Presidential Remarks on the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (C-SPAN)

Presidential Remarks on the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (C-SPAN)


Ladies and Gentlemen: Haben Girma (Applause) HABEN: Good afternoon! (Good afternoon!) My
name is Haben Girma. Allow me to share a story. When my grandmother took my older brother
to school in East Africa, they told her that deafblind children can’t go to school. There
was simply no chance. When my family moved to the United States., and I was born also deafblind,
we were amazed by the opportunities afforded by the ADA—opportunities won by advocates
like all of you. In 2010, I entered Harvard Law School as its
first deafblind student. Harvard didn’t know exactly how a deafblind student would
succeed, (Laughter) and honestly…I didn’t know how I would survive Harvard. (Laughter)
Without having all the answers, we pioneered our way using assistive technology and high
expectations. For my grandmother back in Africa, my success
in law school seemed like magic. To all of us here, we know that people with disabilities
succeed not by magic, but through opportunities in America and the hard-won power
of the ADA. Through my work at Disability Rights Advocates,
I strive to ensure that people with disabilities have access to the digital world, including internet
services, online businesses, websites, and apps. Every day I’m reminded that as far
as we’ve come, the drive for equality is not over. And now, it’s my honor to introduce to you,
leaders who work to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity they seek: please welcome
Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama! (Applause.) THE PRESIDENT:  Hello, everybody!  (Applause.)
 Well, welcome to the White House.  And thank you so much, Haben, for that amazing
introduction, and for working to make sure that students with disabilities get a world-class
education, just like you have.  So please give Haben a big round of applause.  (Applause.) So on a sunny day 25 years ago — I don’t
know if it was as hot as it is today — (laughter) — President George H.W. Bush stood on the
South Lawn and declared a new American Independence Day.  “With today’s signing of the landmark
Americans [with] Disabilities Act,” he said, “every man, woman and child with a disability
can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, freedom and
independence.” Twenty-five years later, we come together
to celebrate that groundbreaking law — (applause) — and all that the law has made possible.
 Thanks to the ADA, the places that comprise our shared American life — schools, workplaces,
movie theaters, courthouses, buses, baseball stadiums, national parks — they truly belong
to everyone.  Millions of Americans with disabilities have had the chance to develop
their talents and make their unique contributions to the world.  And thanks to them, America
is stronger and more vibrant; it is a better country because of the ADA.  (Applause.)
 That’s what this law has achieved. So today, we honor those who made the ADA
the law of the land -– many of whom are here today.  Tom Harkin — (applause) — Tom
Harkin is in the back there, and Tom delivered speeches in sign language on the Senate floor
in favor of this law, in part inspired by his brother, Frank. Bob Dole is here.  (Applause.)  A war hero
whose combat-related disability informed the way he advocated for all Americans with disabilities. Tony Coelho — (applause) — told he couldn’t
become a priest because of his epilepsy, so he became a congressman instead — (laughter)
— and helped to pass the ADA, so fewer Americans would find the word “no” being an obstacle
to their dreams. In the 1970s, Judy Heumann helped lead the
longest sit-in at a federal building in U.S. history, in support of disability rights.
 (Applause.)  Today, she’s at the State Department, advocating for people with disabilities
worldwide.  She and all the others I mentioned deserve America’s thanks for their tireless
efforts.  (Applause.) I want to thank some of the activists who
are here — folks like Ricardo Thornton and Tia Nelis.  (Applause.)  In 1999, the Supreme
Court ruled that institutionalizing people with disabilities — isolating them, keeping
them apart from the rest of the community — is not just wrong, it is illegal.  Ricardo
and Tia have pushed to make sure that ruling is enforced.  And I am proud of what my administration
has done to ensure that people with disabilities are treated like the valuable members of the
communities that they are.  (Applause.) And I want to thank all the members of Congress
and members of my administration who are here today — including our outstanding Secretary
of Labor, Tom Perez — (applause) — and the White House’s fantastic new Disability Community
Liaison, Maria Town.  (Applause.)  Yay, Maria! Now, days like today are a celebration of
our history.  But they’re also a chance to rededicate ourselves to the future — to
address the injustices that still linger, to remove the barriers that remain. The ADA offered millions of people the opportunity
to earn a living and help support their families. But we all know too many people with disabilities
are still unemployed — even though they can work, even though they want to work, even
though they have so much to contribute.  In some cases, it’s a lack of access to skills
training.  In some cases, it’s an employer that can’t see all that these candidates
for a job have to offer.  Maybe sometimes people doubt their own self-worth after experiencing
a lifetime of discouragement and expectations that were too low.  Whatever the reason,
we’ve got to do better — our country cannot let all that incredible talent go to waste. A few years ago, I issued an executive order
requiring the federal government to hire more Americans with disabilities.  (Applause.)
 And in part because of that executive order, today more people with disabilities are working
with us than at any point in the last 30 years. (Applause.)  Some of these folks are some
of my closest colleagues and have been incredible leaders on behalf of the administration on
a whole host of issues, and I’m grateful for their contributions every single day. And we’ve strengthened the rules for federal
contractors to make sure they have plans in place for hiring people with disabilities.
 (Applause.)  I’m hoping more employers follow suit, because Americans with disabilities
