July 26 marked the 30th anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, and last week included a number of events to celebrate. I know it was difficult for everyone to participate in all of them, so I wanted to share some highlights and links to some of the recordings that are now available.
On July 30, I joined leaders from across HHS to reflect on the progress we have made and talk about some of our ongoing work to achieve the ADA's full promise of dignity, rights, and community living. (Watch a recording of the event.)
The event was kicked off by Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, who called the ADA "an important step forward in affirming the dignity and rights of people with disabilities."
Sec. Azar highlighted HHS' work to protect the rights of people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the critical work of Centers for independent Living and work by HHS' Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to prevent care rationing. He also made clear that that work needed to be done to address challenges including access to care, prejudices and stereotypes, and barriers to community living.
The event also featured a panel with leaders from ACL, OCR, the Administration for Children and Families (OCR), the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Service (CMS), and the Indian Health Service (IHS).
OCR Director Roger Severino provided some historical context, pointing out the parallels between the work of civil rights giants like Rep. John Lewis to integrate busses and restaurants and the work of disability rights advocates to ensure access to restaurants, buses, and other public spaces. The common thread, he noted, is respect for the fundamental dignity of every person. Looking toward the future, Severino warned about cultural stigma that disregards this inherent dignity and instead measures people based on a judgement of how much they can "contribute."
Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson spoke about ACF's work to protect the rights of parents with disabilities and children with disabilities, including one-third of children in foster care, with an emphasis on "wrap-around" services to better support families and avoid foster care for more children with disabilities. Assist. Sec. Johnson's hope for the future is that "children will not be removed from parents … or a parent will not have to lose their child because they cannot get the help they need" to support their child who has a disability.
CMS Deputy Administrator and Director of the Centers for Medicaid and CHIP Services Calder Lynch said that expanding access to home and community-based services is a "win-win" that allows people to live where they want while saving taxpayers money. He highlighted CMS's work with states to increase services in the community, as "COVID-19 has underscored the additional risks that come with living in congregate and institutional settings."
IHS Director Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee spoke about the importance of accessible and culturally competent health services. Rear Adm. Weahkee highlighted innovative IHS programs that use community training and technology to bring services to people in rural and remote communities, part of a larger approach that "brings healthcare to our patients, rather than bringing patients in for healthcare."
Julie Hocker, Commissioner of ACL's Administration on Disabilities, closed the event by sharing her experience as a person with a disability who mostly grew up in a post-ADA world.
"I've rarely ever had to think twice about perusing all my goals," she said. "it just never ever occurred to me that I would ever be stopped, or face barriers, when going to school, or applying to jobs, or just trying to hang out with my friends or my families."
"Those things that I took for granted … they were not available to generations of people with disabilities before me," she continued. "These rights, these opportunities, have been available to me because those generations fought so hard to ensure that they would be … as an adult, I recognize the debt my generation owes to those early advocates and fighters."
Of course, we weren’t the only ones celebrating the ADA.
Earlier this year, I had the honor of starting a second term as the chair of the U.S. Access Board. On July 29, I joined my fellow Access Board members for a celebration of the ADA's achievements. One highlight was an 11 minute video on the history of the disability rights movement, which high school student Sruthi Subramanian created for a National History Day competition. The video featured a wide variety of disability rights activists, including Judy Heumann, who joined us as a speaker during the Access Board celebration.
And right after our event, I joined colleagues from the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the Department of Labor; the Rehabilitation Services Administration within the Department of Education; and the Office of Resolution Management, Diversity and Inclusion at the Department of Veterans Affairs for a discussion on ensuring accessible transportation at an event hosted by the Department of Transportation. In case you missed it, DOT has posted a recording.
It was a busy week, and by the end, I was in awe of all that the disability community has accomplished over the last 30 years, and I was energized to continue the important work that lies ahead.
The spirit of the ADA is at the core of our work at ACL. It is literally threaded through almost everything we do. Everyone, regardless of age or disability, should have the same opportunity to live and fully participate in the community and making that possible for more people is the reason all of us get out of bed every day.