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Americans with Disabilities Act 21st Anniversary

July 26, 2011
Washington, DC

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Kareem, for that gracious introduction.

I want to thank the American Association for People with Disabilities and Mark Perriello for your tireless work on behalf of Americans with disabilities.

I want to congratulate all of the awardees here today: Tom Tauke,

Bruce Darling, Mark Mellman and Senators Mike Enzi and Mark Pryor. I also want to thank Chairman Harkin and all of our colleagues in Congress for their partnership and commitment to these critical issues over many years.

Twenty-one years ago, our nation achieved a major civil rights victory with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Today, we gather not just to celebrate, but also to ask: “How can we build on the progress we have made for Americans with disabilities? How can we continue the work we started more than two decades ago -- and enlarge the promise of liberty and justice for all?”

The Americans with Disabilities Act was the world's first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities. It was a clear statement that our nation is strongest when all of its citizens have a chance to participate.

As the law put it, “the surest path to America's continued vitality, strength and vibrancy is through the full realization of the contributions of all of its citizens.”

Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, we move further down that path every day. The law has broken down barriers in public buildings, the workplace, schools and shopping malls, telecommunications and public transportation.

But it left one form of discrimination standing: discrimination in the health care market.

Many of you argued at the time that access to affordable health care was just as important, if not more important, than access to jobs or public spaces. But ultimately, the fight against health insurance discrimination was left for another day.

So when President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, we not only achieved a health care goal that had eluded our nation for generations, we also made good on the unfinished business of the ADA.

We have worked hard to implement the Affordable Care Act in a way that builds on the ADA’s legacy. And I want to tell you now about four key features of the health care law that hold special importance for people with disabilities.

First, we’re ending discrimination against pre-existing conditions.

Thanks to the law, insurers are already prohibited from turning children away just because they were born with a disability. And in 2014, all 129 million Americans with pre-existing health conditions will be free from discrimination because of their health status.

Second, we’ve given Americans the protection of a new Patient’s Bill of Rights that has outlawed many of the worst abuses of the insurance industry.

Now insurers can no longer use the arbitrary lifetime caps on benefits that have left so many people with disabilities without the health care they needed. We’re phasing out annual limits on coverage as well.

Third, we’re expanding Medicaid which, in 2014, will provide coverage for many Americans with disabilities who may not qualify for coverage now.

And finally, we’re working with states to support the creation of Affordable Insurance Exchanges, new competitive marketplaces that will provide better insurance options for those who buy coverage in the individual market.

We recently proposed that every Exchange will be required to be technologically accessible and understandable for people with disabilities — including those who rely on assistive technology to navigate the web.

These are just a few of the many protections we’ve been working to implement over the last 16 months.

Once we put them all in place, we will be able to say for the first time in our history that all Americans, including those with disabilities, have access to affordable, quality health insurance.

But being able to make your full contribution means more than being free from discrimination. It also means the freedom to live as you wish, in your own home, surrounded by those you love.

For way too long, too many Americans with disabilities haven’t had that option. The choice has either been moving in to an institution or living at home with no support, which is often no choice at all.

But that’s beginning to change.

Our Money Follows the Person program has helped more than 12,500 people on Medicaid transition out of an institutional setting into their own communities.

And the Affordable Care Act is extending the life of the program for another five years with an additional $2.25 billion investment that will help tens of thousands more people move from an institution to a home of their own by 2016.

In addition, the health care law is also helping to make sure that when people do move back into their communities, they have access to high quality, person-centered services and supports. Starting October 1st, the health care law’s Community First Choice option will provide extra money to help state Medicaid programs pay for services and supports at home.

There’s room for improvement in every state, but as you know, there are some states that have lagged further behind in meeting their Olmstead obligations.

That’s why the law also provides financial support to the states that rely most heavily on nursing homes and other institutions under the Balancing Incentives Payment Program.

These funds come with conditions attached. In return for increased Medicaid payments, these states will need to establish a “no wrong door” system and make other key changes, which make it easier for you to find the long-term services you need to live in your communities.

