The Americans with Disabilities Act is one of our nation’s proudest civil rights triumphs. It is a watershed, transformative law that has allowed so many Americans to enjoy lives of greater dignity, opportunity and self-determination. It was a great honor today to speak at a White House celebration of the ADA’s 23rd anniversary.
The ADA has made us a more inclusive, more humane society, one that is more faithful to our founding ideals. It changed the law, yes; but in so doing it also changed hearts, minds and attitudes. It has revolutionized the way society thinks about individuals with disabilities, and it revolutionized the way people with disabilities live in our communities. It literally opened millions of doors for millions of people who had been marginalized and ostracized.
But there is work to be done every day to make the full promise of the ADA a reality. I’ve spent the last four years as the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, where one of my top priorities and responsibilities was ADA enforcement. And there is a seamless connection between that work and my responsibilities as the new secretary of labor.
The way I see it: the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the Labor Department are both in the opportunity business. Whether it’s a Justice Department settlement with Wells Fargo that allows people with hearing and speech disabilities to do their personal banking, or the Labor Department’s Disability Employment Initiative investing $63 million to increase the workforce system’s capacity to provide job training for persons with disabilities, it’s all about protecting, promoting and expanding opportunity.
People with disabilities want to work and are able to work. They want to be independent and self-sufficient. They want to be in the economic mainstream. They even want to pay taxes. They want the feeling of pride and purpose that comes with waking up every morning, performing a job and earning a paycheck at the end of the week.
I’m not naïve about the challenges. As far as we’ve come, still only one in five people with disabilities are participating in the labor force at all. That’s not acceptable. We can’t thrive in a competitive global economy if half our team is on the bench.
The progress we need demands a bipartisan, collaborative, consensus-building approach, just as it was with the passage of the ADA. It has to be with passionate and principled advocates leading the way. It has to be with the full buy-in of state and local governments. It has to be with the cooperation and partnership of leaders in the business community, so many of whom have already seen the light and are being smart about recruiting employees with disabilities.
It has to be with all hands on deck, a voice for every interested party, a seat at the table for every stakeholder. All of us must answer the call of this moral and economic imperative.