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Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the National Disability Rights Network’s Annual Conference


Baltimore, MD
United States

Good morning and thank you, Michael [Kirkman], for that kind introduction and – along with [Executive Director] Curt Decker and the board of directors – for your work to make the National Disability Rights Network such an impactful organization.  For decades, the National Disability Rights Network has brought stakeholders and practitioners together to safeguard justice, to advance opportunity and to defend the rights of people with disabilities.  In so doing, you help people with disabilities live meaningful, enjoyable and productive lives.  You enable our communities to reach their full potential.  You advance America’s founding dream as a land of equal opportunity.  And you strive to make the promise of our laws a tangible reality for all.

Not that long ago, for people with disabilities, this dream and promise of America felt distant and out of reach.  For generations, we called people with disabilities repulsive names.  We not only used names like “feeble-minded” and “imbecile” in our public dialogue.  But we also codified these names – along with the painful stigmas they embodied – into law.  Cities passed ordinances called “ugly laws” that banned people with “unsightly” disabilities from appearing in public.  These laws sought to degrade the worth and violate the dignity of men and women: children in our schools, neighbors in our communities and families in our homes.  Many states prevented people with disabilities from marrying, working in competitive jobs and attending regular public schools.  People with disabilities endured compulsory sterilization – a practice the Supreme Court sanctioned in 1927 in Buck v. Bell when it referred to them as “manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”  And people with disabilities found – in fact, some still do find – themselves excluded from their communities and separated from their families, too often forced to spend their lives in segregated institutions.

These words, laws and actions represent dark moments in our history.  But the beauty of America’s story – and the promise of its legal framework – shows us that we, as a country and as a people, can change.  We can progress – imperfectly but unyieldingly.  We can pass new laws – and vigorously enforce the ones we already have – to secure the freedoms that our Constitution guarantees and the opportunities that all people deserve.  The arc of our nation’s progress in disability rights highlights this point.  In the 1960s, the Kennedy Administration advocated for new investments in treatment, research and care for people with disabilities.  Around the country, the exposure of inhumane treatment in institutions sparked public outrage.  Outrage fueled advocacy.  Overtime, advocacy drove legal change.  And legal change led to lives transformed, futures reclaimed and dreams restored.

Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act in 1973 and then the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990.  The ADA ushered in a new era for people with disabilities in this country.  Progress built the pathway for further reform.  And in 1999, in Olmstead v. L.C., the Supreme Court enunciated a crucial tenet of the ADA: the community integration mandate.  The court held that under the ADA, “unjustified institutional isolation of persons with disabilities” constitutes discrimination, plain and simple.

Of course, laws and rulings alone don’t vindicate rights.  People do.  People like you, and organizations like this one, do.  And let me also give a shoutout to my own colleagues at the Civil Rights Division, who work tirelessly to give meaning to our laws in this area: Deputy Assistant Attorney General Eve Hill, and our Disability Rights, Special Litigation and Educational Opportunities Sections.  And we all know the tough and urgent work that lies ahead to vindicate the rights left unfulfilled and unrealized.  Because even 17 years after Olmstead and more than 25 years after passage of the ADA, for too many people with disabilities, we continue to see a real gap between what the law guarantees, on one hand, and what people experience, on the other.  We see this gap in transportation, as people with disabilities face unlawful barriers when traveling to work and vacationing with their families – areas where the Justice Department has taken aggressive and impactful action: from Amtrak’s rail stations, to Greyhound’s bus fleet, to Carnival’s cruise ships.  We see this gap in the electoral process, as too many people with disabilities trying to participate in our democracy find themselves turned away by unnecessary barriers to a private and independent vote.  Through our ADA Voting Initiative, the Justice Department continues to address these barriers, with investigations into the accessibility of polling locations, voting systems, registration procedures and election information in jurisdictions around the country.  We see this gap in employment, as 450,000 people with disabilities spend their time in segregated sheltered workshops or day programs, with some paid just pennies per hour.  We see this gap in education, as schools deny children with disabilities the opportunities they deserve to learn and thrive alongside their non-disabled peers.  And we see this gap in our justice system, as too many people suffer from policies that criminalize mental illness or other disabilities.

In partnership with many of you here today, the Justice Department works tirelessly to close these gaps so that people with disabilities – our friends, our families, our neighbors and our colleagues – can live, work and learn in their own communities.  For the last eight years, the Obama Administration, in partnership with you, has led vigorous Olmstead enforcement efforts that breathed new meaning and real life into the Supreme Court’s community integration mandate.  Since 2009, we’ve taken action and filed briefs in 50 Olmstead integration matters in 25 states.  Because of our Olmstead work, today more than 53,000 people with disabilities – let me repeat that: 53,000 people – will have meaningful opportunities to receive services in integrated, community-based settings.

