Looking back, it seems to us that great strides have been made over the last few years as concerns the rights of disabled Americans. One big reason for this change, in our opinion, has got to be President Obama. Love him or hate him, the President has been committed to nurturing a society that values the contributions of all of our citizens and residents, including the approximately 50 million people in this country living with disabilities. For this we applaud him.
During his entire tenure in the Oval Office, President Obama has been dedicated to ensuring that people with disabilities have the same access to the American Dream as every other citizen. That’s why his administration has worked to:
- Toughen the protections against disability-based discrimination.
- Increase accessibility in our communities
- Expand employment opportunities, and
- Increase financial independence for people with disabilities.
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A look at President Obama’s record on the issue clearly illustrates his commitment to protect the rights of the disabled:
President Obama has supported improved educational opportunities for people with disabilities. He stands firmly behind the belief that investing in access to education will best prepare our youth and young adults with disabilities to meet the needs of the 21st century.
- The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization proposal will increase support for the inclusion and improved outcomes of students with disabilities, ensuring that teachers are prepared to meet the needs of diverse learners and that assessments more accurately and appropriately measure the performance of students with disabilities.
- President Obama also supports expanded funding and increased enforcement for programs like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that ensure all Americans have access to the tools to succeed.
- The Department of Justice and Department of Education issued a joint Colleague Bullying 201410 reminding them that bullying is wrong and must not be tolerated – including against America’s 6.5 million students with disabilities.
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The Obama Administration has focused on providing Americans with disabilities with access to the resources and training necessary for them to succeed in the workplace. Some of their initiatives include:
- Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA): President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) into law on July 22, 2014. This Act reauthorized the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA) with several major revisions, placing significant new responsibilities on several Cabinet-level agencies that have the responsibility for increasing the employment of individuals with disabilities, particularly the Department of Labor and the Department of Education.
- Section 503 Regulations: New rules under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act have taken effect and mandate that all federal contractors must take affirmative action to recruit, hire, promote, and retain individuals with disabilities. These regulations established a 7 percent utilization goal for individuals with disabilities and also require increased data collection and record keeping to improve employer accountability.
- The Administration has launched the Curb Cuts to the Middle Class Initiative, a cross-agency effort focused on helping people with disabilities prepare to qualify for the array of jobs offered by federal contractors and provide federal contractors with the tools and resources they need to recruit, retain, and promote people with disabilities.
- Executive Order 13548, on Increasing Federal Employment of Individuals with Disabilities: Recognizing that Americans with disabilities have an employment rate far lower than that of Americans without disabilities, and that they are underrepresented in the federal workforce, President Obama issued Executive Order 13548 to establish the federal government as a model employer of individuals with disabilities. Four years into that commitment, OPM reports that 57,491 workers with disabilities have entered the federal workforce, more than half of the executive order’s goal. More people with disabilities are in federal service than at any time in the past 33 years.
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Strengthening Health Care
President Obama placed comprehensive health reform at the top of his domestic policy agenda. The President signed into law the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which provides many benefits for people with disabilities, including:
- An end to discrimination on the basis of pre-existing condition and bans caps on lifetime benefits.
- Insurance companies barred from discrimination on the basis of medical history or genetic information.
- Establishment of the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) program, a self-funded and voluntary long-term care insurance choice that would help people with disabilities remain in their homes, communities, and jobs through cash benefits to pay for community support services.
- Advances to community living by extending the Money Follows the Person program, improving the Medicaid home-and-community-based services (HCBS) option.
- Establishment of the Community First Choice Option covering community-based attendant services and supports to help Medicaid beneficiaries with daily activities and health-related tasks.
- Improved health care delivery by establishing standards for medical diagnostic equipment so people with disabilities can access vital preventative care.
Civil Rights and Access
President Obama’s Administration has vigorously enforced existing laws and promoted disability rights around the world, including these initiatives:
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): President Obama continues to push for more consistent and effective enforcement of ADA, which can do more to prevent discrimination in employment, public services, and public accommodations. For example, in late 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission adopted a Strategic Enforcement Plan, identifying certain emerging issues under the ADA as a national enforcement priority.
- Olmstead Enforcement: The Department of Justice entered into a first-of-its-kind settlement agreement with the State of Rhode Island that will provide relief to approximately 3,250 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities who have been, or who are at risk of, unnecessary segregation in sheltered workshops or facility-based day programs. Under the court-enforceable Consent Decree, individuals with disabilities will have access to an array of services, giving them the opportunity to receive meaningful employment in integrated community settings at competitive wages.
Read more: OCR Olmstead Enforcement Success Stories (by State)
- Supporting Development and Use of Accessible Technology: President Obama has been committed to increasing innovation and access to technology for Americans with disabilities. As part of the President’s initiative to make government information available to all Americans through accessible electronic and information technology under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Chief Acquisition Officer and the Chief Information Officer issued a memo to make agencies aware of existing resources and direct agencies to improve the acquisition and implementation of accessible technology.
- Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act (H.R. 647/S. 313): After an eight-year uphill battle, the ABLE Act became law on December 19, 2014, when President Obama signed the Tax Extenders package into law. The ABLE Act amends Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Service Code of 1986 to create tax-free savings accounts for individuals with disabilities. The bill aims to ease financial strains faced by individuals with disabilities by making tax-free savings accounts available to cover qualified expenses such as education, housing and transportation. Before the bill was passed, people with disabilities could not have more than $2,000 worth of assets before critical government support programs they need are cut off.
According to Bob Casey (D-PA), one of the bill’s Senate Champions, “Passage of the ABLE Act is a major victory for those with disabilities and their families. This bill reminds us all that those with disabilities have a lot of ability. Soon those with disabilities and their families will be able to better save for their long-term care… Some have called the ABLE Act the most significant piece of legislation affecting the disabled since passage of the American Disabilities Act nearly 25 years ago.”
- UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Under President Obama’s leadership, the U.S. signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adding America to the then-list of 141 countries signing the first new human rights treaty of the 21st Century.
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As you can see, politics aside, President Obama has been a true friend to and supporter of Americans with disabilities. His insightful and forward-thinking attitude as gone a long way to improving the quality of life for thousands of disabled Americans. We only hope and pray that our next president maintains and progresses what he has fought so hard to attain.