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Celebrating 24 Years of the ADA – Keeping School Doors Open to All
July 24, 2014 Posted by

This post appears courtesy of Eve Hill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights

Victor Hugo wrote, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”  The Civil Rights Division enforces federal civil rights laws to keep school doors open to all students and prevent discrimination on the basis of disability.  The Civil Rights Division enforces Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to require schools, as well as localities and state agencies that provide educational services, to guarantee an equal opportunity for students with disabilities.  This guarantee is essential for these students to take advantage of the educational programs, services and activities that provide life-long benefits.  On the 24th Anniversary of the ADA, we celebrate the countless ways in which that landmark legislation has improved the lives of students with disabilities. 

The division has a multi-faceted enforcement strategy to help assure an equal opportunity for students with disabilities at school.  Through briefs and statements of interest filed in federal courts across the country, we have sought to ensure that schools and colleges meet their obligations and address discrimination faced by students with disabilities – from the failure to provide services to which students with disabilities are entitled to protecting students with disabilities from bullying.          

The division strives to end policies that discriminate against children based upon myths, fears and stereotypes about what children with disabilities can do.  These myths and stereotypes sometimes lead schools to reject students with disabilities, to assume they should be placed in special schools or classes or to deny them accommodations.  We work to ensure schools and others involved in education live up to their obligations to include and accommodate students with disabilities.  This includes providing accommodations on higher education entrance examinations and ensuring college instructional materials are accessible.

We are working to support students with disabilities who find themselves forced out of school doors as a result of inappropriate discipline, over-use of suspension and expulsion and “zero tolerance” for behavior infractions.  For some students, forcing them out the school door means literally moving them into a jail cell.  These students must have the opportunity to gain the knowledge and life skills they need to grow and thrive as independent adults.  In an effort to eliminate this “school to prison pipeline” for students with disabilities, we engage and negotiate with school districts to change discipline policies that discriminate on the basis of disability.  And even when students with disabilities are incarcerated, we work to ensure that they receive educational services so they can return to their communities better prepared to participate and contribute.

When students with disabilities face harassment or bullying on the basis of their disability, they are often unable to learn because they feel anxious, threatened or in danger.  Such harassment often causes irreparable damage to a student’s self-esteem and the stigma from disability-based harassment may last a lifetime.  The division is investigating complaints, negotiating comprehensive agreements with schools to address harassment and working with federal, state and local partners to develop policies to help end harassment. 

The ADA has opened many doors for many people over the past 24 years, and the division recognizes, as Albert Einstein noted, “that knowledge of what is does not open doors directly to what should be.”  We are fighting each and every day to push open doors on the path to “what should be” for all students with disabilities across the country.

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Celebrating Enforcement of the ADA: An Anniversary Week Blog
July 24, 2014 Posted by

“The Department of Justice is working towards a future in which all the doors are open – to equality of opportunity, to independent living, to integration and to economic self-sufficiency – for everyone, including people with disabilities.”  Eric Holder, Attorney General 

People with disabilities have long faced barriers to full participation in society.  For the past 24 years, the Civil Rights Division has made protecting the rights of people with disabilities a top priority by enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in more than seven million places of public accommodation nationwide, and all operations of more than 90,000 units of state and local governments.  Our aggressive enforcement of the ADA touches the lives of people with disabilities and their families in many ways. 

Today, in honor of the 24th anniversary of the ADA, we highlight some of the ways the division is ensuring that technology improves access instead of creating new barriers for individuals living with disabilities.  

The explosion of new technology has dramatically changed the way America communicates, learns and does business.  For many people with disabilities, however, the benefits of this technology revolution remain beyond their reach.  Websites for many businesses and government entities remain inaccessible to people with vision or hearing disabilities.  Fortunately, websites and digital technologies can be made accessible, much like adding ramps to building entrances.  Electronic documents, websites, and other electronic information can be accessible to blind people and other people with disabilities through common computer technology.  Examples include “screen reader” programs which read electronic documents aloud, refreshable Braille displays, and keyboard navigation and captioning.  The Civil Rights Division is working to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind as new technology continues to emerge. 

Last week, the Justice Department announced that it reached a settlement with the Orange County Clerk of Courts in Florida to remedy violations of the ADA involving accessible technology.  The settlement resolves allegations that the Clerk of Courts failed to provide an attorney who is blind with electronic court documents in an accessible format readable by his screen reader technology.  