At the heart of each of these initiatives is this Administration’s deep commitment to helping people live as independently as possible. And that’s a commitment that extends beyond our department.

For example, our Money Follows the Person program has teamed up with the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Choice Voucher program to help people make the transition from institution to the community.

That’s meant a lot for people like Sonia from Baltimore: Because of serious injuries from a car accident, Sonia feared she would have to spend the rest of her life in a nursing home, denied the ability to raise her young children and provide for her family.

Instead, thanks to our partnership with HUD, Sonia was able to get help with rent, furniture and home modifications, and long-term attendant care from someone she trusts – everything she needed to live at home.

Now, she looks forward to supporting her family, she’s going to enroll in job training, she gets to play with her children, and she’s a part of her community.

I continue to talk with Secretary Donovan and leaders across government to identify other areas where we can work together to reach more people more effectively.

For countless Americans like Sonia, outside help is critical to living independently. We never forget, however, that the majority of the care that millions of Americans count on to live at home is delivered by family members, friends and neighbors.

These caregivers provide nearly 80 percent of the long-term services and supports that allow countless Americans to remain in their homes and communities.

This work is demanding. The average family caregiver spends 20 hours a week caring for their loved ones. And I’ve seen firsthand how draining it can be.

When my mom was sick for a number of years, my father was that family caregiver, providing a lot of wrap-around care and support. I watched him totally adjust his schedule and his life to make sure she had the care she needed. It meant that she could stay at home, which is really what she wanted to do. But I also understood the effort he put in and the toll it took.

Ten years ago, we took an important step forward to support family caregivers with the creation of the National Family Caregiver Support Program.

And, I’m proud to announce today that we are expanding another proven program for supporting caregivers -- the Administration on Aging’s Lifespan Respite Care Program. Whether you’re caring for an aging parent, a young child, or a partner with a disability, this program helps you get the relief and help you need to provide the best care and to be your best.

Twenty-four states have already seen real success with the program, and today, HHS is awarding funds to support six new states as they implement it as well.

Today, families across the country are facing additional challenges as they balance difficult economic times with the stresses of helping their loved ones remain independent. We’re committed to making sure these caregivers continue to get the support they need.

More than two decades after the Americans with Disabilities Act, we remain just as committed to achieving its goals of equal rights and opportunity for everyone, regardless of disability.

Today, I want to reiterate this Administration’s support for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

We believe that no person, anywhere, should face discrimination because of their disability. And when the President submits the ratification package to Congress, we expect their swift advice and consent.

But we are always looking for areas where we can do more. For example, at HHS, we‘ve been working hard to carry out President Obama’s Executive Order to make the federal government a model employer of persons with disabilities.

And I am proud to report that the number of employees with disabilities working across HHS has increased by 12 percent in little over a year.

At the same time, we will continue to reach out to you to get your thoughts about how we can build on the progress of the last two years.

Recently, our Assistant Secretary for Health, Dr. Howard Koh, and the Director of our Office on Disability Henry Claypool met with your leadership to discuss health disparities in the disability community. We are committed to confronting these disparities and look forward to working with you on a strategic action plan to guide our efforts going forward.

Recently, some of my colleagues at the White House met with a group of advocates that included 28-year-old Kelly Woodall from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Kelly has cerebral palsy and is a quadriplegic with limited use of her right arm. Thanks to Medicaid and innovative state programs, Kelly gets assistance at home and throughout the day from aides she trusts.

What this means is that she can live at home instead of a nursing home or assisted living care facility.

It has also meant that she can have a job. She can participate, and contribute, and live independently. It has meant the world.

Thanks to the efforts and advocacy of so many, we know that, today, people like Kelly and millions of others not only have the full protection of the law, they also have fuller opportunities to pursue their dreams.

This was the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And while we have come a long way, we have much more to do.

So, even as we look back with pride and joy at everything that we’ve accomplished in the last 21 years, I know we are also looking forward.

We must continue to ask what steps we can take to make the vision of the Americans with Disabilities Act a reality.

That’s what we in the Obama Administration do every day, and that’s what we will all continue to do together.

Thank you.