Justice News

Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division Delivers Remarks at the Commemoration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month by the Office of Justice Programs
Washington, DC
United States
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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Thank you for that kind introduction, Alan, and thank you so much for inviting me to participate in this important event.  I am proud to support OJP’s efforts to highlight the critical issue of disability employment, as well as the value of a workplace culture that includes people with disabilities.

Background/Principles

The Civil Rights Division, which I am honored to lead, works to achieve equal opportunity for people with disabilities by implementing and enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act, along with other disability rights laws.  Our Disability Rights Section, working with other sections across the division, leads this charge.  Our lawyers and staff work every day to make the goals of the ADA a reality.  Congress set the direction of the Section’s work when it wrote in the findings of the ADA that, “the Nation's proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.” 

None of these goals can be achieved without employment.  Of course, employment generates income for people with disabilities, providing an important foundation for economic self-sufficiency and independent living. 

We all know from our own experience that work can provide so much more than a paycheck: a sense of purpose, dignity, independence, value, self-worth, and belonging.  For people with disabilities, work also gives the feeling of pride that comes from being able to contribute to society.  And—as the theme for this year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month recognizes—work gives people with disabilities the awareness that they are not just tolerated in the community, but fully included in it. 

As Tim, an employee with a disability told staff in the Disability Rights Section, earning money is not the most important part of his job.  Rather, when asked what he loves most about his job, he says it's his coworkers: "They make me laugh a lot and they make me feel comfortable—they make me feel like I am a part of them."  These intangible benefits of inclusion can’t be encapsulated in a budget spreadsheet, but they are unquestionably significant both for employees with disabilities and for their employers and co-workers as well.  

Today I will touch on two main themes.  I will first highlight the excellent employment work of the division and then touch on three ways inclusion has sparked innovation.

Employment Work in DRS

The Civil Rights Division is keenly aware of the importance of its work to enforce the ADA’s mandate prohibiting employment discrimination against people with disabilities. 

Our attorneys and staff use innovative approaches to advance equal employment opportunity.  Of course, they investigate, negotiate, and even litigate complaints when necessary.  The Disability Rights Section also provides technical assistance to individuals with disabilities and employers who are seeking information about their rights and responsibilities under the ADA.  This information is available through our Web site and through our nationwide toll free phone line, where ADA specialists are available five days a week to help people understand how the ADA applies to their situation. 

The Disability Rights Section sees the impact of its disability employment work on real people across the country—people who just want a fair shake and an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.

For example, in March 2017, the Justice Department entered into a settlement agreement with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“Transit Authority”).  That settlement resolved allegations of discrimination against a job applicant.  The Transit Authority had withdrawn a job offer from an applicant to become an elevator/escalator parts supervisor after learning that the applicant had epilepsy.  The Transit Authority never discussed with the applicant how his disability might affect his ability to do the job, and it never considered the availability of reasonable accommodations.  The Transit Authority simply assumed that he couldn’t do it.  Under the agreement, the Transit Authority will institute new policies to ensure that employees and job applicants with disabilities have the opportunity to confer with the Transit Authority about their limitations, as well as opportunities to get reasonable accommodations in the workplace.  The Transit Authority will also ensure that supervisors are fully trained in those policies.  In addition, the Transit Authority has agreed to pay $175,000 in compensatory damages to the applicant.  As a result of this agreement, qualified applicants with disabilities will be able to have equal opportunity to access job openings, without being limited by stereotypes or assumptions about what they can or cannot do.

Unfortunately, employment discrimination can also affect employees with disabilities too.  In February 2017, the Justice Department entered into a settlement agreement with the City of Philadelphia to resolve allegations that the city discriminated against a sanitation worker.  The worker had a heart attack and could no longer lift more than 20 pounds, so the city fired him without considering reassigning him to a vacant position for which he was qualified.  Under the agreement, the city will adopt new policies to ensure that reassignment is considered as a reasonable accommodation where appropriate, offer to reinstate and reassign the employee, and pay him $90,000 in back pay and compensatory damages.  This agreement makes clear that just because an employee’s disability may prevent them from working in one position, it does not always prevent them from working successfully in a different position.