Under the ADA, state and local courts must make their programs, services, and activities accessible to qualified individuals with disabilities.  The official court record is a program, service, and activity of the court and, therefore, needs to be made accessible.     

Under the settlement agreement, the Clerk of Courts will provide individuals with disabilities with any document in the official court record in an accessible format upon request.   The settlement agreement also ensures that the Clerk of Courts’ website is accessible in accordance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA (http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/).  Further, the Clerk of Courts will pay $10,000 in damages and receive training on the ADA and WCAG 2.0 AA requirements. 

Another recent consent decree resolving allegations by the Department of Justice relating to accessible technology involves H&R Block’s website and mobile applications.   

As one of the largest tax return preparers in the country, H&R Block offers many services through its website (www.hrblock.com) and its mobile apps, including tax preparation, instructional videos, office location information, live video conference/chat with tax professionals, online and in-store services and electronic tax-return filing. 

Last December, the Justice Department intervened in the lawsuit National Federal of the Blind et al. v. HRB Digital LLC et al. to enforce Title III of the ADA.  The department’s complaint alleged that H&R Block failed to make its website accessible to individuals who have vision, hearing and other disabilities.  

Under the terms of the five-year consent decree negotiated by the parties, H&R Block’s website, tax filing utility and mobile apps will conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA and the website will be accessible for the next tax filing season on Jan. 1, 2015.  And in addition to paying $45,000 to the two individual plaintiffs and a $55,000 civil penalty, H&R Block will: appoint a skilled web accessibility coordinator; initiate training on accessible design for its web content personnel; evaluate employee and contractor performance based on successful web access; and hire an outside consultant to prepare annual independent evaluations of H&R Block’s online accessibility. 

As Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts and a partner on this consent decree, explained, “For those with disabilities, an inaccessible website puts them at a great disadvantage and further perpetuates a feeling of dependence and reliance on others.  With thoughtful and proper web design, businesses and organizations can have a great impact on the daily lives of people with disabilities who, like everyone else, seek to enjoy the benefits of technology.”

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Celebrating 24 Years of the ADA – Gateway to the Community
July 23, 2014 Posted by

This post appears courtesy of Eve Hill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights

TUESDAY:  Gateway to the Community

This week, in honor of the 24th anniversary of the ADA, we recognize and celebrate the different doorways that the ADA is opening up to people with disabilities.  Today, we highlight the ADA as a doorway to the community.

With the enactment of the ADA, Congress provided a clear and comprehensive national mandate to eliminate discrimination against individuals with disabilities.  Consistent with this, the Civil Rights Division works to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for people with all types of disabilities.  In short, we work to provide people with disabilities with meaningful opportunities to live life to their fullest potential.

Over the past year, we have continued our aggressive efforts to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C., which recognized that the civil rights of people with disabilities are violated under the ADA when they are unnecessarily segregated from the rest of society.  Under the ADA, states are required to avoid unnecessarily placing persons with disabilities in institutions and to ensure that they receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.  In this administration, the division has engaged in Olmstead enforcement activities in approximately 45 matters in 24 states on behalf of children and adults with physical, mental, and developmental disabilities who are in or at risk of entering segregated settings, including state-run and private institutions, nursing homes, board and care homes, and sheltered workshops.  Just last year, we participated in 18 Olmstead matters across the country.  Under statewide settlement agreements we have reached in eight states, over 46,000 people with disabilities across the country will have the opportunity to live and participate in their communities.

One of the most recent examples of our work ensuring community integration of adults with serious mental illness was in New Hampshire where the department finalized an agreement with the state to significantly expand and enhance its capacity to address the needs of over three thousand adults with serious mental illness in integrated community settings.  The agreement requires New Hampshire to create mobile crisis teams and community crisis apartments throughout the state as an alternative to more restrictive settings; to increase Assertive Community Treatment teams; to provide much more supported housing that is scattered throughout the community; and to significantly increase the number of people receiving integrated supported employment services in New Hampshire.

