"Wherever a door is closed to anyone because of a disability, we must work to open it. Wherever any job or home, or means of transportation is unfairly denied because of a disability, we must work to change it. Wherever any barrier stands between you and the full rights and dignity of citizenship, we must work to remove it, in the name of simple decency and simple justice."
"I am committed to tearing down the remaining barriers to equality that face Americans with disabilities today."
- President George W. Bush, announcing the New Freedom Initiative at the White House, February 1, 2001
With these words uttered just a few days into his new administration, President George W. Bush announced his New Freedom Initiative, which laid out a comprehensive set of goals and plan of action to eliminate the remaining barriers to full participation by people with disabilities in American life.
The Department of Justice has enthusiastically embraced the clarion call of the New Freedom Initiative, continuing its commitment to the full integration of people with disabilities into the mainstream of American life and to equal opportunity for people with disabilities to contribute to and benefit from our free market economy.
The New Freedom Initiative is grounded on the recognition that Americans with disabilities face very real hurdles to enjoying the same educational, economic, and social opportunities as other Americans with no disabilities. Consider the following Census Bureau statistics drawn from the 2002 Survey of Income and Program Participation, some of the most recent government figures available:1
Americans with disabilities, on average, continue to attain a lower level of education than those without disabilities. For example, almost 27 percent of adults ages 25 to 64 with a severe disability did not graduate from high school. By comparison, 14.6 percent of individuals with a non-severe disability and 10.4 percent of individuals with no disability failed to graduate from high school. Out of people ages 25-64, 43.1 percent of those without a disability graduated from college, compared with 32.5 percent of individuals with a non-severe disability and just 21.9 percent of those with a severe disability.
In addition, American adults with disabilities, on average, are poorer and are far more likely to be unemployed than those adults without disabilities. For example, median earnings for people with no reported disability were $25,000, compared with $22,000 for people with a non-severe disability and $12,800 for those with a severe disability. In addition, more than one-fourth (25.7 percent) of individuals with no disability had household incomes of $80,000 or more, in comparison with 18.1 percent of people with a non-severe disability and 9.2 percent of individuals with a severe disability. Approximately 56 percent of adults ages 21-64 who had a disability were employed at some point in the one-year period prior to participating in the survey. People with severe disability status reported the lowest employment rate (42 percent), compared with the employment rates of people with non-severe disabilities (82 percent) and those with no disability (88 percent). Almost 27 percent of adults ages 25-64 with a severe disability live in poverty. By contrast, 11.2 percent of individuals with a non-severe disability and 7.7 percent of individuals with no disability live in poverty. Out of adults 65 years of age and older, 15 percent with a severe disability live in poverty, while 8.2 percent of individuals with a non-severe disability and 5.9 percent of individuals with no disability live in poverty. Finally, many Americans with disabilities live outside the economic and social mainstream of American life. Adults with disabilities have a lower likelihood of living with family than adults without disabilities. People with disabilities were more likely than people without disabilities to live alone or with non-relatives: among people 25 to 64 years old, 18.9 percent without disabilities lived alone or with non-relatives, compared with 23 percent with a non-severe disability and 27.8 percent with a severe disability. People 25 to 64 years old with a severe or non-severe disability were more likely to be the householder in a male- or female-headed household (12.7 percent) than people without a disability (8.8 percent). Of those ages 15 to 64, 36 percent with a severe disability used a computer, and 29 percent used the Internet at home. By contrast, individuals with a non-severe disability or with no disability had substantially better computer access with 60.7 percent using a computer and 50.9 percent using the Internet at home.
In addition to these figures, the data from a 2004 Survey conducted by the National Organization on Disability in conjunction with the Harris polling organization provides further insight into hurdles faced by persons with disabilities in enjoying community opportunities. According to the survey, persons with disabilities are twice as likely as those without to have inadequate transportation (31 percent compared to 13 percent), have a higher likelihood of going without medical care (18 percent compared to 7 percent), and are less likely to socialize, eat out, or attend religious services. In addition, a full one-third of individuals with disabilities using assistive technology say they would lose their independence without it, illustrating its fundamental importance in promoting independent living.
