their interested to both comply with the law, but also to hire and retain individuals with disabilities, as well.
Ms. Kirkendall: I’ve noticed that you’ve talked a lot about in the remedies in many of these agreements about training being a component. You talked earlier about TA and a little about outreach, can you talk about the outreach that the Department does for people with disabilities or covered entities?
AAG Dreiband: On the outreach front, I just want to talk, by way of example about the Justice Department’s response to the opioid epidemic that has plagued our country for a long time now. By way of example, since 2018, in collaboration with United States Attorneys’ Offices around the country, we’ve mounted a substantial outreach effort to combat discrimination against people who have what’s called opioid use disorder. These are individuals who had addictions to opioids, they’re in treatment or recovery, and since 2017, the Disability Rights Section has presented at over 30 conferences, and trainings to more than 3,000 attendees. Including addiction counselors, medical providers, family court judges, drug court professionals, employment attorneys, and representatives from more than 60 federal agencies, all about opioid use disorder and the protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And I think that all of this work, in addition to our enforcement efforts, is helping our country’s response to this opioid epidemic.
Ms. Kirkendall: So looking forward as the ADA turns 30, can you share your thoughts on what you see as some of the most pressing disability rights issues?
AAG Dreiband: Yes, I think it’s clear there remains a lot of work to do. In areas such as in employment, in transportation, and in education, just to name a few. Oftentimes those kind of things are interconnected with one another. So, for example, if people can’t get to work because of transportation barriers, they can’t hold a job. Likewise, a denial of educational opportunity can have a significant effect on employment opportunities. So, if an individual with disability is deprived of the chance to go to school or to go a particular kind of training or educational opportunity – that will have a detrimental effect on their employment opportunities down the road and may follow them their whole lives. So, what we will continue to do, is we will continue to be committed to the ADA’s goals of full participation in all aspects of American life including; independent living, equal opportunity and economic self-sufficiency. I want to add too, Robbie, that it is important to recognize that we are not alone here at the Justice Department. We have our sister agencies, committed to this work, as well. Other agencies around the federal government and state and local partners are tremendous advocates for disability rights, there are members of the public, disability rights advocates are important to making progress, with respect to our goal of opportunity and fair treatment for individuals with disabilities, so we’re all in this together and we will remain committed to our enforcement efforts, our outreach, our technical assistance work.
Ms. Kirkendall: I have to touch on the ADA’s role at this particular point in time, as the nation continues to battle a pandemic. What do you say to listeners with disabilities who may wonder if the ADA even applies during a public health emergency or who worry about disability discrimination as we all work to safely open our economy?
AAG Dreiband: Robbie, that’s a very important question. Let me say a couple things first, there is no exception in the Americans with Disabilities Act to pandemic emergencies, so people don’t get a pass about whether they are able to lawfully discriminate against individuals with disabilities because a pandemic exists. We are in our country going through a very difficult period, in our history with the pandemic. More than 100,000 people already have died, many others are sick or have been sick with the COVID 19. This is a very serious issue, many people have lost their jobs, Americans are suffering. Let me be clear though, even as we fight what is really a life-threatening virus -- the fundamental purpose of the law, that is the Americans with Disabilities Act, remains in place and we will continue to enforce it. When the pandemic initially started, 3 [or] 4 months ago, there was some talk about rationing, for example, of healthcare to the detriment of individuals with disabilities. I published at that time, a statement that we would not tolerate that kind of healthcare rationing because of disability status. As far as I know that hasn’t happened, but there was talk about that. We won’t tolerate it here at the Justice Department, individuals with disabilities have the same right to access to healthcare as all Americans do. Hopefully this pandemic will pass soon, but to all listeners, if you believe that you are experiencing disability discrimination please consider going to our website to file a complaint or call our ADA information line. We’re here every day to serve the public and we will continue to do that.
Ms. Kirkendall: One more time, what was that website address again?
AAG Dreiband: www.ada.gov
Ms. Kirkendall: Great. Thank you for joining us today. Do you have any closing remarks, Eric?
AAG Dreiband: I do Robbie, so thank you for asking that question. I think one thing to remember here is that disability rights -- like the right to vote, the right to be free of race and sex discrimination -- disability rights are civil rights. And I think it is critically important that individuals with disabilities enjoy all of the privileges and freedoms available to all Americans. And every day these fundamental principles remain the touchstone of our work. And on this anniversary I’d like to remember, and as a tribute to President George H.W. Bush, for our listeners, [I’d like to] read something that he said just before he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law in 1990. Here’s what he said and I’m going to quote: “Our success with this Act proves that we are keeping faith with the spirit of our courageous forefathers who wrote in the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights’…. Today’s legislation brings us closer to that day when no Americans will ever again be deprived of their basic guarantee of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” President Bush’s remarks, I think, remind us both that the Americans with Disabilities Act is an important civil rights law, but it is also simply the continuation of a tradition in this country that started with the Declaration of Independence. About the importance of guaranteeing to everyone in this country inalienable rights because of who they are, not because of what they are. They are a human being, they are entitled to respect, and to be treated decently and that’s what this law does. And it’s my honor and privilege to lead the Civil Rights Division’s efforts in implementing the ADA mandate towards these ends.
Ms. Kirkendall: Thank you so much, Eric. I want to thank you for your time today and for sharing so much information about the Department’s ADA work. I know I speak for the entire Disability Rights Section and the many others in the Division and at the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, when I say that it is a privilege to work alongside you to ensure that the great promise of the ADA is fully realized. I can’t wait to see what we accomplish by the ADA’s 35th anniversary.
AAG Dreiband: I look forward to that, as well, Robbie. Thank you for your kind remarks, it’s a privilege and pleasure to work with you and our other colleagues here in the Department and the Division as well.
Ms. Kirkendall: Thank you, Eric.
AAG Dreiband: Thank you
Host: Thank you to Robbie and Eric for helping us celebrate 30 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act. For more information about the ADA, please visit ADA.gov. For more information on the work that CRT does every day please visit Justice.gov/CRT. Thank you for listening and please stay tuned. Subscribe for new episodes at Justice.gov/podcast
The Justice Beat is produced by Justice Department’s Office of Public Affairs. Find out more about the Justice Department at Justice.gov