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Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli Speaks at the Department’s Universal Design Training


Boston, MA
United States

Good afternoon and thank you Amy for that introduction. I want to thank Valerie Fletcher for hosting us here at the Institute for Human Centered Design. This is a very impressive facility that shows us universal design in action. And I’d also like to thank the Vera Institute of Justice for the work they do for our Disability Grant Program, including organizing this training. I am excited to be here today to hear about the innovative programs that are incorporating the principles of universal design to make resources and shelters more accessible to individuals with disabilities and Deaf individuals who are victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.

As the Associate Attorney General, I am the third ranking official at the Department of Justice. My responsibilities include overseeing our grant making programs for state, local and tribal law enforcement and communities throughout the country. That includes the Office on Violence Against Women, which administers critical funding to victim service providers and programs across the United States, including the Disability Grant Program, which is why you all are here today.

This year we are marking a couple of extremely important anniversaries. This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark statute that has made the United States, in the words of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, “a better and fairer nation.” This past September marked the 15th year anniversary of President Bill Clinton signing the Violence Against Women Act – or VAWA – into law. As the 15th anniversary of VAWA approached, it became clear that we needed to do more than a press release or single event. This was a moment in time for the Department of Justice and the Obama administration to send a clear signal that the fight against domestic and sexual violence is a national priority. That is why we at the Department launched a year-long initiative to raise public awareness, build stronger coalitions among federal, state, local and tribal communities, and redouble efforts to end domestic and dating violence, sexual assault and stalking for men, women and children across the country.

As part of the initiative, we have worked to make sure that survivors everywhere know that they have a place – and a voice – in this administration, and to build toward a future where domestic abuse and sexual assault are eradicated. We have created new alliances among rural, tribal, elder, youth and military communities to share lessons learned and new, innovative paths forward. And we have dedicated ourselves to addressing domestic violence and sexual assault in communities that have suffered the most – in particular American Indian and Alaska Native communities which can suffer rates of violence against women of 2, 4 or even 10 times the national average.

As part of this initiative, we knew that we would have to talk about things that may be difficult – things like the stories of Americans with disabilities who have been abused and victimized. In taking on the hard subjects and talking about them not just to service providers and advocacy groups, but to business groups, lawyers, foundations, police officers, state and local government authorities and other federal agencies, we bring new people into the fight. And we honor the survivors who have spoken out, who have helped educate others, and who rely on us to help protect them.

In the United States, one in five people – that’s 54.4 million Americans – have at least one disability. While the precise number of incidents of violence against individuals with disabilities is unknown, the few studies that have been conducted reveal alarming results. For example, individuals with disabilities are four to ten times more likely to experience crimes like domestic and sexual violence than people without disabilities. People with disabilities are more likely to experience severe victimization, experience it for a longer duration, be victims of multiple episodes of abuse, and be victims of a larger number of perpetrators. Isolation, reliance on caregivers for personal care and other daily services, limited transportation options, and perceptions among perpetrators that people with disabilities are “easy targets” are some of the factors that contribute to the higher rates of victimization and repeat victimization.

In addition to victimization that comes from violence, we also know that individuals with disabilities face unique obstacles in getting the help and services that they need. For example, shelter and rape crisis centers may not be physically or programmatically accessible, and therefore individuals may believe that such services are not appropriate for them. Service providers are experts in domestic and sexual violence, but may lack knowledge about the needs of victims with disabilities or Deaf victims. Conversely, disability and Deaf service organizations often lack the expertise in the areas of domestic and sexual violence. Prosecution of offenders are challenging because individuals with disabilities or Deaf individuals may be viewed as poor witnesses or the individual’s disability may be used against them. Finally, there is a lack of collaboration among domestic and sexual violence service providers, disability and Deaf organizations, and the criminal justice system. The result is that victims with disabilities and Deaf victims do not receive the support and services they desperately need.

We recognize these challenges and will continue to work to raise awareness and increase resources to serve and combat abuse against people with disabilities and Deaf individuals. The ADA and the work that we are doing to expand its protection and support individuals with disabilities and those who are Deaf is critical to ensuring that services become more accessible. And the 2000 reauthorization of VAWA established the Disability Grant Program, which focuses on the creation of an infrastructure to support all victims and the development of tailored services and support for survivors with disabilities and who are Deaf. Our hope for this, as with many of VAWA’s programs, is that we will develop best practices and models, in collaboration with those working in the field, provide technical assistance to advocates and service providers across the country, and ensure that in the years to come, domestic violence and sexual assault service providers fully understand and meet the needs of victims with disabilities and Deaf victims.

We have come a long way, but there is still much to accomplish. However, we are not in this alone. The central message that we have sought to carry throughout the 15th anniversary of VAWA is that domestic and sexual violence is not just issues for the victim, and his or her family. They are everyone’s problem. It cannot be the work of the Department of Justice alone, or the criminal justice system, or state government or the advocates and service providers. Leaders at all levels in the public and private sectors and each community must take an active role in responding to sexual assault and domestic violence. Communities must do a better job of educating themselves about domestic and sexual violence, the prevalence of assault, the need for services and support to victims, and the necessary criminal justice response to these crimes. And we must work together to find new and innovative approaches to helping victims of crime, and preventing violence in the first place.

Thank you for being here today and for your critical work to prevent abuse of people with disabilities and Deaf individuals and to serve those victims. We at the Department are committed to this cause and will work with state, local and tribal partners to ensure that all communities – particularly those that have been chronically neglected – are given the resources and support they need. We share your vision where people with disabilities and Deaf individuals can live in a world without the fear of domestic or sexual violence.

And now it’s my pleasure to welcome OVW Director Carbon to the podium.

Updated March 29, 2022