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Director Rachel Rossi Delivers Remarks at the 2024 National Association of ADA Coordinators Southeast Regional Conference


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good morning to everyone who has joined virtually today to kick off this wonderful conference. Thank you, Stacey, for that warm introduction, and for inviting me to speak with you all today.

A special thanks to the State of Georgia’s ADA Coordinator’s Office and the virtual conference support team for bringing together so many people who, every day, dedicate themselves to making real the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act for millions of people across the country.

I would also like to thank the board of the National Association of ADA Coordinators; President John Wodatch; the Center for Inclusive Design and Innovation at the Georgia Institute of Technology; the ASL interpreters and live captioning service providers who are working hard to make sure this event is accessible to all; and all of the amazing presenters that you’ll hear from throughout the conference.

From the legal system to state agencies, to human resources, to higher education—your tenacity and technical expertise are critical to achieving true access and inclusion for people with disabilities at every stage of their lives. It’s an honor to share this virtual space with you.

I am humbled to serve as the Director of the Office for Access to Justice (ATJ), a standalone office within the U.S. Department of Justice. We have a mission to ensure access to the promises and protections of our civil and criminal legal systems for all communities.

The Office for Access to Justice works to break down barriers to equal justice under law, the founding principle and enduring promise of the Department of Justice and the underpinning of our entire justice system. 

We believe that justice belongs to everyone. If access to it depends on who you are, your income level, where you live, the language you use, or your disability status, we simply cannot call it justice.

When people think about access to justice, the first ideas they have are often the vast barriers faced by most in this country to accessing a lawyer. They may think about financial and economic barriers that leave justice out of reach for far too many. They think of the complexity of our legal systems, and the inability to navigate them by almost anyone without legal help.

What is more rarely addressed within the access to justice conversation—are the specific, unique and exacerbated barriers faced by communities and individuals with disabilities in accessing justice.

Although more data and research on the experiences of people with disabilities in our federal, state and local legal systems is sorely needed, we do know that nearly one in four U.S. adults have a disability. And we know that these individuals are often over-represented in the criminal justice system.

For example, studies from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics tell us that 38% or nearly two in five individuals in federal and state prisons report having one or more disability. That’s 38% of the prison population, as compared to 26% overall U.S. population. People with disabilities are also nearly four times more likely to be victims of violent crime.

And several of the top 10 most burdensome civil legal problems, including employment discrimination, access to healthcare, disputes over disability benefits and poor working conditions, disproportionately affect those with disabilities.

And, these members of our community also experience particular legal, attitudinal, communication, physical and economic barriers as they interact with justice systems to solve pressing legal problems.

From virtual court platforms that are not accessible to blind users, to courtrooms without wheelchair accessible entrances, to lack of high-quality sign language interpretation for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing—people with disabilities are often disempowered as they navigate legal processes where most people, regardless of disability status, already have little access to legal help.

These access concerns are compounded by the stigma that people with disabilities face as they interact with justice system actors who may question their credibility, their ability to make decisions in their legal matters, and whether they deserve redress for harms they have experienced, solely on the basis of their disability.

I saw firsthand these barriers when I served as a public defender. I often represented people who not only had various and wide-ranging disabilities, but often people who additionally suffered from significant poverty, lack of housing, and lack of food security—critical core needs that exacerbated and amplified the biases they already had to overcome in navigating the court system. Some of those clients had never even had a disability diagnosis before, and many did not have access to appropriate resources to ensure the support they needed. 

Most importantly, I did not always have the expertise or training to best understand the specific needs each of these clients faced. And neither did the court. This is why your role as educators and experts on the ADA is so critical to this work—you can and do provide justice system stakeholders with the knowledge and know-how necessary to break down stereotypes about disability and give them the tools they need to bridge physical and communication barriers.

In our work, as we think about how the Office for Access to Justice can work alongside you to improve access to justice for people with disabilities, we are prioritizing two broad principles: first, we must use people-centered justice approaches. And second, we believe that solutions require broad partnerships and new voices at the table—we have to break down silos, and intersect collaboratively across disciplines and sectors of society.

First, what is people-centered justice?  

For any initiative or program, we must start by centering the voices of the people we serve—those impacted by our civil and criminal legal systems, those who’ve survived victimization of crime, and those who’ve been arrested or incarcerated, and their families and communities. And this includes regularly centering the experiences of individuals with disabilities. 

