Justice News

Head of Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the Conference on Independent Living's Opening Plenary
Washington, DC
United States
Monday, July 27, 2015

Remarks as prepared for delivery

As we gather to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA], we celebrate how far our society has come in the 25 years since its passage.  Even as we celebrate this milestone, we must always remember what life was like for people with disabilities when there were no federal laws to ensure equal treatment and equal opportunity.  When Americans with disabilities were literally and figuratively shut out of the mainstream of American life.  They were all too often institutionalized, marginalized, and involuntarily sterilized.  They were prohibited from entering into contracts or voting.  In many places, they were not allowed to be seen in public.  They were prevented from marrying, having children, pursuing professions, and obtaining education.  They couldn’t go to stores, restaurants, concerts or even across the street, let alone take public transportation or attend college.  They simply weren’t able to pursue their dreams or aspirations.  People with disabilities were left out, left behind and hidden away – sometimes because of outright hostility, fear or misunderstanding, but also because of what has been called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

In these past 25 years, the ADA has revolutionized the lives of people with disabilities, enabled them to become part of the fabric of everyday American life, and made it possible for them to imagine and realize their own versions of the American dream.  Because of the ADA, people with disabilities can partake in all of the everyday experiences that people without disabilities take for granted – a ball game with family, a movie or a shopping trip with friends.  They can also reach higher and dream bigger, participating in the civic life of their communities, contributing to our economy as they become valued professional colleagues, and attending college and graduate school in record numbers.  America is a better, richer, stronger society because of the contributions Americans with disabilities make, and those contributions would not be possible without the ADA.

The ADA marks another step forward in this nation’s long march toward achieving civil rights for all.  Like the Fair Housing Act, Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act before it, the ADA is truly a landmark civil rights law. 

The ADA would not be possible without the hard work and tenacity of so many individuals – both people with disabilities and their allies – whose tireless efforts and persistent advocacy helped it to become a reality.  Following in the great tradition of civil rights activists before them, people with disabilities and their allies coalesced, marched, protested, lobbied and fought to have their civil rights and equal dignity acknowledged and protected by law.  We honor each of those advocates – those well-known and unknown, those here today or scattered across the country, and those no longer with us.  NCIL and the Centers for Independent Living across the country were leaders in the fight to enact the ADA and are leaders today in making the dream of the ADA a reality.  Every American owes you a debt of gratitude.  Because of you, the lives of Americans with disabilities and the culture of America itself are forever changed.

The acknowledgment that disability rights are civil rights benefits each of us, directly or indirectly, now or later in life.  Disability, unlike other aspects of identity, touches every American life.  Even if you do not currently have a disability, you probably have a family member, friend, neighbor or colleague who has a disability.  We all certainly celebrate and honor our returning service members, who acquired disabilities as a result of their service to this nation.  And each of us is likely to develop a disability as we age, as more and more baby boomers are learning.  Disability knows no socioeconomic, racial, or ethnic boundaries.  It does not discriminate on the basis of age, sex or sexual orientation.

The Department of Justice is proud to play a pivotal role in ensuring that the promise of the ADA is made real in the lives of people with disabilities across this country.  The department has a long history of commitment to disability rights enforcement, beginning our work even before there was an ADA.  And the department remains steadfastly committed to its disability rights work.  We will continue our vigorous and robust efforts to ensure that the ADA is enforced across this country, in communities large and small, urban and rural.  Our work just this month demonstrates the scope of our commitment to this work. 

We released a letter of findings to the state of Georgia regarding its investigation of the state’s GNETS Program of segregated schools for students with behavioral disabilities.  The department finds that the GNETS Program violates the integration mandate of Title II of the ADA by unnecessarily segregating students with disabilities who could be served in more integrated settings.  The GNETS Program serves approximately 5,000 students with disabilities throughout the state.

We announced settlements with four jurisdictions (Yakima County, Washington, Merced County, California, and Champaign County, Illinois, Lumpkin County, Georgia) under its Project Civic Access program.  Since inception of the program, the department has reached 217 agreements with local governments across the country to increase accessibility of their public facilities, parking, sidewalks, polling places, websites and emergency services as well as procedures for effective communication and ADA implementation. 

