Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Rebecca [Bond], for those kind words – and for your dedicated and passionate leadership of the Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division. I want to thank the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the United States Access Board for coming together today to make this important event possible and for their extraordinary work to promote the equality and advance the fundamental freedoms that every Americans deserves. I would also like to recognize former Senator [Tom] Harkin, former Senator [Bob] Dole and Representative [Steny] Hoyer, three longtime champions of fairness, justice and opportunity, who are here to help us observe this milestone and commemorate a quarter-century of progress. Senator Harkin was the chief Senate sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and delivered part of his introduction speech in sign language so that his deaf brother could understand. Senator, you helped all of us see that the individual concerns of those with disabilities are really the universal concerns of our country and our conscience. Senator Dole helped lead the negotiations for passage. Senator, in this and so many ways you displayed the statesmanship and leadership that has your tenure so often cited today as the example of the golden age of bipartisanship in the Senate. It is an exceptional honor today to see individuals who shaped the ADA’s vital protections 25 years ago joining so many others who have lifted up its legacy and held onto its promise ever since.
It’s such a pleasure to be a part of this celebration, as well as a privilege to join so many distinguished public servants, devoted partners, inspiring colleagues and good friends as we mark the 25th anniversary of a seminal triumph in this country’s ongoing fight for the civil rights of all Americans. Over the course of those 25 years, the Americans with Disabilities Act has proved to be a revolutionary tool for improving the lives of Americans with disabilities, as well as a powerful force pushing this nation closer to its highest ideals. By prohibiting discrimination and ensuring opportunity, the ADA has opened doors and brought dreams within reach. It has made our workforce stronger and our society more inclusive. And it has enhanced our nation’s understanding and recognition of all that Americans with disabilities can achieve when they are given nothing more – and nothing less – than an opportunity to contribute on equal terms.
I am proud to say that the Department of Justice has been a leader in enforcing the ADA’s protections – and in realizing its promise – since its earliest days. In the first decade after the ADA was enacted, the Justice Department took aggressive action on a range of fronts, rooting out discrimination and tearing down barriers that had always been unjust, but were now a violation federal law. From ensuring that deaf Americans could receive full access to health care, to accommodating young people with disabilities in child care programs; and from taking on HIV/AIDS discrimination, to opening the 1996 Olympics to fans with disabilities, the Justice Department was dedicated from the start to ensuring that every American – from any background or circumstance – would be afforded a fair and equal chance to pursue their own happiness.
Our commitment endures to this day and burns stronger than ever. In 2009, President Obama launched the “Year of Community Living,” and called for an administration-wide effort to identify ways to improve access to housing, community supports and independent living arrangements for older people and people with disabilities. At the Department of Justice, we have been vigorously enforcing the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Olmstead – which held that the ADA requires states to eliminate unnecessary institutionalization and segregation of Americans with disabilities so that they can receive health-care services in their homes, in their communities and in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs. Over the course of the Obama Administration, we have participated in 50 Olmstead matters spanning 25 states. And we have reached comprehensive Olmstead agreements with eight states, which have collectively allowed more than 46,000 Americans with disabilities to leave institutional care or to avoid it entirely.
The Civil Rights Division is also placing special emphasis on expanding access to educational opportunities and ending a school-to-prison pipeline that is disproportionately filled with children of color and children with disabilities. In Georgia, we have challenged the segregation of students with behavioral disabilities. In Texas, we are investigating disability issues in the juvenile justice system. In Rhode Island, we have entered into groundbreaking settlements to help prepare more students with intellectual and developmental disabilities for employment after high school. And across the country, we are working to ensure that students with disabilities – whether they require the use of service animals, or have chronic conditions like diabetes, HIV, hepatitis B or mental illness – aren’t excluded, segregated or otherwise limited in their pursuit of the high-quality education that is their right.
These are only a few examples of the Justice Department’s ADA enforcement activity, which includes efforts as wide-ranging as combating discriminatory employment practices and helping police respond to mental health crises. We take our responsibility to Americans with disabilities seriously, because we believe enforcing the ADA is a vital component of our core mission – not only as a department, but as a nation. After all, as we’ve seen throughout our history, America is a stronger country when we harness the energy, the enthusiasm and the talents of every citizen – regardless of who they are, what they look like, or what their disability status may be. Our Union is made more perfect whenever we stand up and speak out for the core values – of diversity, inclusion and equality – that have always lit the way forward. And our society is made fundamentally more just – and more equal – when we strive to broaden the circle of opportunity to include everyone with the will and the determination to forge their own path forward.
That is why we will not waver – and we must not yield – until all Americans are afforded the dignity, the respect and the opportunities they deserve. It’s why, despite all that we have accomplished over the past quarter-century, we know that our work is far from over. And it’s why, right here today, we must redouble our efforts and recommit ourselves to confronting the lingering obstacles that prevent people with disabilities from fulfilling their personal and professional potential – from discrimination, to inaccessibility, to restrictive education and employment opportunities.
That work will not be easy and we will not meet our goals overnight. But as I look out over this crowd of passionate advocates and dedicated public servants, I cannot help but feel optimistic about where your steadfast leadership and your tireless work, will lead us in the days and years to come. I am honored to stand with you in this effort. I look forward to all that we will accomplish together. And I urge each of you to keep up the outstanding work.