These problems were entrenched due to a long history of shameful hostility to and fear of people with disabilities. Such hostility and fear produced outright discrimination and exclusion, and in some cases, forced sterilization and unnecessary institutionalization. Moreover, even some well-intentioned social policies had the effect of promoting dependency and isolation rather than independence and involvement in the community.
Clearly there was much work to do. President Bush, through the New Freedom Initiative, has committed his Administration to getting the job done.
"My New Freedom Initiative will help Americans with disabilities by increasing access to assistive technologies, expanding educational opportunities, increasing the ability of Americans with disabilities to integrate into the workforce, and promoting increased access into daily community life."
- President George W. Bush,
February 1, 2001
At the core of the New Freedom Initiative is a call for strong enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a comprehensive civil rights law that provides a national mandate for the elimination of discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government programs and services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. The New Freedom Initiative also calls for outreach to business to promote voluntary ADA compliance and vigorous steps to promote full access to community life. The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice is deeply engaged in this battle on all of these fronts.
The goal of the ADA is simple - to open up all aspects of American life to people with disabilities. For too long, people with disabilities were held back by old modes of thinking and old methods of building. Prevailing attitudes made it hard for people with disabilities to get an education or to get a job. Barriers in society prevented people with disabilities from getting where they needed to go to build a better life.
The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government activities, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. The Department of Justice enforces the provisions that apply to more than seven million places of public accommodation, including all hotels, restaurants, retail stores, theaters, health care facilities, convention centers, parks, and places of recreation (Title III), in all activities of state and local governments (Title II), and in all employment practices of state and local government employers with 15 or more employees (Title I).
The ADA also establishes architectural accessibility requirements for new construction and alterations of buildings and facilities covered under Title II and Title III, which generally include all nonresidential buildings and facilities.
ADA enforcement and technical assistance activities cover more than seven million businesses and nonprofit agencies, more than 80,000 units of state and local government, and more than 100 federal agencies and commissions in the Executive Branch, touching over 50 million people with disabilities as well as their families and friends.
The Civil Rights Division has pioneered a multitrack approach to protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities - promoting expanded opportunities through cooperative compliance assistance, providing technical assistance, and backing these efforts with a robust enforcement program. Since the beginning of the New Freedom Initiative, the Department of Justice has secured positive results for people with disabilities in over 2000 actions including lawsuits, settlement agreements, and successful mediations.
The success of this multitrack approach is evident. Attitudes are changing and barriers are coming down all across America. The message of the ADA is being heard far and wide because the message of the ADA is freedom freedom to contribute to society and freedom to enjoy the incredible opportunities our country provides.
The ADA is bringing about significant changes in our hometowns and communities. Thanks to the ADA, people with disabilities are participating in unprecedented numbers in civic life and are gaining equal access to the benefits and services that local government provides. All across America, towns and communities are taking steps to make their programs and services accessible. Town halls and courthouses across America are installing ramps and providing accessible parking and restrooms. The use of sign language interpreters and assistive listening devices is increasing at public meetings and in court proceedings, allowing full participation by people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Our police are improving communication with deaf citizens in the arrest process, and public safety officials are saving lives by making 9-1-1 systems directly accessible to those who use TTY's (teletypewriters) to communicate over the phone system. Communities are reshaping recreation and social service programs to allow full access by people with disabilities.
The ADA facilitates access by people with disabilities to all aspects of the free market system. The ADA's reach extends to recreational activities, shopping, business and leisure travel, and health care. Travel opportunities have expanded. Rental car companies increasingly provide cars with hand controls, and hotels across the country provide a widening array of accessible hotel rooms. Other barriers to transportation across the country have fallen as well. Most public buses now have lifts, and private transit from airport shuttle vans to over-the-road buses are becoming accessible in increasing numbers. Medical care is more accessible due to the proliferation of sign-language interpreter services, accessible rooms, and accessible examination tables.
The following pages tell the remarkable story of how the Department of Justice over the past five years has worked to bring about these vital changes that not only enable people with disabilities to benefit from all of the richness of American life, but also allow America to benefit from all of the skills and talents that people with disabilities have to offer.