We filed a joint motion to dismiss with the state of Nebraska based on the state’s substantial compliance with a 2008 consent decree under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act and the integration mandate of Title II of the ADA.  As a result of the consent decree, the state has substantially transformed its service system for people with developmental disabilities from one that relied on two state-run institutions to one that serves approximately 5,000 people in the community.  The state has closed one institution and reduced the census in the other by over 60%, while increasing the number of people with developmental disabilities served in the community, including approximately 1,680 people from the waitlist.  At the same time, the state has increased the quality of community services and increased the number of people receiving integrated day services, including employment, by approximately 61%.

We announced three new settlements under our Barrier Free Health Care Initiative.  The settlements address the failure to needed sign language interpretation by a nursing center in Virginia, and two medical offices in Michigan.  In the Michigan cases, the healthcare providers refused sign language interpreters to a deaf patient, while in the Virginia case the healthcare provider refused to provide interpreters to deaf family members of a patient.  

We, along with the HHS Office For Civil Rights and Administration for Children and Families will soon release a Dear Colleague letter reminding state and local child welfare agencies and courts of their legal obligation to ensure that individuals with disabilities are afforded equal access and opportunities to benefit from and participate in child welfare programs, services and activities.  This is part of a planned guidance series that will address the applicability of federal civil rights laws to child welfare programs and activities.

We reached a settlement agreement with the University of Michigan on behalf of two individuals who were denied reassignment to vacant positions when their disabilities prevented them from doing their current jobs.  The settlement requires the university to change its policy and to compensate one complainant with over $156,000 and the other with over $56,000.

Along with the Federal Highway Administration we will soon release a supplement to the 2013 Joint Technical Assistance on the Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act Requirements to Provide Curb Ramps when Streets, Roads, or Highways are Altered through Resurfacing.

We filed two briefs supporting the rights of Protection and Advocacy organizations to have access to records necessary for them to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect by disability service providers.  This important work of the P&As must be supported because people with disabilities should not be required to risk their lives in order to get services.

And we reached a settlement agreement with Carnival Corp. to make 62 cruise ships more accessible on its Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Holland America Line brands.

This is just a sample of what we do every month. 

We are also taking on cases in high-priority areas, such as Olmstead enforcement, where we’ve been involved in 50 matters in 25 states since 2009.  We’ve reached eight systemic Olmstead settlement agreements with New York, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia, that are helping over 46,000 people with disabilities leave institutions or avoiding ever having to enter institutions.  And we have active litigation ongoing in Florida, Oregon and Texas and outstanding letters of finding in West Virginia (children with mental health disabilities in foster care), Georgia (the GNETS segregated education program for youth with behavior disabilities), and Mississippi (adults and children with developmental disabilities and mental illness).  Not to mention several ongoing investigations.

Since September 2010, we’ve opened 35 new education investigations and have taken 20 actions, including issuing letters of finding, filing statements of interest, and entering into settlement agreements and consent decrees with school districts, private schools and universities.  In addition, U.S. Attorneys’ Offices have opened more than 50 investigations.  The department has also issued joint guidance with the Department of Education, including Frequently Asked Questions on Effective Communication for Students with Hearing, Vision, or Speech Disabilities in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, which explains public schools' responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to meet the communication needs of students with hearing, vision or speech disabilities.

Just since 2013, in the education context we have reached settlements to:

  • ensure students with disabilities are included in school evacuation plans and drills;
  • ensure students with disabilities can be accompanied by their service animals in school;
  • limit discipline that removes students with disabilities from the classroom;
  • expand positive behavioral interventions and supports;
  • train School Resource Officers on working with students with disabilities, child and adolescent development, and de-escalation techniques;
  • require colleges to allow students with HIV to matriculate in health related courses; and
  • prevent exclusion of students based on incorrect safety concerns about their disabilities.

And since 2009, the division has participated in 30 enforcement matters concerning the ADA requirements for accessible electronic and information technology, such as websites, mobile apps, learning management systems and electronic devices.  The 30 enforcement matters include filing lawsuits, entering into settlement agreements and letters of resolution, and filing statements of interest involving both private and public entities.  Examples are our settlement with the MOOC provider EdX, our settlement with Louisiana Tech University, and our settlement with Peapod online grocery delivery service.