All of the decree requirements will foster the independence of people with serious mental illness and enable them to participate more fully in community life.  The expanded community services will significantly reduce visits to hospital emergency rooms and will avoid unnecessary institutionalization at state mental health facilities, including New Hampshire Hospital (the state’s psychiatric hospital) and the Glencliff Home (the state nursing home for people with mental illness).  Recently, the governor of New Hampshire signed into law a funding bill that will enable the state to implement the terms of the decree.  The new law authorizes approximately $9 million in additional mental health funding through next summer and commits the state to over $64 million in additional mental health funding through state fiscal year 2018.  Click here for more information.

To find out more about DOJ Olmstead enforcement work, visit the Olmstead: Community Integration for Everyone website, and visit our Faces of Olmstead website to read about some of the individuals whose lives have been improved by the Olmstead decision and the department’s Olmstead enforcement efforts.  For more general information on the Americans with Disabilities Act, visit ADA.gov, or call the toll-free ADA Information Line at (800) 514-0301 (voice) or (800) 514-0383 (TTY).

Shared Struggles, Shared Successes: Working at the Intersection of LGBTI and Disability Rights
July 21, 2014 Posted by

This post is courtesy of the Civil Rights Division 

During LGBTI Pride Month, advocates, scholars, authors and artists joined officials from across the government at the White House Forum on LGBTI & Disability Issues.  This first-of-its-kind event focused on intersections between the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) and disability communities, and was attended by representatives from across the federal government.  As the 24th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) approaches on July 26, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division reflects on the civil rights challenges faced by both communities.

As the arm of the Justice Department tasked with enforcing both the ADA and civil rights laws that protect LGBTI individuals, the Civil Rights Division was proud to participate in this important forum.  Megan Schuller, an attorney in the Disability Rights Section and member of the division’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Working Group, emphasized the similar challenges faced by LGBTI individuals and by people with disabilities, the unique challenges faced by LGBTI people with disabilities and the fact that both groups are stronger when they work together.

Many of the civil rights challenges faced by LGBTI people also confront people with disabilities.  Both groups are discriminated against in education, employment and housing.  Both groups face stigma from public service providers.  And both groups remain targets of harassment and hate crimes.  The division strives to address these critical issues.

The ADA demands equal opportunity for people with disabilities in public accommodations, employment and state and local services, and stands as a natural intersection of the civil rights struggles of both groups.  Alliances between the disability community and other civil rights movements were critical to passage of the ADA, and provided a united front against challenges to the act, such as efforts to exclude people with AIDS, which were defeated due to the united front of the disability and LGBTI movements. 

As a result, the ADA protects Americans with HIV or AIDS, which disproportionately affect LGBTI people.  Combating stigma and discrimination based on HIV status is crucial to ending this epidemic.  The division’s HIV/AIDS enforcement under the ADA since the National HIV/AIDS Strategy was announced in July 2010 has been robust.  Much of that work has involved allegations that individuals were denied care or were treated differently in health care because they have HIV.  In 2013, the division also successfully challenged the South Carolina Department of Corrections’ policy of segregating and discriminating against inmates with HIV, and in March 2014, reached a settlement agreement with Gwinnett College resolving allegations that the school did not allow a student with HIV to fully participate in its programs and classes. 

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, which may include discrimination based on a person’s nonconformity with stereotypes associated with that person’s real or perceived gender, as well as on the basis of disability.  Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 also protect students from discrimination on the basis of sex, while the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act prohibit discrimination against students with disabilities. 

The division’s settlements with the Arcadia School District in California and the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota also show that sex-based harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated and the division will use the laws and tools it has to fight the next generation of civil rights challenges. 

The division also vigorously prosecutes hate crimes, including crimes against LGBTI persons and individuals with disabilities.  The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 criminalizes violence committed because of actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability, if linked to interstate commerce.  Since the act’s passage, the division has made indictments in 27 hate crimes cases, including six separate cases in which 10 defendants committed offenses because of sexual orientation.  In 2013, the department charged five people with a hate crime for abuse of victims with mental disabilities; the first case in the nation to challenge a hate crime against people with disabilities. 

Though much progress has been made in these areas, substantial work remains.  To illustrate, while the ADA protects individuals from disability-based discrimination in employment, the civil rights laws do not yet fully protect individuals from discrimination in employment on the basis of their LGBTI status.  The same is true of education, housing and other areas where there are not explicit prohibitions of discrimination based on sexual orientation.  Even so, the division is committed to using every tool available to fight for the rights of LGBTI individuals and persons with disabilities.  As the White House Forum reminded its participants, those battles are essential to achieving a more equal America for all.

