White House Press Release: Remarks by President Obama on Signing of UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Proclamation

Jul 28, 2009

Source: www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-on-Rights-of-Persons-with-Disabilities-Proclamation-Signing


Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release

July 24, 2009


East Room

5:58 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Please, everybody be seated. Thank you. First of all, how about my Secretary of State? (Applause.) Give it up for Senator Hillary Clinton. She is doing an unbelievable job. She's traveling all around the world delivering a message that America is back and ready to lead. And everywhere she goes she is representing us with grace and strength and we are very fortunate to have her.

I'm also lucky to have an outstanding Attorney General in Eric Holder -- (applause) -- so I wanted to make sure that we thank him for being here. My Secretary of Labor, who is committed to these issues, Hilda Solis. (Applause.) We've got a couple of governors in the house, at least I see one of them over here, Governor David Paterson of New York. (Applause.) And I think that Christine Gregoire was here -- there she is, right here -- from Washington State. (Applause.)

I want to thank the outstanding members of Congress who are on the stage. Senator Dan Inouye, Representative Steny Hoyer, Representative Robert Andrews, Representative James Sensenbrenner, Representative Jim Langdon. Thank you so much. Please give them a big round of applause. (Applause.)

And not on the stage, but extraordinarily important are three key figures who helped to get the original ADA passed. I want to acknowledge them. First of all, not able to attend, but this guy is a fierce warrior on behalf of the disabilities community, Tom Harkin. (Applause.) He couldn't be here, but give him a round of applause. (Applause.) Another person who could not be here but was instrumental in guiding the passage of this landmark legislation, Bob Dole, but his wonderful partner, Elizabeth Dole, Senator Elizabeth Dole is here, so please give her a round of applause on behalf of Bob Dole. (Applause.) And Attorney General and somebody who worked very hard on this issue, Richard Thornburgh. Please give him a big round of applause. (Applause.) Where's Richard? There he is.

Well, welcome to the White House. We are thrilled to have you all here for an historic announcement regarding our global commitment to fundamental human rights for persons with disabilities. I'm also honored to mark the anniversary of a historic piece of civil rights legislation with so many of the people who helped make it possible, and I'd like to reflect on that for a few moments.

I'm reminded today of my father-in-law -- some of you have heard his story -- Fraser Robinson. He was Michelle's hero -- when you talk to her about her dad even today she just lights up. He was a vibrant and athletic man who provided for his family as a shift worker at a water treatment plant in Chicago. And in his early 30s, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. And even as it progressed, even as he struggled to get dressed in the morning and used two canes to get himself to work every day, despite the fact that he had to wake up a little bit earlier and work a little harder to overcome the barriers he faced every day -- he never complained. He never asked for special treatment. He just wanted to be given the opportunity to do right by his family. Never missed a day of work. Would have trouble buttoning his own shirts, but he would make sure that he woke up in time to do it.

And by the time I met him he would struggle with those two canes, but even if he had to go over a bumpy patch of grass to watch his son's ball games or go up a flight of stairs so that he could see his daughter dance, he would do it. This was before the ADA passed. And I think about him all the time when I think about these issues.

It's a reminder of the very promise of the ADA. Nineteen years ago this weekend, Democrats and Republicans, advocates and ordinary Americans, came together here at the White House to watch President George H.W. Bush sign the ADA into law. Folks traveled from all across America to witness a milestone in the long march to achieve equal opportunity for all.

But like all great movements, this one did not begin or end in Washington, D.C. It began in small towns and big cities across this country. It began with people like Fraser Robinson showing that they can be full contributors to society regardless of the lack of awareness of others. It began when people refused to accept a second-class status in America. It began when they not only refused to accept the way the world saw them, but also the way they had seen themselves.

And when quiet acts of persistence and perseverance were coupled with vocal acts of advocacy, a movement grew, and people marched and organized and testified. And parents of children with disabilities asked why their children, who had the same hopes and dreams as children everywhere else, were left out and left behind. And wounded veterans came home from war only to find that, despite their sacrifice for America, they now felt excluded from America's promise.

We had a little meeting before we came out and Tony Coelho, who was instrumental on this issue, spoke in just incredibly moving terms about what it meant for him to be an epileptic and the fact that discrimination was rife -- he was rejected from the priesthood because that was considered unacceptable; he was rejected from the Army because that was considered unacceptable.

Those experiences could have just been internalized and people could have felt doubt, but instead it became a source of strength. And step by step, progress was won. Laws were changed. Americans with disabilities were finally guaranteed the right to vote -- a right that only carries real meaning when you can enter the voting booth to cast that vote. Folks were extended certain protections from discrimination, and given the needed rehabilitation and training to go to the job. And even though we still have a long way to go with regard to education, children with disabilities were no longer excluded, no longer kept separate, and then no longer denied the opportunity to learn the same skills in the same classroom as other children.

Now, even two decades ago, too many barriers still stood. Too many Americans suffered under segregation and discrimination. Americans with disabilities were still measured by what folks thought they couldn't do -- not by what can. Employers often assumed disabled meant unable. Millions of Americans with disabilities were eager to work, but couldn't find a job. An employer could have told a person with a disability, "No, we don't hire your kind." That person then could have tried to find recourse at the courthouse, only to find that she couldn't enter the building -- and wouldn't find a receptive audience even if she did.

What was needed was a bill of rights for persons with disabilities, and that's what the ADA was. It was a formal acknowledgment that Americans with disabilities are Americans first, and they are entitled to the same rights and freedoms as everybody else: a right to belong and participate fully in the American experience; a right to dignity and respect in the workplace and beyond; the freedom to make of our lives what we will.

In a time when so many doubted that people with disabilities could participate in our society, contribute to our economy, or support their families, the ADA assumed they could. Americans with disabilities didn't ask for charity or demand special treatment -- they only wanted a fair shot at opportunity. They didn't want to be isolated, they wanted to be integrated; not dependent, but independent. And allowing all Americans to engage in our society and our economy is in our national interest, especially now, when we all have a part to play to build a new foundation for America's lasting prosperity.

So the ADA showed the world our full commitment to the rights of people with disabilities -- and now we have an opportunity to live up to that commitment. Today, 650 million people