We also prioritize housing accessibility.  In Fiscal Years 2013-2015, the Housing Section filed 45 cases in federal court to combat discrimination against persons with disabilities.  Our cases have sought to ensure full integration for persons with disabilities in our communities.  For example:

  • The division is committed to ensuring equal treatment of persons with disabilities living in continuing care retirement communities.  Last month, the division settled a case against the Fort Norfolk Retirement Community in Virginia that had prohibited residents in the assisted living, nursing, and memory support units from dining or attending community events with independent living residents.  Under the consent order, Fort Norfolk will pay $350,000 into a settlement fund and a civil penalty and will implement several new policies, including a new dining and events policy.
  • The division is committed to ensuring that multifamily dwellings are built with units that are accessible to individuals with disabilities across the country.  In 2012, we obtained our largest-ever disability-based housing discrimination settlement fund  – over $10 million—to provide retrofits at 210 multifamily properties in 26 states.
  • And last year, we obtained a settlement with one of the largest developers of Low-Income Housing Tax Credit properties in West Virginia, resulting in accessibility retrofits at 30 apartment complexes involving more than 750 units, $100,000 for a victims’ fund, and $10,000 for a civil penalty. 
  • The division is also committed to ensuring that persons with disabilities have equal access to credit.  Last year, the division settled a case against Fifth Third, a regional banking company, where we obtained $1.5 million for people with disabilities who were discriminated against because they received Social Security Disability Insurance income.

Eliminating employment discrimination is also a priority for the division.  Just last week we entered into a memorandum of understanding with the EEOC to streamline our coordination of investigations of disability discrimination complaints and to increase our collaboration on guidance, outreach and training.  In addition to the University of Michigan settlement I mentioned, we are taking on common barriers to employment for people with disabilities.  Over the past few months, the Department of Justice found that several public employers were pre-employment inquiries about disability right in their job applications, even though the ADA specifically prohibits it.  To resolve these violations, the department entered into settlement agreements with nine different public entities: Parowan, Utah; Española, New Mexico; DeKalb, Illinois; Vero Beach, Florida; Fallon, Nevada; Isle of Palms, South Carolina; Hubbard, Oregon; Village of Ruidoso, New Mexico; and Florida State University.  Those agreements also require those cities to make their online job applications accessible.

The division also focuses on access to essential services like health care.  The division launched the Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative in July 2012.  Working with more than 50 U.S. Attorney’s offices, the Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative (BFHCI) seeks to ensure that people with disabilities, including those who are deaf or hard of hearing, who have HIV, and who have mobility disabilities, have equal access to medical services.  The department has reached nearly 40 agreements with health care facilities to address those issues.

In voting, we continue our work to ensure access to polling places.  We recently issued letters of findings to Augusta County, Virginia, and to the Virgin Islands stating that their polling places are not accessible to people with disabilities in violation of the ADA.  And in anticipation of the 2016 federal elections, the division has launched an ADA Voting Initiative with the U.S. Attorney’s Offices to target enforcement efforts this year on voting policies, practices and procedures.

Regarding physical access, in addition to our four Project Civic Access settlements this month making state and local government facilities accessible, we have focused on transportation access.  We recently issued a letter of findings regarding inaccessibility of Amtrak stations, we issued a letter finding that the Virgin Islands public transportation system is not accessible, and we filed a statement of interest in a California court arguing that Uber is subject to the ADA because it provides transportation services.

And we have an aggressive regulatory agenda including movie captioning and audio description, accessible websites, and incorporation of the ADA Amendments Act requirements into the Title II, Title III and Section 504 regulations.  I would like to underscore that even though we are working to develop new regulations, we are always interested in your feedback about how our existing regulations are working.

But the cases we are able to take on every month are just a portion of the discrimination people with disabilities face.  Even as we celebrate today, we recognize that our work is not yet done.  We know that discrimination against people with disabilities still persists, and there is still more work to do.  Too many Americans with disabilities remain unemployed or underemployed.  Too many Americans with disabilities still live segregated lives, or are prevented from reaching their full potential by those same old low expectations.  And too many Americans with disabilities are being left behind as we move even further into the digital age.  We promise to remain vigilant and never fall victim to complacency.  This department will not rest until, to paraphrase President Bush’s powerful words at the ADA signing ceremony, every last shameful wall of exclusion finally comes tumbling down.

Updated August 19, 2016