In 2012, a Justice Department investigation found that Oregon’s employment services system unlawfully – and unnecessarily – placed people with disabilities in sheltered workshops instead of integrated jobs in their communities.  As we wrote in our findings letter, when unnecessary segregation severely diminishes one’s “work options,” it interferes with the full range of activities that shape our daily lives.  Where we work impacts how we spend our time and how we relate to society.  Work produces far more than a paycheck.  It shapes our livelihood.  It can empower – or degrade – our economic self-sufficiency, our independence, our personal growth and our self-esteem.  During our investigation, we met people with disabilities stuck in sheltered workshops but capable of, and wanting to, work in their own communities.  Our lawsuit in Lane v. Brown – brought in conjunction and careful collaboration with private plaintiffs represented by Disability Rights Oregon, the Center for Public Representation and two private law firms – marked the first of its kind in the country to challenge a state-funded and administered employment service system, including sheltered workshops, for violating the ADA’s integration mandate.

Last year, along with private plaintiffs, we reached a landmark agreement to remedy these violations.  The agreement will impact 7,000 Oregonians with disabilities – Oregonians who can and want to work in typical community employment settings.  Today, Zavier no longer earns $1.70 per hour assembling small company parts.  Instead, with employment support, he works at a local YMCA, helping kids complete their homework and resolve their conflicts.  And today, Gabrielle – who dreamed of saving up money to buy a home – no longer assembles nut-and-bolt kits and knee pads in a sheltered workshop for $100 to $150 per month.  Instead, she works as a grooming assistant at a dog day care and boutique, earning more than $9 per hour.  And as she told a local media outlet last winter, “I feel better about my life and … I ended up buying that house.”

The success stories of Zavier and Gabrielle highlight how when we break down barriers of discrimination, we empower workers.  We create stronger, more inclusive communities.  We enable men and women to reach their potential and to realize their dreams.  And taken collectively, these stories and the agreement in Oregon demonstrate that protecting the civil rights of people with disabilities creates tangible benefits for all of us.  It strengthens our communities, our economy and our society writ-large.

The Justice Department helped drive a similar story of success in Rhode Island.  Following our investigations there, in 2013 and 2014 we reached an interim settlement agreement and a statewide settlement agreement.  The statewide consent decree will provide more than 2,000 Rhode Islanders with disabilities the opportunity to work in real jobs for real wages.  And over the next decade, more than 1,200 students with disabilities will get the services they need – including access to internships and mentoring programs – to transition into the workforce.  Just like in Oregon, our agreement in Rhode Island changed systems and transformed lives.  Prior to the consent decree, Orquideo, known as “Q,” – who graduated from a vocational high school at age 21 – spent the next eight years earning $2.85 per hour in a sheltered workshop.  As a result of our settlement agreement, Q got a job in a local auto-repair shop that matched his true passion for working with cars.  He takes enormous pride in his work.  The first to arrive every morning after taking two buses to work, Q continues to thrive on the job.  He has grown from someone who rarely spoke to anyone, to someone who laughs and jokes with his coworkers, to someone who spoke eloquently to about 200 people at a regional summit on employment of people with disabilities.

Throughout our Olmstead work, we see close connections between barriers to education and limited opportunities in employment.  When students capable of learning in integrated classrooms don’t get the opportunity to do so, they simply don’t get access to the full set of skills, resources and experience they need to reach their potential in the classroom, in the workforce and in life.  Last year, the Justice Department took on the unnecessary segregation of students with behavior-related disabilities in so-called “special” schools in Georgia.  Our letter of findings about the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS) makes clear that the ADA prohibits states from unnecessarily placing students with behavior-related disabilities in separate and unequal schools when they can learn in regular educational settings.

Our Olmstead community integration efforts span an array of areas.  Just last month, following a comprehensive investigation, we released our findings that South Dakota unnecessarily relies on nursing facilities to provide services to people with disabilities.  We found that thousands of people who rely on South Dakota for needed services must live in nursing facilities to receive those services, isolated from their communities.  For example, we spoke to one 77-year-old man with diabetes who lost his vision and went to a nursing facility after a toe amputation.  Since he couldn’t see, he needed help to check his feet regularly.  But unable to find any help in the community and without family support, he has now lived in a nursing facility for more than five years.  I want to add that South Dakota officials do show a real desire to provide meaningful opportunities for people with disabilities to receive home- and community-based care.  And we look forward to working with the state to build a smarter and fairer service system for all.

