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American Association of People with Disabilities Leadership Gala

Washington, DC
March 5, 2013

Thank you, Henry.  On a night when we are honoring several great champions for disability rights, I also want to take a moment to personally thank Henry for his service to our department. 

As my senior advisor on disability issues during the President’s first term, I relied on Henry’s counsel and judgment, and I was inspired by his passion and dedication.  And while losing Henry was hard, we know he is continuing his work to promote fairness and opportunity for all Americans here at AAPD.  So thank you, Henry.

We’re also fortunate to have some incredible leaders at HHS who are working to build on the progress we made in the first term.  From Kathy Greenlee who leads our Administration for Community Living, to her principal deputy Sharon Lewis, to policy experts like Rebecca Cokely, James Toews, Jamie Kendall, and Aaron Bishop, we have a team with deep experience and a deep commitment to giving Americans with disabilities the fullest possible freedom to live the lives they choose. 

That work has never been more important than it is today.  For years, advocates fought for equal rights, culminating in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.  And it’s fitting that several of the leading champions of this landmark legislation are with us tonight, including Senator Harkin, Congressman Hoyer, and tonight’s special honoree, former Congressman Coehlo.

But as we all know, the ADA did not eliminate all forms of discrimination.  While it broke down barriers in public buildings, the workplace, schools, and public transportation, it left standing discrimination in the health insurance market, leaving many Americans with disabilities cut off from the services most essential to their well-being. 

This January, we will knock down that final bastion of exclusion.  New protections will go into place making it illegal for insurance companies to discriminate against people based on a medical condition or disability. 

Additional reforms are eliminating lifetime and annual caps on coverage, which means quality, affordable private insurance will finally be within reach for Americans with disabilities.  No longer will insurance companies be able to slam the door in the face of those who need health coverage most.

In the coming months, we will also continue our work with states to set up new private insurance Marketplaces and expand Medicaid programs to cover millions more Americans.  Among those millions will be Americans with mental health conditions and other disabilities who don’t currently qualify for public health insurance programs.

By opening the doors of the private insurance market to them, we will finally bring an end to a system that forced many people with disabilities to make a terrible choice between the income they gained from work and qualifying for the health coverage they needed. 

No one should be forced to trade the freedom of economic self-sufficiency for the security of health insurance.  And with these rules and programs in place, they won’t have to.

At the same time, we are moving forward with our efforts to ensure that Americans with disabilities have the fundamental freedom to live as they wish, in their own homes, surrounded by those they love.

As a department, we are committed to making home and community-based services available on par with institutional services. For example, the Community First Choice option, which many of you fought for, is now giving people greater access to personal attendant services and more opportunity to direct the services that best meet their needs.

We’re also working, through programs like Money Follows the Person and the Balancing Incentives Payments Program, to give states new flexibility and resources to help people move from institutional settings into their communities.  And we’re collaborating closely with Secretary Donovan and HUD to make sure that when they do move, there’s housing available for them.

To coordinate all these efforts, we’ve created a new agency at HHS, the Administration for Community Living. Its job is simple: to make sure we direct our resources most effectively towards the goal of ensuring that all Americans can live, work and play in the communities they choose.

And I want to stress that work is a key part of this equation.  We know that for people with disabilities, finding a job is a major part of community living. It’s not just about a paycheck.  It’s about developing self-esteem, skills, relationships and a path to lifelong learning. It’s about getting the same chance we all want to make a difference, pursue our passions, and have the economic self-sufficiency to chart our own path in life.

I know leaders like Governor Markell are working hard around the country to improve employment options for people with disabilities, and I’m pleased that you are honoring his efforts here tonight. 

By promoting better access to private health insurance, better access to publicly-funded home and community-based services, and better access to jobs, we are taking a comprehensive approach to improving opportunity for Americans with disabilities.

Unfortunately, Congress has dealt a blow to these efforts through the self-inflicted wound of sequestration.  These blunt and arbitrary cuts will not only create dangerous uncertainty for our economy, but will also harm critical programs that Americans with disabilities rely on every day. 

We will do our best to soften the impact of these cuts.  And the President will continue to work with Congress to find a balanced solution similar to the plan he has already put forward. 

But ultimately, Congress will need to do their job so we can stop lurching from crisis to crisis and get back to doing the people’s work.  And a critical part of that work is creating the conditions in which any American, no matter who they are, has the chance to get ahead if they work hard and play by the rules.

As the President said in his State of the Union, we do this work not just for the sake of fairness.  We also do it because we know that we all benefit when our neighbors have the chance to make their full contributions to their community and country.  We do it because we know that America has always done best when the American Dream is real for all our citizens, not just a select few.

These principles are at the heart of the President’s commitment to disability rights. 

They’re why he has been such a staunch advocate for promoting community living and employment opportunities.  They’re why he has overseen unprecedented Olmstead enforcement efforts through the Justice Department, which is represented here tonight by Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez.  And they’re why the President has conveyed to all of us in his Cabinet his unshakable commitment to ensuring that Americans from disabilities benefit from the full rights and opportunities they deserve.

And now, it’s my pleasure to introduce a video message from our President, Barack Obama.