Employees with disabilities are also entitled to expect that employers will keep their medical information confidential.  Just recently, the Department entered into a settlement agreement with the City of New Albany, Indiana to address a breach of confidentiality.  The City released a police officer’s confidential medical information, including details regarding his disability and medical treatment, to the press.  The settlement agreement requires the City to revise its policies and practices to ensure the confidentiality of employees’ medical information and to provide training on these obligations.  The City also agreed to pay $100,000 in damages to the police officer.  If employees with disabilities cannot have confidence that their employers will respect and protect their privacy, they will be deterred from disclosing their disability and perhaps even from seeking employment.

Of course, the Civil Rights Division is not the only entity in the federal government working to end employment discrimination against people with disabilities.  We work closely with our partners at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC.  Generally, the EEOC investigates charges of disability discrimination against employers.  If the EEOC believes the charge has merit, it seeks to conciliate the dispute with the employee and the employer.  But if conciliation fails and the EEOC finds reasonable cause to believe that discrimination has occurred, it can take further action.  In cases involving private employers, it brings litigation itself.  In cases involving a state or local government employer, it refers the complaint to the Civil Rights Division for potential litigation.  The Civil Rights Division has a memorandum of understanding with the EEOC to increase information sharing, collaboration, and cooperation.  This enables us to handle employment discrimination cases more efficiently and effectively.  Through efforts like this memorandum of understanding, we are working to develop more innovative processes and practices so that we can increase our ability to deliver results for the public.

Inclusion Drives Innovation In Three Ways

As you have heard by now, innovation is more than a goal of the Civil Rights Division; it is the theme of this year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month—more precisely, “Inclusion Drives Innovation.”  When I think about this theme, I think about three different kinds of innovation that are the result of inclusion.  First, innovation in our society as a whole.  Second, innovation by employees with disabilities and their employers.  And third, innovation by the government.

Since the ADA was signed into law in 1990, our society has been transformed.  As our communities have adjusted and found new ways to include people with disabilities, we have all been the beneficiaries of the changes that resulted, in ways both large and small.  Who here has used a curb ramp when pushing a stroller, shopping cart, or suitcase?  Has anyone turned on captions on a TV or online video when you were somewhere that was too noisy or quiet for you to listen to the audio?  Have you hit an automatic door opener when your hands were full?  The innovations that were originally intended to help people with disabilities and bring them into the mainstream of American life are now features that help all of us go about our daily lives, whether we are disabled or not.

Inclusion Of Employees Drives Innovation

Beyond innovation in society generally, inclusion of people with disabilities in our workplaces leads to innovation in those workplaces.  Most managers know that including many different perspectives often leads to better solutions.  Similarly, hiring employees with disabilities can strengthen our workplaces by bringing people with different skill sets, life experiences, and points of view to the table.

People with disabilities tend to be natural innovators because of the barriers they have had to overcome.  If you can’t accomplish a task in the way that most people do, or as easily as others do, it would not be surprising if you became more persistent and creative because those skills were needed to succeed.  For example, one of our attorneys in the Disability Rights Section uses a wheelchair and has some difficulty with coordination and fine motor skills.  She is used to having to find different routes to get somewhere when primary routes aren’t wheelchair accessible, or different methods to do things when “the typical way” doesn’t work for her.  This kind of creative problem-solving and “thinking outside the box” serves us well during negotiations and brainstorming, because she is used to finding different ways to get things done.

We in the Civil Rights Division hear positive feedback about innovation driven by employees with disabilities from private employers as well.  For example, Pedro, who now works in a restaurant in Rhode Island and has an intellectual disability, was chosen as employee of the month just three months after starting work.  Pedro’s manager told us, “He has changed the culture of the company by inspiring everyone around him to reach higher; he has led by example.” 