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60 Years Later: Fulfilling the Promise of Brown v. Board of Education
May 19, 2014 Posted by

Courtesy of the Civil Rights Division 

Six decades ago, in its unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court observed, “…it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.  Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” 

Education is the foundation of the American dream.  It offers a gateway to opportunity and to a better future, especially for poor and disadvantaged communities. 

Since the 1960s, the Civil Rights Division has fought hard to dismantle racial discrimination and segregation in our nation’s public schools.  As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown, the struggle for equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination is not over, and the division is vigorously enforcing civil rights laws to ensure that the promise of Brown is better realized for all of America’s schoolchildren. 

In many cities the vestiges of segregation continue to persist.  With a docket of nearly 200 desegregation cases, the division is actively working to ensure that school districts still under court orders, such as Cleveland, Mississippi, where two high schools less than a two miles apart are still racially identifiable, meet their long overdue obligation to integrate schools. 

The division also works to ensure that districts provide all students with equal access to curricular offerings, including the coursework necessary to prepare them for college, and extracurricular activities.  In Monroe City, Louisiana, the division reached an agreement in 2010 to end severe educational inequities between schools with virtually all black student populations and schools that served most of the district’s white students.  Prior to the agreement, at one high school with 100 percent African-American enrollment, the district offered only five gifted and honors courses and not a single Advanced Placement class.  By contrast, the district offered nearly 70 Advanced Placement, gifted and honors courses at a high school whose student population was 43 percent white.  The division’s consent decree requires the district to take steps to offer the same courses at all of its high schools. 

In recent months, the division has worked to address a more modern form of exclusionary policy: disparities in school discipline.  Too often, the effects of school discipline policies are not felt equally—students of color and those with disabilities receive more frequent and more severe punishments than their peers for comparable misbehavior. 

Last year, a division investigation into disciplinary practices in the Meridian, Mississippi, public school system alleged that black students frequently received far harsher discipline, including arrest and expulsion, than white students for comparable misbehavior. 

A minor school discipline offense should not land a student in a police precinct.  The adverse effects of early interaction with the juvenile or criminal justice systems can be permanent, limiting young peoples’ opportunities for education, employment, housing and even the right to vote for the rest of their lives. 

The division’s agreement with the Meridian school system to stop racial discrimination in school discipline was the first of its kind.  To ensure that other districts know how to prevent situations like the one found in Meridian, the Departments of Justice and Education also released guidance to public schools across the country on their obligations to carry out student discipline without discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.  This guidance provides templates for schools to adopt effective disciplinary practices that avoid discrimination and take steps to keep all students in school. 

As a government, we have a critical responsibility to fight together to ensure equal educational opportunities for all children.  This year, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board, the Civil Rights Division remains committed to using all available tools to ensure that every child can learn and thrive without being discriminated against or segregated because of their background. 

The Civil Rights Division’s “Fulfilling the Promise of Brown v. Board of Education” fact sheet is available online.

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Promoting and Protecting Human Rights: The Department of Justice’s Commitment to Equality
March 14, 2014 Posted by

This week, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin is representing the Justice Department in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss Civil Rights law enforcement at the Presentation of the U.S.’ Fourth Periodic Report Concerning the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  He gave the following remarks before the U.N. Human Rights Committee 

Thank you, Mary, and thank you to the Chair and members of the Committee.  My name is Roy Austin, and I serve as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.  I am honored to appear before this Committee.  I am joined today by my colleague, Bruce Swartz, a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in our Criminal Division, who will be speaking to you later in the presentation. 

Since the founding of our country, in every generation, there have been Americans who sought and struggled to realize our Constitution’s promise of equal opportunity and equal justice for all.  This past fall marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.  As we as a country contemplate the progress we have made over the past 50 years, I am happy to take the floor to discuss our nation’s continuing efforts to advance the cause of equality and ensure that all Americans can live free from discrimination. 

Our aggressive enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws shows our commitment to meeting our international human rights obligations, including those under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

First and foremost, the right to vote is the bedrock of any democracy.  The Justice Department is committed to ensuring full participation in our democratic process through the aggressive and evenhanded enforcement of our voting rights laws.  In recent months, to protect the rights of minority voters, we, under the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, filed lawsuits against the states of Texas and North Carolina seeking to block the implementation of their highly restrictive voter identification laws.  These lawsuits evidence the department’s continuing commitment to ensuring that Americans across the country can cast a ballot free from discrimination. 