I often think of the well-known slogan of the disability rights movement, “nothing about us, without us”—as getting to the core of what it is to achieve people-centered justice.

When we trust the experiences of communities, solicit their ideas and carefully tailor responsive strategies, we can form honest and empowering partnerships and invest together in lasting solutions.   

I’ve seen this firsthand in the work of my office. One example is our offices’ work to host reentry simulations. 

During a simulation, participants experience similar elements and challenges to those experienced by individuals in the first months after being released from incarceration. Our goal is to demonstrate the impact of a criminal conviction and incarceration, and the difficult barriers that continue long past time in custody. Each participant is given an identity and must move through “stations,” which represent the many places a formerly incarcerated person must navigate when they are released, such as employment, vocational rehabilitation, and mental health services.

Vocational rehabilitation and mental health services are especially critical for formerly incarcerated individuals with disabilities, who may face dual forms of discrimination when seeking things like employment and housing that are essential for successful reentry due to both their status as a person with a disability and as a formerly incarcerated individual.

At the end of the simulation, participants reflect on their successes and failures and engage in guided discussions facilitated by justice impacted individuals on the specific barriers to reentry they faced. 

During these simulations, we invite high-level officials from the Justice Department and other federal agencies together, so they could participate and better understand the barriers people face when leaving incarceration and hear the perspectives of justice impacted people on what it is like to return home from prison.

In doing so, we aim to encourage and inform continued collaboration across the government to mitigate these barriers, with the voices of impacted individuals at the forefront. We use what we learn to develop specific policy proposals, including, for example, in a report issued in 2022 with recommendations to Congress on solutions to promote successful reentry and reduced recidivism.

And, as state-level ADA professionals, your ideas about how to ensure that reentry processes and services, like probation, parole and vocational rehabilitation, are inclusive and accessible for the many formerly incarcerated individuals who have physical, cognitive, developmental and mental health disabilities so they can meaningfully reintegrate into their communities are essential.

People-centered justice principals also go beyond consultation with impacted communities in the development of projects. Justice systems cannot be fairer or more equitable for people with disabilities unless people with disabilities are also represented among legal system staff as lawyers, judges, court administrators, and so on. That’s why we’ve taken on the task of seeding the field of future lawyers and legal professionals by engaging the next generation of law and undergraduate students in the cause of access to justice.

Last fall, we conducted a series of visits with law schools and undergraduate students across the country. We traveled to local, state, federal and Tribal offices with clinical professors, judges, public defenders and prosecutors, law enforcement and justice-impacted people to discuss the critical recruitment and retention crises plaguing the criminal justice field. The programming at each of the schools sought to identify solutions, elevate career opportunities of all kinds, and spotlight work in small, Tribal and rural communities.

During this tour, my office met with many young people who care about our criminal justice system, but feared entering a profession notorious for stress, high caseloads, secondary trauma, lack of resources and the disappointing outcomes of much of the work.

I know there are educators out there in the audience who are dedicated to supporting students with disabilities in higher education. I hope that we can partner together to build a pipeline for future lawyers and legal professionals with disabilities so that they can bring the ingenuity that comes with occupying spaces that are not designed for them to the table in service of better, more accountable legal systems. 

And finally, our office is also incorporating these principles into the development of our workforce and the leaders on our team. We are delighted to have hired a senior counsel, herself a blind attorney, who has a long history of advocacy and expertise surrounding the intersection of disability, equity and access to justice. 

Qudsiya Naqui is leading our office’s efforts to build intentional strategies and initiatives that will advance access to justice for individuals with disabilities. You can read more in the blog she published online, entitled “Advancing Access to Justice for Americans with Disabilities: Moving Toward Closing the Justice Gap on the 33rd Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” 

Please reach out and collaborate with our team on these efforts through Qudsiya as our main point of contact.

The second priority for our work is to break down silos and form broad, creative and strategic partnerships.

Solving challenging civil and criminal justice problems cannot just be the responsibility of one organization, entity or agency—and it is because so many of those who touch our legal systems have broad and intersecting needs that cannot be solved in a courtroom, or needs that often cause them to end up in that courtroom. We need many voices at the table, beyond the legal system and lawyers alone.

Each of us brings valuable tools and unique expertise, and through collaboration we expand our visibility and reach to develop innovative and comprehensive solutions.

Attorney General Garland specifically highlighted the importance of this approach, stating that the pursuit of access to justice requires us to, quote “break down existing silos and ensure our work is guided by shared understandings of the challenges we face and by a common purpose to advance the most innovative solutions across all levels of government and beyond.”

