Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you for the introduction and for the opportunity to participate in your Annual Conference. I will talk today about our work at the United States Department of Justice and a bit about our history.
Disability rights are civil rights, and it is critically important that individuals with disabilities enjoy the privileges and freedoms available to all Americans.
Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Just before he signed the Act into law, President George H.W. Bush explained its importance.
This is what he said:
"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.”
President Bush continued:
"These words have been our guide for more than two centuries as we’ve labored to form our more perfect union. But tragically, for too many Americans, the blessings of liberty have been limited or even denied. The Civil Rights Act of '64 took a bold step towards righting that wrong. But the stark fact remained that people with disabilities were still victims of segregation and discrimination, and this was intolerable. 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."
The Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department remains committed to the basic guarantee of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We do so in many ways, including by enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws that protect individuals with disabilities.
Our enforcement efforts seek to vindicate the rights of people with disabilities across a wide spectrum of activity. Today, I will highlight some of these efforts, including several that benefitted greatly from the involvement of our Protection and Advocacy Systems (P&As). The P&As work tirelessly at the state level to protect individuals with disabilities by empowering them and advocating on their behalf. P&As are dedicated to the ongoing fight for the rights of individuals with disabilities, and we appreciate your day-to-day work.
The Civil Rights Division in partnership with United States Attorneys across the nation seeks to protect the right to vote for people with disabilities through our Americans with Disabilities Act Voting Initiative. This initiative covers all aspects of voting, from voter registration to casting ballots at neighborhood polling places. Through this initiative, we have surveyed more than 1,300 polling places to identify barriers to access.
In February, the Justice Department entered into a settlement agreement to resolve a complaint by a Concord, New Hampshire, voter who is blind and alleged that the City failed to provide an accessible ballot. Now the City will provide accessible voting machines at its elections so that blind individuals can vote privately and independently.
And in March, the Department reached an agreement with Harris County, Texas, that the County would make over 750 polling places accessible to voters with disabilities. The County agreed to create an effective system for selecting accessible facilities for polling places; survey polling place facilities to identify accessibility barriers; procure and implement temporary accessibility remedies, such as mats or ramps, during elections; and provide effective curbside voting.
Access to transportation is a key issue for many people with disabilities. In 2015, the Department determined that Amtrak discriminated against people with disabilities by failing to make existing stations accessible.
The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) played a key role in developing these findings. In October 2013, the NDRN released a report based on its member organizations’ visits to more than 100 stations. Based on these members’ surveys, the Department identified a significant number of accessibility deficiencies. The Department is working with Amtrak on this matter, and is committed to a favorable resolution.
As many of you know, addressing the opioid crisis is a Department priority. The Americans with Disabilities Act provides one of the many tools that the Department can and does use to expand access to recovery for individuals addicted to opioids by removing discriminatory barriers to treatment.
For the most part, the Americans with Disabilities Act’s coverage extends to people who have substance use disorders, are not currently using illegal drugs, and are in treatment or recovery. Thus the Act protects individuals participating in medication-assisted treatment – who are prescribed FDA-approved medications in conjunction with therapy and under the supervision of licensed health care professionals.
In January 2019, the Justice Department reached an agreement with Selma Medical Associates, a private medical clinic located in Winchester, Virginia. Selma Medical refused to accept a prospective new patient for an appointment because he takes medication-assisted treatment to treat his opioid use disorder. Under our agreement, Selma Medical will not deny services on the basis of disability, including opioid use disorder, or apply standards or criteria that screen out individuals with disabilities. Selma Medical also paid $30,000 in compensatory damages to the complainant and a $10,000 civil penalty to the United States.
We all know that work can provide so much more than a paycheck: a sense of purpose, dignity, independence, value, self-worth, and belonging. The Department is working to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to the tangible and intangible benefits of employment.
For example, in August 2018, the Justice Department entered into a settlement agreement with the City of Minneapolis to resolve allegations that the Minneapolis Police Department discriminated against a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who applied for a job as a police officer. The City of Minneapolis allegedly refused to hire this applicant even though he was qualified for the job and his condition did not interfere with his ability to work.
Our investigation also found that the Minneapolis Police Department violated another federal law – the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 – by routinely requesting and obtaining genetic information from applicants. This was the Department’s first lawsuit challenging discrimination under Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. Under our agreement, Minneapolis paid nearly $190,000 in back pay and other damages to the applicant. The City also agreed to revise its policies and procedures to prevent discrimination on the basis of disability and to ensure that it does not unlawfully request or obtain genetic information in the future.
