I want to thank my friend, Tony Coelho, for that inspiring call-to-action and for that generous introduction. I would not be here today were it not for him, so I thank him for his support and for his wise counsel on so many matters - especially on disability rights.
I also want to thank our host, Joyce Bender. As a business leader and host of one of the first international radio talk shows dedicated to the employment and empowerment of people with disabilities, Joyce has long been a force for progress. I know that she will be an even greater force to reckon with in her new role as chairman of the National Epilepsy Foundation. Congratulations, Joyce.
A little over a year ago, I had the privilege of delivering the 4th annual Tony Coelho Lecture on Disability Employment Law and Policy at New York Law School. I said then that talking about the ADA with Tony Coelho standing next to me, I felt a little like Pee Wee Reese must have felt standing next to Jackie Robinson. I was the guy with the guy who broke down the barriers and changed history.
This morning, I feel like Pee Wee Reese at Cooperstown. I am honored to stand with so many Hall of Famers from the disability rights movement: Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, one of the indispensible champions of the ADA Amendments Act; Cheryl Sensenbrenner; Andy Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities; Yoshiko Dart; President Robert Davila of Gallaudet University; previous Coelho Award recipients; friends from the White House and the Administration; leaders from the private sector. Thank you all.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES.
What a difference a year makes. This time last year, we were all trying to figure out how to get the ADA Amendments Act through the United States Senate - to restore the full promise of the ADA after that landmark civil rights bill had been distorted and diluted by a series of bad federal court decisions, leaving millions of Americans vulnerable to discrimination.
Today - thanks to Tony, Jim Sensenbrenner, Tom Harkin, Ted Kennedy and so many of the leaders here, the ADA Amendments Act is law. And the United States Senate is preparing to vote for a new Supreme Court Justice who understands the need to protect the basic rights and dignity of all Americans, including Americans with disabilities and their families.
I applaud President Obama's choice of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to be our next Supreme Court Justice. We need more women and men like her on the federal bench -- so that we don't have to come back and pass a new ADA Amendments Act every few years.
We made important progress on other fronts this year as well.
More than six years after the death of my friend Paul Wellstone, Congress finally passed the Wellstone mental health parity bill, ending the cruel and indefensible discrimination by insurers against people with mental illness.
And let me assure you: In our efforts to fix the rest of our health care system, we are not going to give up one inch of that hard-won ground. We need reform that lowers health care costs, improves health care quality and ensures all Americans have access to affordable health insurance. No more denial of coverage or exorbitant premiums because of pre-existing conditions. We need a health care system that meets the unique needs of people with disabilities and other chronic health conditions. By preserving what works, and fixing what's broken in our current system, we can create a better, more affordable health care system for all of us, including the 50 million Americans with disabilities, and their families.
Because we know that education is the key to our success, as individuals and as a nation, we included in the Recovery Act an additional $12.2 billion over 2 years for IDEA - the closest the federal government has ever come to meeting its full funding obligations for special education.
Under President Obama, we now have two disabled combat veterans heading the Veterans Administration - General Eric Shinseki and my friend, Major Tammy Duckworth.
Tammy and I spent Monday morning at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, visiting returning servicemen and women.
How we treat the brave men and women who return from war with life-altering injuries and disabilities can affect many other people. It can bring progress in our nation's treatment of all people with disabilities. Major Duckworth and General Shinseki will keep the VA moving forward.
CHALLENGES BEFORE US
This year should be, and I believe it will be, the year Congress expands the federal hate crimes law to include crimes motivated by a victim's disability as well as his or her sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity.
While 31 states and the District of Columbia have hate crime laws that include disability, these laws are unevenly enforced. It is time for Congress to give federal prosecutors the tools they need to give equal justice and equal protection to people with disabilities. Hate crimes committed on the basis of a person's disability are just as intolerable as those based on racial bias.
It is also time for the United States to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities - and restore America's leadership in this fundamental area of human rights.
EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES
And it is time to keep the full promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
I believe that the ADA is one of America's greatest civil rights achievements. In its scope and intentions, it ranks alongside major victories for equal justice like the 15th and 19th amendments, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.
On the eve of the ADA's 19th anniversary, it is clear that this pioneering law is fulfilling its promise in many ways. You can see it out on the sidewalks of our streets: ramps, Braille signs and assistive listening devices. The physical changes the ADA has brought about, like curb cuts, benefit all Americans, not just those with disabilities.