As one example, my Office staffs and directs the work of the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR), which convenes 28 federal agencies to improve coordination among federal programs and increase availability of meaningful access to justice for individuals and families, regardless of wealth or status.  This includes Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Labor, Department of Education, Health and Human Services, the VA, and many more.

Each year, LAIR convenes the heads of its federal agency members, and issues annual reports detailing the collaboration and broad accomplishments of the interagency body. 

Just last month, LAIR published a first-of-its kind online hub that collects funding opportunities from across the federal government that can be used to support access to legal assistance and counsel for those who cannot afford an attorney.  By doing so, we’re making access to funding opportunities easier for legal services providers and encouraging increased financial resources dedicated to access to justice by federal agency partners.

ATJ has also utilized the strength of partnership through a pilot initiative launched with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Texas A&M School of Law and the Texas A&M Institute for Healthcare Access to provide access to civil legal services to incarcerated people at a federal prison in Bryan, Texas. The effort will aim to help close the civil justice gap for those who are incarcerated, while also leading to reduced recidivism and helping set people up for success upon returning to their communities. And we’re looking at civil legal assistance to access Social Security relief.

According to the Social Security Administration, the average denial rate of initial application for social security disability relief can be as high as 70 percent. And often times, legitimate claims are denied due to incomplete or lacking medical evidence needed to demonstrate a disability, or gaps in medical history.

Our pilot is targeting this gap, by including the development of the first medical-legal partnership in a federal prison.  We are building a team of legal and medical professionals who will collaborate to better determine eligibility for, and access to, social security disability relief for those who qualify.

In addition, the pilot will include know your rights materials and empowerment sessions or educational presentations to better enable incarcerated individuals to navigate civil legal issues related to housing, employment, public benefits, and other matters upon release.

Each year, between 700,000 and 800,000 people are released from incarceration into the community across the country. This population faces increased risk of housing instability, food insecurity, lack of employment, significant healthcare needs, and the inability to access critical federal benefits to meet these core needs—all barriers that are exacerbated for individuals who have disabilities.  Civil legal help, and in particular access to disability benefits, can serve as essential tools to mitigate these barriers, and to promote successful reentry.  

And through this pilot, we will be better equipped to address these broad needs faced by those impacted by the criminal justice system by bringing together the expertise of medical, legal and academic professionals, alongside the strong partnership between the Access to Justice Office and Federal Bureau of Prisons.

In addition to promoting these strategic and wide-ranging partnerships, we must break down the silos that often exist across those who advocate for and focus on justice issues.  This includes the silos between civil and criminal legal systems—when we see how it is often the same communities who are disproportionately facing interactions with both systems.  It also includes the silos between disability advocacy and policies and access to justice advocacy and policies.

As one example our office has focused on incorporating efforts to break down communication barriers for disability communities as more integrated within the Justice Department’s language access policies, breaking down the silo that can exist between disability and language access efforts.

ATJ houses DOJ’s first-ever Language Access Coordinator who, in 2023, led the release of DOJ’s modernized language access plan.  For the first time, the Department-wide plan expressly acknowledges sign languages as languages and incorporates the requirements for effective communication with individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing that are enshrined in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which mirrors the requirements of the ADA.

The plan also acknowledges and uplifts the communication access needs of those who have limited English proficiency who are also deaf or hard of hearing. State courts across the country have also taken tremendous strides to advance language access, and I hope that the Justice Department’s intersectional approach to this issue will further support those efforts.

I’ll close with a quote by the late Judy Heumann, often referred to as the mother of the disability rights movement. She once said, “Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives.” When we ensure that people with disabilities have equitable access to our justice systems, we are ensuring that they can live in and strengthen their communities.

Access to justice is not just about ensuring access to our laws, courts, and systems for individuals with disabilities, although this is critical. It’s also about recognizing the value and importance of these communities being at the table—as powerful assets. It’s about empowering critical perspectives.  Elevating necessary expertise and knowledge. Bringing more diversity and better innovation.  Accessibility allows our systems—legal and others—to work better for all of us.

Thank you again for inviting me here today. I hope this is only part of a continuing conversation between the Office for Access to Justice and the many ADA professionals and advocates working in all aspects of state government around the country. 

I look forward to learning more about your priorities and considering ways we can partner as we work towards our shared goals of creating a fair, just and equitable justice system for people with disabilities.

Access to Justice
Updated June 4, 2024