Another important topic that is vital to ensuring the well-being of people with disabilities is access to medical services and facilities. Through the Department’s Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative, United States Attorneys’ Offices across the country partner with the Department’s Civil Rights Division to ensure that people with disabilities are able to access health care. The Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative addresses, among other topics, effective communication for people who are deaf or have hearing loss, physical access to medical care for people with mobility disabilities, and equal access to treatment for people who have HIV or AIDS.
As an example of a recent agreement under this initiative, in June 2018, the Justice Department, working through the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington, entered into an agreement with the Washington Health Care Authority designed to improve interpreter services for low-income patients with hearing disabilities. The settlement calls for the Health Care Authority to increase the number of sign language interpreters it has available to attend medical appointments to interpret for Medicaid patients or their companions.
We recognize that many of our military veterans have acquired disabilities in the course of their service to our country. Unfortunately, upon their return to civilian life, these veterans may encounter discriminatory barriers.
As one example of our Veterans Access work, last October, the Justice Department reached an agreement with an antique store called The Place of Antiques in St. Regis, Minnesota. A veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and other disabilities was in the area attending a veterans’ workshop and mentoring other veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. During a break, he stopped at The Place of Antiques, accompanied by his service dog. A sales person denied him entry despite his explanation that his dog is a service dog. The settlement agreement requires The Place of Antiques to adopt and implement a service dog policy consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Ensuring the protection of veterans’ rights in cases like these is a top priority for us, and we will continue to devote attention to these matters.
We all know that education has the potential to open the doors of opportunity in our society, and this is no less true for individuals with disabilities. The Department is cooperating with multiple local P&A’s on open matters as well as settlement compliance monitoring, including, for example, English language access for students with disabilities and their families and integration of students with disabilities in general education programs.
The Department also enforces protections against discriminatory discipline for students with disabilities. In April, the Department announced a statewide settlement agreement with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to resolve improper discipline and segregation in the statewide alternative schools program called Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth, also known as “AEDY.”
The AEDY program is designed to provide temporary placements for disruptive students in grades 6-12. There are approximately 10,000 students placed involuntarily in AEDY programs every year in Pennsylvania, and a large proportion of them are students with disabilities.
As part of the agreement, Pennsylvania will increase oversight and monitoring of AEDY placements, and will ensure that students are not placed in AEDY solely on the basis of disability. The agreement calls for determinations to be made before a student is placed in AEDY in order to discern when a student’s behavior is based upon a disability and to provide appropriate services to those students rather than segregating and disciplining them at AEDY.
The Department also enforces two criminal laws that specifically protect the rights of people with disabilities. First, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act, enacted in 2009, makes it a crime to willfully cause bodily injury, or attempt to do so with a dangerous weapon, because of a person’s actual or perceived disability. Second, the criminal provision of the Fair Housing Act makes it a crime to use or threaten to use force to interfere with a person’s housing rights because of a person’s disability.
The Department recently charged several members of a Louisiana family with human trafficking and hate crime offenses related to their abuse of a 22-year-old woman with disabilities. Members of the family conspired to force the victim to live in a locked shed in the backyard and to perform housework and yard work in exchange for food and water. They subjected the victim to routine physical abuse, threats, and verbal and psychological abuse. The abuse included shooting the victim with a BB gun, restraining her and burning her with a cigarette lighter, and, this is difficult for me to discuss, forcing her to eat her deceased mother’s ashes.
As of May 20, four members of the family have pleaded guilty to federal charges.
And on May 2, the Department obtained a guilty plea from a direct support worker for physically assaulting a person with intellectual and developmental disabilities who lived at the San Angelo State Supported Living Center, in San Angelo, Texas. The defendant admitted to kicking the resident in the face to punish her.
The Department of Justice will not tolerate these kinds of disgraceful, inhumane, and unlawful abuse of individuals with disabilities.
The Department is also committed to ensuring that new multifamily housing is built with the accessible features that are required by law, including the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Last month, the Department announced the filing of a lawsuit alleging disability-based discrimination against Ohio-based Miller-Valentine Operations Inc. and affiliated companies, owners, developers and builders of 82 multifamily housing complexes in 13 states. The lawsuit, which was filed in the Southern District of Ohio, alleges that the 82 properties have significant and unlawful accessibility barriers, including steps leading to building entrances; non-existent or excessively sloped pedestrian routes, inaccessible parking; inaccessible bathrooms and kitchens; inaccessible door hardware; and insufficient maneuvering space.