Steven, who has an intellectual disability, works in the office of a small business.  The president of the company says, “When you hire someone with disabilities, you think you are helping them out, but no business owner can possibly imagine the benefits that they will receive in return."  Reflecting on Steven's dedication, abilities, and successes thus far, he says, "We are very lucky to have Steven on board." 

We also heard from the manager of an auto repair shop who supervises Tim, whom I mentioned earlier.  Tim’s manager set up a new labeling system for tools so that it would be easier for Tim to make sure his tools were all accounted for.  The new system was so successful that the same system is now used at all work stations, for all employees, not only for Tim.  Because Tim was working at the shop, his manager had the opportunity to develop a more efficient system that worked better for everyone.

Inclusion In the Government Drives Innovation

Inclusion of people with disabilities drives innovation in the federal government as well.  We are better able to serve the American public when we have a workforce that reflects America, in all of its diversity. 

The federal government has an obligation, rooted in executive orders, to be a model employer of individuals with disabilities.  To achieve this goal, we must innovate to ensure our workplaces are welcoming, accommodating, and inclusive of employees with disabilities. 

This is not just the right thing to do, just a legal requirement, or even just something that will make our workforces stronger.  It is also good policy to help people who are able to work earn their own living and become taxpayers, instead of relying on government benefits.  There is no better social welfare program than providing employment to those who are able to work.  As the President noted in his budget for Fiscal Year 2018, “The greatest waste is when the Government is not doing enough to enable individuals to remain in the labor force.”  By creating workplaces that recruit, hire, retain, promote, and accommodate people with disabilities, we are fulfilling not only our legal and moral obligations, but also obligations to reduce government waste.

One way the government has innovated to achieve these goals is through the Schedule A hiring process.  Schedule A is a non-competitive, excepted service hiring authority that can be used to hire qualified individuals with intellectual disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, or severe physical disabilities.  Schedule A is a pathway that can be used to increase the number of qualified individuals with disabilities working at federal agencies, while expediting the often burdensome and time-consuming government hiring process.  Agencies can appoint qualified candidates using the Schedule A hiring authority without posting a job announcement, which can enable them to select and on-board a candidate much more quickly.  

In order to increase inclusion at the Department of Justice, we have implemented innovative hiring policies and practices.  Since 2012, in recognition of the benefits that both Schedule A and employees with disabilities bring to the Department, it has been Department policy that at least one qualified candidate who is eligible for Schedule A hiring must be interviewed for every non-exempt position. 

Attorneys General Reno, Holder, Lynch, and Sessions have also recognized the value of inclusion of employees with disabilities and encouraged innovation to achieve this objective.  Attorney General Reno established the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on Employment of Individuals with Disabilities in 1997.  The Advisory Committee was reconstituted in 2012 and remains active today. 

The Committee’s recommendations to increase disability inclusion have resulted in many innovations at the Department.  These include Attorney General Reno’s 1999 directive to all components to actively recruit, hire, and promote qualified people with disabilities.

Of note, many Committee members are themselves employees with disabilities.  Thus, inclusion of these employees and their active participation in Department initiatives is helping to drive the Department’s innovation in ways that will enable inclusion of additional employees with disabilities.  The relationship between inclusion and innovation works in a mutually reinforcing loop, with inclusion driving innovation, which then leads to even more inclusion.

Conclusion

When I marked the Civil Rights Division’s 60th anniversary last month, I said that the work of the Civil Rights Division is “far from finished. We will continue to work tirelessly towards a country that fulfills its promise of equal justice, equal opportunity, and human dignity for every single American.”  Of course, this includes Americans with disabilities.  By helping people with disabilities gain equal opportunity to become and remain employed, we advance their economic self-sufficiency, as envisioned by the ADA.  We ensure that they are able to experience the dignity of work.  What is often overlooked is that this endeavor does not benefit only people with disabilities.  It benefits us all.  We are a better, stronger, more innovative society when all of us—including people with disabilities—are included.  Let us leave here today with a renewed commitment to inclusion—and the innovation that comes with it—at the Department of Justice.

Thank you very much.

Updated October 25, 2017