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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the American Association of People with Disabilities “Justice for All” Event


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Tony [Coelho]. I appreciate your kind words, but I am especially grateful for your outstanding leadership. As a long-time advocate for equal opportunity, as a principal author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and as Chair of the AAPD’s Board of Directors, your dedication and hard work have helped to create the progress we celebrate today. And I want to thank you, Andy Imparato, and the entire AAPD team for bringing us together to reflect on what has been – and what still must be – achieved to ensure our nation’s promise of justice for all.

I also would like to congratulate this year’s “Justice for All” award recipients. In many different and innovative ways, your efforts have improved conditions, and increased opportunities, for people with disabilities. It’s an honor to salute your contributions and to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the ADA – and the 15th Anniversary of the AAPD – with so many friends, colleagues and partners. And it’s a special privilege to commemorate this milestone with one of my predecessors and one of the ADA’s greatest champions, and my first boss as a lawyer– Attorney General Thornburgh.

Two decades ago, shortly after the ADA became law, Attorney General Thornburgh described this achievement as, “another emancipation, [recognizing] the right of people with disabilities to come into mainstream society – to come into the restaurant or the concert hall or house of worship or movie theater…or the workplace, and, above all, to long-term prospects for a future life of hope and achievement.”

That was his vision in July of 1990.  And, in July of 2010, that vision is – more than ever before – reality.

Over the last two decades, the ADA has helped to revolutionize the conditions of – and society’s perceptions toward – Americans with disabilities. Many of the advocates and policymakers in this very room helped to ensure that the spirit of this law became action across the land.  The AAPD’s leadership, membership and network of supporters have been essential in fulfilling the goals the ADA was developed to achieve. Today, your efforts – particularly to ensure that ADA keeps up with advances in technology and that people with disabilities do not have to turn to institutions or nursing homes to access the services they need – will pave the way for continued progress.

I want all of you to know that the Justice Department plans, not only to continue its tradition of supporting your work, but also to strengthen our joint efforts and build on all that we’ve accomplished together since the ADA became law. In the 1990s, with your help and guidance, the Justice Department compelled facilities in every corner of America to provide access to people with disabilities; tackled HIV/AIDS discrimination head on; secured full health-care access to deaf Americans and others suffering from hearing loss; accommodated children with disabilities in child care programs; and agreed with the Olympic Games Committee to ensure sports venues under construction for the 1996 Olympics and Paralympics in Atlanta were fully accessible to fans with disabilities.

These were breakthroughs. They began to shift legal paradigms, enlighten attitudes and change lives. These actions were also a model for the aggressive – and appropriate – enforcement of the ADA. And I’m pleased to report that the Justice Department has returned to this model once again. At every level of our work – and in cooperation with partners across the Administration – we have placed renewed focus on enforcing the ADA. And we're seeing results.

In recent months, our Civil Rights Division has settled several lawsuits alleging egregious discrimination against people with disabilities. And just last week we announced a comprehensive settlement calling for accessibility compliance and a $1.5 million compensatory damages fund with a company that owns and operates more than 550 gas stations, convenience stores, travel centers and truck stops across the country.

That’s not all. We have also strengthened our commitment to the aggressive enforcement of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Olmstead – recognizing the right of Americans with disabilities to access the care and services they need in their own homes and communities – with suits against Georgia, Arkansas and New York, as well as participation in suits against Connecticut, Illinois, North Carolina, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and California.

At its core, the ADA is about ensuring that all Americans can participate fully in our democracy.  That is why this administration is committed to protecting the fundamental voting rights of Americans with disabilities.  The administration is taking steps to offer fully accessible voter registration services at federal agencies, as intended by the National Voter Registration Act.  Just last week, as part of our enforcement of that Act, the Justice Department announced a settlement with the State of New York, which had failed to provide voter registration services to students with disabilities at its public universities and colleges.

All this, of course, is just a snapshot of our enforcement efforts, which extend far beyond lawsuits and settlements.  The last two decades have taught us that accessibility and opportunity are best delivered voluntarily and cooperatively – and that when the ADA is well understood, its provisions are well executed.  That’s why we’ve launched multiple educational outreach initiatives, such as Project Civic Access and the department’s Technical Assistance Program.  And through our ADA Mediation Program, we have dramatically expanded the ADA’s reach, saving scarce resources while spreading the spirit of accessibility that inspired this law.

But because accessibility without adaptability is counterproductive, we are also working hard to respond to the technological advances, and societal changes, that were – quite simply – unimaginable in 1990.  Just as these quantum leaps can help all of us, they can also set us back – if regulations are not updated or compliance codes become too confusing to implement.  To avoid this, the department will soon be publishing four advanced notices of proposed rulemaking seeking public comment on establishing accessibility requirements for websites, movies, equipment and furniture, and 911 call-taking technologies.

Still, our commitment does not – and cannot – stop there. Our leadership role in enforcing the ADA – and our responsibility as a federal agency with more than 100,000 employees – comes with a solemn responsibility: to make sure that our own house is in order… and open to all qualified candidates with disabilities.

Although we are not yet where we want to be on this front, the Justice Department is taking bold steps to ensure that we get there – and that we get there soon. The Attorney General’s Committee on the Employment of Persons with Disabilities continues to advise me on the best ways to incorporate persons with disabilities into the department’s recruitment, hiring, retention, accommodation, and promotion practices. And I am proud to announce that under our new Deputy Associate Attorney General for Diversity Management, Channing Phillips, there is now a vacancy – to be filled within several weeks – for a critical new position: Special Assistant for Disability Resources.

I am committed to holding the Department’s senior leadership accountable for encouraging the contributions of employees with disabilities, and working to attract qualified candidates with disabilities. This is a priority of mine.

As some of you know, earlier this year, the Justice Department launched a diversity initiative to help accomplish this goal. With me here today are two Justice Department employees who are members of the committee that recommended that move – Fred Parmenter and Ollie Cantos. Many of you know Ollie from his days as the AAPD’s General Counsel. But I’d still like Ollie and Fred to raise their hands so you can see where they are. I encourage anyone here – especially the AAPD summer interns who I hear are so outstanding – to speak with Fred and Ollie if you are interested in exploring opportunities to serve the Justice Department. They'll both be here for the remainder of the event – and, like me, they are eager to fulfill President Obama’s call to “build a world free of unnecessary barriers, stereotypes and discrimination.”

The process of building that world may not always be easy – and, at times, the next steps may be unclear.  But, at this 20-year milestone, I look out at all of you and see leaders who, today and beyond, will provide the vision and focus necessary to make certain that we continue to move forward in ensuring equal rights, equal access, and equal opportunity.

As Attorney General Thornburgh put it twenty years ago, “Each time civil rights are enlarged in our country, they extend over the whole of our society, [so] do not let this bright moment in… American history escape you.”

Once again, a bright moment has arrived. Today, together, let us seize this opportunity. Let us strengthen our work. Let us enrich our nation. Let us fully, and finally, realize the promise of justice and opportunity for all.

Thank you.

Updated August 20, 2015