Ensuring Effective and Full Participation in Political and Public Life for Persons with Disabilities
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
The United States is pleased to address Article 29’s critical focus on ensuring effective and full participation in political and public life. We are committed to ensuring that persons with disabilities have equal opportunities to participate in political and public affairs. We are working with members of civil society at home and internationally to empower individuals with disabilities to exercise their rights.
Multiple U.S. laws protect the rights to political participation for persons with disabilities. From the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984, through the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (known as the “Motor Voter Act”), the Help America Vote Act (“HAVA”) of 2002, and the foundational antidiscrimination protections offered by Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the U.S. has adopted a comprehensive approach to making political participation accessible. The U.S. government provides technical assistance to and monitors local governments to ensure the full realization of political rights of persons with disabilities and takes strong enforcement actions when individuals are denied their rights. The federal government also works collaboratively with civil society to provide training and tools so that consumers and advocates can monitor local governmental actions and ensure that local governmental entities fully recognize the rights of persons with disabilities.
U.S. laws require the physical accessibility of all venues for civic participation, including polling places. The process of casting ballots also must be accessible. Our laws require that public entities afford all persons effective communication, so that persons with disabilities can fully participate in public affairs without barriers. U.S. laws further mandate that election officials and other governmental workers should be trained in the electoral process and the rights of persons with disabilities so that they can assist individuals with all types of disabilities, including psycho-social, sensory, developmental, and physical, to participate in the electoral process. Since 1999, the Justice Department’s Project Civic Access has signed agreements with 193 local governments throughout the country to ensure full access to civic life for over 4 million persons with disabilities. These agreements, which were pursued after problems with compliance were raised, recognize that non-discriminatory access to public programs and facilities is a civil right, and that individuals with disabilities must have the opportunity to participate in local government programs, services and activities on an equal basis with their neighbors.
To assist state and local entities in meeting accessibility requirements, the Justice Department has created a number of guides, such as an ADA Best Practices Tool Kit for State and Local Governments and a checklist for accessibility of voting places. All of these materials are available at the federal government’s key disability rights website, http://www.ADA.gov.
The effectiveness of the U.S. approach is highlighted by the number of persons with disabilities throughout the country who hold local, state, and federal public offices. Also, candidates in national elections routinely develop platforms on key disability issues, a practice that demonstrates the effectiveness of disability rights advocates in communicating their messages in the public sphere. In recognition of the political significance of voters with disabilities, many campaigns appoint staff that specifically focus on outreach to this voting community.
In sum, the United States is deeply committed to ensuring that all individuals with disabilities have the opportunity for effective and full participation in all aspects of political and public life. This commitment also is reflected in our cooperation with other countries. The Department of State and USAID are working as implementing partners in providing technical assistance to countries seeking to make their elections inclusive of disabled voters. We are happy to engage in informal discussions with States Parties throughout this Conference to provide additional information about our laws and programs to promote full participation in political and public life. We also look forward to hearing about the efforts that other States Parties and Signatories are making to ensure access to political and civic life.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Securing equal employment opportunities for persons with disabilities continues to be a top priority in the United States. In addition to the federal government’s long-standing and wide-reaching enforcement efforts that prohibit disability discrimination in the workplace by private and governmental employers, we also are supporting equal employment opportunities through a variety of initiatives.
In 2010, President Obama issued an Executive Order to increase the federal employment of individuals with disabilities with the intention of making the federal government a model employer. Under the Order, senior-level officials at each federal agency must be accountable for enhancing employment opportunities and retention of persons with disabilities. Each official is charged with creating recruitment, training, and counseling programs for the employment of persons with disabilities.
The federal government also supports several grant-making initiatives that provide employment support to persons with disabilities. The Department of Education oversees grant programs which serve approximately one million individuals with disabilities annually, to help them obtain employment and live more independently through the provision of supports such as counseling, medical and psychological services, job training and other individualized services. The Department of Education also provides funds to state vocational rehabilitation agencies, to provide employment-related services for individuals with disabilities, giving priority to individuals who are significantly disabled. It also supports Project SEARCH, a program that provides education and training to young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities through an innovative workforce and career development model that benefits both the individual and the workplace.
The Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) is another initiative undertaken by the federal government in the past ten years. ODEP is charged with creating a national policy to ensure that people with disabilities have increased employment opportunities. ODEP provides national leadership by developing new employment-related policies and practices, and sponsors several important disability research and technical support services.