As part of our vigorous efforts to protect the rights of people with disabilities and support their ability to live in the community, under the leadership of the Attorney General [Loretta E. Lynch] and Deputy Attorney General [Sally Q. Yates], we recently launched a new initiative to examine the interaction between mental health and the criminal justice system.  Because make no mistake: the community integration mandate in Olmstead applies not just to some, but to all public entities.  And that includes public entities in our criminal justice system.  The Justice Department’s efforts in this space focus on four key areas.  On our streets, we want to help police officers de-escalate tense encounters and reduce the need to use force, while promoting officer and public safety.  In our courts, where appropriate, we want to divert individuals with mental illness from incarceration and connect them with community-based treatment.  In our jails and prisons, we want to ensure that people get connected with the services they need to successfully re-integrate into their communities.  And, in order for criminal justice entities to meet their obligations and address the needs of all their community members, states and localities need to meet their ADA obligations to provide community-based mental health services.  We cannot truly achieve fair and smart criminal justice reform until criminal justice entities fulfill their Olmstead obligations.                                        

In policing, this approach begins by declaring an unwavering commitment to protecting human life and upholding the dignity of all individuals.  The Justice Department has made clear that the ADA applies to arrests and other interactions between police and people with disabilities.  From guiding principles, to specific rules, to comprehensive strategies, de-escalation embodies a critical approach for officer and community safety in these interactions.  Through our consent decrees with various jurisdictions over the last several years, we aim to ensure that police departments adopt and apply a series of critical de-escalation and use-of-force principles – techniques that can minimize the need for force and increase the likelihood of voluntary compliance.

We also strive to ensure that police departments implement crisis intervention programs.  Crisis intervention means recognizing when conditions such as mental illness, disability or the effects of drugs or alcohol may impact one’s behavior.  It means recognizing that a person may not understand commands.  It means dispatching specialized Crisis Intervention Team or CIT-trained officers to respond to crisis-related calls.  And it means responding with care and communication to defuse tensions rather than resorting to unnecessary force.

Of course, no matter how effectively law enforcement officers respond to crisis situations, we can’t afford to leave them addressing public health issues like mental illness, disabilities and substance use disorders on their own.  Our approach to crisis intervention also emphasizes the need for partnerships among law enforcement, mental health professionals and community members.  As part of our consent decrees in Portland, Oregon; Seattle and Cleveland, for example, these cities and their police departments created advisory committees specifically focused on substance use, mental health and crisis intervention.  These committees include CIT officers, other law enforcement personnel, service providers and community members.  The committees help the police departments shape their crisis intervention systems, policies and staffing.  And these partnerships also help people with mental illness and substance use disorders, where appropriate, receive treatment from community-based services, rather than get stuck in the criminal justice system.

By helping people in need of behavioral health services access community-based treatment, we can reform harmful policies and practices that end up trapping people in a perpetual cycle of arrest and incarceration.  A key part of our work here focuses on diverting people to community-based treatment rather than locking them up in jail.  And public entities have obligations to ensure that individuals who can, and want to, access community-based services can do so in the most integrated setting appropriate.

To further advance this approach to diversion, in the coming months, the Justice Department plans to provide law enforcement and health care systems with additional tools, resources and guidance about how to treat justice-involved individuals with mental health conditions.  We hope to help the field better understand how the ADA and Olmstead require reasonable modifications, including a comprehensive array of community-based services integrated for those with mental health conditions and intellectual and developmental disabilities.  When criminal justice personnel get the training and guidance they need to fulfill their legal responsibilities – and when we provide community-based mental health services to keep people out of, and where appropriate, divert them from, the criminal justice system – it makes all of us safer. 

On each of the issues I described today, we at the Justice Department know that we can’t do this work alone.  We need you.  We need your support.  We need your expertise.  We need your ideas.  Whether you work for Protection and Advocacy or the Client Assistance Program, your resolve, your ingenuity and your dedication to this cause has helped us – and will continue to help us – shape the future of disability rights work in America.

The energy and inspiration on display at this conference remind us that if we wonder what the next chapter of progress in disability rights will look like – if we wonder what kind of reform we’ll see in the 21st century for people with disabilities – together, we get to write the story.  We get to drive the change.  And we get to secure a core promise of America: all people get a fair shot to succeed.  All people get an equal chance to thrive.  And all people get a real opportunity to live their life to the fullest.  Today, let us rededicate ourselves to fulfill that promise.  Let us help every person in every community reach his or her true potential.  And let us ensure that all people can live with independence, with dignity and with full inclusion into the mainstream of American life.  Thank you very much. 

Civil Rights
Updated August 19, 2016