Because of the ADA and IDEA together, thousands of Americans with disabilities have gone to good schools, received good educations, and entered the workforce.
Those are achievements we should celebrate.
But 19 years after the ADA became the law of our land, its promise of equal employment opportunity for people with disabilities remains largely unfulfilled. More than 60 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities are unemployed - and the numbers are worse in this recession. Americans with disabilities who do work tend to be concentrated in lower-paying jobs. As a result, individuals with disabilities are three times as likely to live in poverty as individuals without disabilities. And among federal workers, employment rates for men and women with disabilities have actually declined since the ADA was signed into law.
Some people say it's not realistic to hold America to its promise of equal employment opportunity for Americans with disabilities now, during the worst recession since the Great Depression. I suggest that anyone who is tempted to think that way try an experiment. Instead of the words, "people with disabilities," substitute the words, "women" or "African Americans" or any other group.
Would we say that now, during the worst recession since the Great Depression, is not the time to worry about equal employment opportunities for women? Or African Americans? Or any other group? Of course not! And we should not tolerate that kind of indifference when it comes to equal employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
I applaud the private-sector leaders who are here today, including some previous recipients of the Coelho Award, for your efforts to break down employment barriers for people with disabilities. The federal government could learn a lot from your example.
According to new figures the EEOC will be releasing soon, the percentage of federal employees with severe disabilities has declined every year since 1994. In fact, today, people with severe disabilities make up less than 1 percent of the federal workforce - .88 percent. That is the lowest percentage since the government began keeping these figures more than 25 years ago. An all-time low.
I know that President Obama believes in disability rights and he has put together a first-rate team, including Kareem Dale, Jeff Crowley and Paul Miller at the White House; EEOC Commissioner Christine Griffin, the President's choice for deputy director of OPM; and Seth Harris, the new Deputy Secretary of Labor. With these leaders and others in this room, including enlightened corporate leaders, I am hopeful that we will see more doors of opportunity open to people with disabilities in both the private sector and the federal government.
Senate as a model employer
I also believe that Congress has a moral obligation to do its part to be a model employer. We can't pass the ADA, requiring every employer in the country to meet higher standards of equality, and then disregard our own responsibility to meet those higher standards.
The Senate, too, should be a model employer of people with disabilities. But today, we don't have any idea how many people with serious disabilities are employed in the Senate. In the Senate, each office is its own separate employer with its own separate employment policy. As a result, there has been no central effort to engage more people with disabilities.
As Majority Leader, Harry Reid has made a major effort to recruit and place talented women and minorities in key positions in both administrative and policy positions.
Harry Reid and I believe that disability is part of diversity, too. So we are launching a new effort to expand the number of talented employees with disabilities throughout the Senate - both in administrative and policy positions.
We have asked Tony Coelho and Chicagoan Marca Bristo, one of the founders of the independent living movement and one of my personal heroes, to address Senate managers and decision-makers and advise Senate offices on how to recruit, retain and promote employees with disabilities.
I hope we can count on all of you to share with us your experiences and best practices. And please, spread the word. We want the disability community to think of the United States Senate as a potential employer. Send them our way.
A man in a wheelchair helped a broken nation get up off its knees during the Great Depression. America needs all the talented minds we can find to rebuild today's economy. We can't afford to let old stigmas, myths and fears about disability deprive us of people who can help build a stronger future.
When President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA in 1990, people on both sides of the aisle cheered and the President proclaimed, and I quote, "With today's signing of the landmark ADA, every man, woman and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence and freedom." That remains our vision.
Thank you again for all you have done to help open that door 19 years ago, and to keep it open when the winds of resistance threatened to blow it closed again. I look forward to working with you to widen that door even further so more Americans can pass through.
Joyce Bender is President and CEO of Bender Consulting Services, Inc. Bender Consulting creates employment opportunities for professionals with disabilities in information technology, engineering, finance/accounting, human resources and general business areas. Incorporated in 1995, Bender Consulting is headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA. Additionally, Joyce hosts an international Internet-based radio show, Disability Matters with Joyce Bender every Tuesday from 2 PM to 3 PM, eastern time, on www.voiceamerica.com. For more information on Bender Consulting, visit. Bender Consulting Services. To nominate a business or government leader for the 2010 Tony Coelho Award, contact Joyce Bender.