In addition, in November, the Department announced that it settled a Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit against Mid-America Apartment Communities, Inc. and Mid-America Apartments, L.P. for $11.3 million. The settlement resolved allegations that these property owners failed to build 50 apartment complexes in six states and the District of Columbia with accessible features. Under the agreement, the defendants must spend $8.7 million to retrofit 36 properties that they currently own, pay for some accessibility retrofits at several properties they no longer own, and pay to compensate victims.
The Civil Rights Division is also committed to enforcing the Fair Housing Act to ensure that municipalities do not apply their zoning laws in a manner that discriminates against people with disabilities.
In December, the Department filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Louisiana alleging that St. Bernard Parish failed to provide reasonable accommodations to its zoning ordinance by repeatedly refusing to allow two proposed group homes for children with disabilities to operate. The lawsuit seeks a court order prohibiting St. Bernard from applying its zoning code in a manner that discriminates against persons with disabilities, and seeks monetary damages to compensate victims, as well as payment of a civil penalty.
Finally, we are nearing the 20th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case called Olmstead v. LC. The Court in that case found that the Americans with Disabilities Act makes unlawful the unjustified institutionalization of people with disabilities.
In the Olmstead case, the Court determined that the Act’s prohibition against discrimination may require placement of persons with mental disabilities in community settings rather than in institutions. The Court found that “[s]uch action is in order when the State’s treatment professionals have determined that community placement is appropriate, the transfer from institutional care to a less restrictive setting is not opposed by the affected individual, and the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others with mental disabilities.”
We continue to work day in and day out to fulfill the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act in this area. Our Olmstead efforts incorporate issues that are key to the full participation of people with disabilities in all aspects of community life, such as living in the community and the right to integrated employment.
For example, a few weeks ago we announced a comprehensive settlement with the State of West Virginia that commits the State to expand effective community-based services for children with serious emotional or behavioral disorders. Our investigation of West Virginia’s children’s mental health system showed that the State was sending many of its children to segregated residential care, rather than allowing these children, when possible, to remain in their communities and live with their families or foster families.
For example, one 14-year-old and her mother could not find treatment in the community, so the child spent seven months in a segregated facility in another state. She was four hours away from her family, and had to sleep on an air mattress on the floor and take cold showers every day. During our investigation, advocates, including Disability Rights West Virginia, were instrumental in connecting us with families whose experiences informed our work. In our recent settlement, the State agreed to serve children with emotional or behavioral disorders in their homes, whenever appropriate, to give all of these children the best chance to grow and thrive.
The Department is also currently litigating three cases. One, in Florida, involves the segregation of children with significant medical needs in nursing facilities, when they could be served in their family homes or other community-based settings. The second, in Texas, involves the institutionalization of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in nursing facilities (with private co-plaintiffs – represented by the P&A – Disability Rights Texas, and the Center for Public Representation). And the third, in which the trial opened two days ago (on June 4), in Mississippi, involves the segregation of adults with serious mental illness in state hospitals.
Finally, I would like to mention briefly a few points about our history. In our country, we reject all forms of aristocracy ,and we do not answer to kings, queens, emperors, dictators, or tyrants. Seventy-five years ago today, our soldiers and allies landed on the beaches of France and sent a message to one tyrant who was then operating in Germany. Many of our soldiers died. Many of those who survived the D-Day invasion at Normandy were injured severely and lived the remainder of the lives with disabilities. Upon their return home, many suffered the kind of disability and other forms of discrimination that Congress sought to end when it enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other civil rights laws.
The Americans with Disabilities Act may have come too late for many World War II veterans with disabilities, but, as President Bush reminded us when he signed the bill into law, the Act seeks to extend the blessings of liberty to all persons with disabilities in our nation.
It is our privilege at the Department of Justice to extend the blessings of liberty by enforcing this very important civil rights law.
I thank you again for inviting me here to share the Department’s work. Our disability rights work continues to address a vast array of barriers that individuals with disabilities face every day. We have worked hard as a nation to realize a future where people with disabilities can live and work as integrated members of their chosen communities. We have made much progress, and more work remains.
I believe those who landed on the beaches of Normandy would be very proud of all of your work and our work on behalf of the rights of persons with disabilities. I look forward to continuing to work alongside all of you. Thank you.