Like the right to vote, equal access to educational opportunities is essential to ensuring a strong future for our democracy.  Education is the gateway to full participation in our society.  Almost 60 years ago, our Supreme Court recognized that equal access to public education is a basic right.  The Justice Department continues to vigorously enforce federal laws to expand opportunities for all students, protecting them from discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex, language, religion and disability. 

We strongly support diversity in our educational institutions.  Diverse educational environments help to prepare students to succeed in our diverse nation and to transcend the boundaries of race, language and culture as our economy becomes more globally interconnected.  This past summer, the Supreme Court preserved the well-established legal principle that colleges and universities have a compelling interest in achieving the educational benefits that flow from a racially and ethnically diverse student body and can lawfully pursue that interest in their admissions programs. 

Equal opportunity also means that qualified borrowers deserve equal access to fair and responsible lending.  Since its creation in 2010, the Civil Rights Division’s Fair Lending Unit has obtained more than $775 million in monetary relief for borrowers and communities impacted by discriminatory lending. 

For the infrastructure of our democracy to remain strong, we must ensure meaningful access to our courts.  The stakes are too high in the courtroom context for parties or witnesses to be excluded because of their national origin.  Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, state courts that receive Justice Department funds must provide people with limited English skills meaningful access to their programs and services, and we have recently worked with over 15 states to ensure this access. 

Through its Access to Justice Initiative, the department is working to help the justice system efficiently deliver outcomes that are fair to all, irrespective of wealth and status.  In support of its mission to protect the Sixth Amendment guarantee of effective assistance of counsel, the department successfully filed a statement of interest in 2013 in a class action lawsuit in Washington state.  Last December, the court issued an injunction that required the cities to hire a public defender supervisor to monitor and report on the delivery of indigent defense representation. 

Effective and accountable police departments are also a fundamental part of the infrastructure of democracy.  The vast majority of police departments in the United States work tirelessly to protect the civil and constitutional rights of the communities they serve.  But when systemic problems emerge, or officers abuse their power, the department uses its authority to implement meaningful reform and to hold specific individuals accountable under our criminal laws.  Over the last five years, the Civil Rights Division has obtained groundbreaking reform agreements with police departments to address issues including the excessive use of force; unlawful stops, searches or arrests; or policing that unlawfully discriminates against protected minority groups or women. 

Individuals confined in institutions are also often among the most vulnerable in our society.  For that reason, the Justice Department is continuing its work to prevent, detect and respond to abuse in U.S. prisons.  Last month, a department investigation of Pennsylvania’s prisons found that the manner in which PDOC (Pennsylvania Department of Corrections) uses long-term and extreme forms of solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental illness—many of whom also have intellectual disabilities—constitutes a violation of their rights under the Eighth Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The United States takes seriously the importance of addressing racial and ethnic disparities at all levels in the justice system, especially as it pertains to criminal sentencing.  We are working to modify our charging policies so that those who commit certain low-level, nonviolent federal offenses will receive sentences commensurate with their individual conduct—rather than be subject to mandatory minimum sentences. 

In addition, in our 2013 annual report to the Sentencing Commission, the United States called for reform of some mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, including sentences triggered by drug trafficking offenses.  In January 2014, the Commission voted to propose, for public comment, amendments that would include possible reductions to the sentencing guidelines levels for federal drug trafficking offenses.  These could have the effect of reducing eligible sentences by approximately 11 months. 

We are also making significant strides in our effort to reduce violence against women.  Under new provisions in the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act, tribes and the federal government can better work together to address domestic violence against Native American women, who experience the highest rates of assault in the United States.  The Act has led to significant improvements at the local government level—where the majority of these crimes are prosecuted—by encouraging victims to file complaints, improving evidence collection, and increasing access to protection orders. 

The United States recognizes that the promotion of civil rights, equal opportunity and non-discrimination are fundamental to ensuring universal respect for human rights.  As these efforts make clear, the United States has made great strides, but we recognize that much work remains in our efforts to realize Dr. King’s dream of a country with equal opportunity and equal justice for all.

 
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