The private sector has also taken up the challenge of increasing employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. For example, the U.S. Business Leadership Network (USBLN) is a national disability organization that has over 60 affiliates across North America, representing over 5,000 employers. Such private sector initiatives help create workplaces, marketplaces, and supply chains where people with disabilities are included and respected for their talents and abilities.
The key U.S. enforcement of disability rights protections in the workplace is carried out by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Department of Justice, and the Department of Labor. These three agencies enforce federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against qualified job applicants or employees because of those individuals’ disabilities, history of disability, appearance of disability, or association with someone with a disability. Under federal law, there are strict limits on when employers may ask job applicants or workers questions about disability. However, employers may ask applicants whether they can perform the essential job functions, with or without reasonable accommodation. The law requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee or job applicant with a disability, unless doing so would cause undue hardship for the employer. Reasonable accommodations might include providing sign language interpretation for a job applicant, making the workplace accessible for wheelchair users, or providing an electronic screen reader for an employee who is blind. U.S. laws also prohibit employers from creating a hostile work environment for workers with disabilities.
The EEOC, Department of Justice, and the Department of Labor have the authority to investigate charges of discrimination. If they determine that an employer has discriminated, they attempt to settle the matter out of court, and if that effort is unsuccessful, the agencies may file lawsuits to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. Since the effective date of the ADA’s employment discrimination provisions in July 1992, the EEOC alone has obtained more than 939 million dollars in benefits for persons with disabilities who experienced employment discrimination.
The United States recognizes the challenges of achieving equality of employment opportunity and will continue its vigorous efforts to end workplace discrimination against persons with disabilities.
Generations of Americans with disabilities have improved our country in countless ways. Refusing to accept the world as it was, they have torn down the barriers that prohibited them from fully realizing the American dream. Their tireless efforts led to the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), one of the most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation in our Nation’s history. On this day, we celebrate the 21st anniversary of the ADA and the progress we have made, and we reaffirm our commitment to ensure equal opportunity for all Americans.
Each day, people living with disabilities make immeasurable contributions to the diversity and vitality of our communities. Nearly one in five Americans lives with a disability. They are our family members and friends, neighbors and colleagues, and business and civic leaders. Since the passing of the ADA, persons with disabilities are leading fuller lives in neighborhoods that are more accessible and have greater access to new technologies. In our classrooms, young people with disabilities now enjoy the same educational opportunities as their peers and are gaining the tools necessary to reach their greatest potential.
Despite these advancements, there is more work to be done, and my Administration remains committed to ending all forms of discrimination and upholding the rights of Americans with disabilities. The Department of Justice continues to strengthen enforcement of the ADA by ensuring that persons with disabilities have access to community-based services that allow them to lead independent lives in the communities of their choosing. Under provisions of the Affordable Care Act, insurers will no longer be able to engage in the discriminatory practice of denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, and Americans with disabilities will have greater control over their health care choices. And last year, I signed an Executive Order establishing the Federal Government as a model employer forindividuals with disabilities, placing a special focus onrecruitment and retention of public servants with disabilities across Federal agencies.
Through the ADA, America was the first country in the world to comprehensively declare equality for citizens with disabilities. To continue promoting these principles, we have joined in signing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. At its core, this Convention promotes equality. It seeks to ensure that persons with disabilities enjoy the same rights and opportunities as all people, and are able to lead their lives as do other individuals.
Eventual ratification of this Convention would represent another important step in our forty-plus years of protecting disability rights. It would offer us a platform to encourage other countries to join and implement the Convention. Broad implementation would mean greater protections and benefits abroad for millions of Americans with disabilities, including our veterans, who travel, conduct business, study, reside, or retire overseas. In encouraging other countries to join and implement the Convention, we also could help level the playing field to the benefit of American companies, who already meet high standards under United States domestic law. Improved disabilities standards abroad would also afford American businesses increased opportunities to export innovative products and technologies, stimulating job creation at home.
Equal access, equal opportunity, and the freedom to make of our lives what we will are principles upon which our Nation was founded, and they continue to guide our efforts to perfect our Union. Together, we can ensure our country is not deprived of the full talents and contributions of the approximately 54 million Americans living with disabilities, and we will move forward with the work of providing pathways to opportunity to all of our people.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim Tuesday, July 26, 2011, the Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I encourage Americans across our Nation to celebrate the 21st anniversary of this civil rights law and the many contributions of individuals with disabilities.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twenty-fifth day of July, in the year of our Lord two thousand eleven, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-sixth.