can do the job, and they’re hungry for the chance and they will make you proud if you
give them the chance.  (Applause.) The ADA also made our government more responsive
to Americans with disabilities.  But we’ve still got more to do to live up to our responsibilities.
 My administration created the first office within FEMA dedicated to disability, so that
when disaster strikes, we’re prepared to help everybody, including those with physical
or mental conditions requiring extra help. And we created the first special advisor
for international disability rights at the State Department — because this is not just
about American rights; it’s about human rights, and that’s something our nation
has to stand for.  (Applause.) So we’ve still got to do more to make sure
that people with disabilities are paid fairly for their labor; to make sure they are safe
in their homes and their communities; to make sure they have access to technology, including
high-speed Internet, that allows for their full participation in this 21st-century economy.
We’ve still got to do more to make sure that children with disabilities get every
opportunity to learn and acquire the skills and the sense of self-worth that will last
a lifetime.  That is our most sacred charge. (Applause.)  And we need Republicans and
Democrats in Congress to make sure we have a budget that lets us keep that promise and
keep that commitment.  (Applause.) So I don’t have to tell you this fight is
not over. AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Oh, no. THE PRESIDENT:  Oh, no.  (Laughter.)  But
we’re building a stronger foundation.  And thanks to generations of Americans who fought
for better laws, who demanded better treatment, who by just being good and decent people and
effective workers, and working hard every day, and treating others with respect, and
asking the same in return — folks have overcome ignorance and indifference, and made our country
better. I’m thinking of folks like Hamza Jaka, who’s
here from Wisconsin with his mom.  He gloated that he’s a Packers fan — (laughter) — and
they’ve been beating the Bears a lot lately. But Hamza has cerebral palsy.  As he puts
it, people always assume his condition must limit him.  But the opposite is true.  His
disability has given him unique experiences, and a sense of purpose that he cherishes.
 He traveled to Syria to meet other young people with disabilities, and together they
created a comic book featuring a Muslim superhero who uses a wheelchair called the “Silver
Scorpion.”  (Applause.)  This fall, he’s starting law school, where he’s going to
learn how to be an even more effective advocate. And then you’ve got somebody like Leah Katz-Hernandez.
 (Applause.)  Leah is one of my favorites. (Laughter.)  Her smiling face is one of
the first things that people see when they come into the White House.  She is the West
Wing receptionist.  We call her ROTUS –- (laughter) — I’m POTUS, this is VPOTUS, and that’s
ROTUS.  (Laughter and applause.) And ROTUS is the first deaf American to hold
that job.  She is poised, she is talented — and as she puts it, a lot of her accomplishments
may not have been possible without the ADA. (Applause.) And just on a very practical level, this law
meant she could ask for sign language interpretation on job interviews — very straight forward.
 But without this law and without enforcement of the law, those things don’t happen.  On
a deeper level, the fact that the ADA was passed a few years after Leah was born opened
possibilities to her that previous generations didn’t always have.  She says that, thanks
to this law, “I grew up knowing I was equal, not subhuman.”  (Applause.) And I’ve told this story before, but whenever
I think about the ADA, I think about my father-in-law, Fraser Robinson, who was diagnosed with multiple
sclerosis in his early 30s.  By the time I knew him, he needed crutches to get around.
 He was holding down a job and raising a family at a time where the ADA had not yet
been passed.  He never missed a day of work. He had to wake up an hour earlier than everybody
else just to put on his shirt, just to get dressed, just to get down to the job, but
he was never going to be late. If he went to his son’s basketball games,
he and the family would have to get there 45 minutes early because he didn’t want
to interrupt people as he climbed one stair at a time on crutches so that he could cheer
on his son.  Same thing if he went to Michelle’s dance receptions.  And just through the power
of his example, he opened a lot of people’s eyes, including mine, to some of the obstacles
that folks with disabilities faced and how important it is that the rest of us do our
part to remove those obstacles. And just an aside on this, for a long time,
he would not get a motorized wheelchair because he had gotten this disability at a time when
they weren’t available and it was expensive, and they weren’t wealthy, and insurance
didn’t always cover it.  And it just gave you a sense of — Michelle and I would talk
sometimes about how much more he could have done, how much more he could have seen — as
wonderful as a dad as he was, and as wonderful as a coworker as he was, he was very cautious
about what he could and couldn’t do — not because he couldn’t do it, but because he
didn’t want to inconvenience his family and he didn’t want to be seen as somehow
holding things up. And that’s what, even for folks who had
amazing will, was the nature of having a disability before this law was passed.  It wasn’t
just physical obstacles.  It was also constraining how people thought about what they should
or should not do.  And that’s why this is personal.  That’s why it’s so important
for us to remember what this law means.  That’s what today is all about. We’ve got to tear
down barriers externally, but we also have to tear down barriers internally.  That’s
our responsibility as Americans and it’s our responsibility as fellow human beings. As long as I’ve got the privilege of serving
as your President, I’m going to make sure every single day that I’m working alongside
you to tear down those barriers.  I know Joe Biden is going to be doing the same.  And
I am going to make sure that when we look back 18 months from now, we’re going to
say we have made some significant advances. And once I’m no longer President, I’m
going to keep on pushing as well. Thank you, everybody.  God bless you.  (Applause.)

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