Last week, the department celebrated John Wodatch’s 42 years as a career civil rights lawyer for the federal government. Wodatch, who is retiring today, is a disability rights pioneer who has been instrumental in crafting federal disability rights laws and enforcing those laws.
Wodatch began his civil rights career in 1969 at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, where he worked on almost every aspect of civil rights: he worked to desegregate schools in the South; he worked to desegregate the blood supply in hospitals; he helped in efforts to bring African-Americans into trade unions in Philadelphia; he helped draft the Title IX regulations that have opened so many doors of educational opportunity for girls and women; and he worked to ensure that individuals whose first language was not English could access critical social services.
His first foray into advancing opportunities for individuals with disabilities was in 1973, when he helped to create and implement the first comprehensive regulations on disability discrimination in federal programs, the regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. He joined the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in 1980 to lead the Department’s oversight of Section 504, and quickly found himself defending the statute, as the Reagan Administration had made clear its intention to repeal Section 504. He found an ally in Vice President George H.W. Bush, and a new regulatory framework for the law was negotiated.
When it came time for the Americans with Disabilities Act, John was a principal architect.
But passage of the landmark law in 1990 was just the beginning. Wodatch was asked to lead the new unit that would enforce the ADA, and he and his team were tasked with drafting the rules that would implement the law.
At the event celebrating John’s career, former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh recalled how in 1991, Wodatch and the newly created Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division had worked tirelessly to draft the regulations to implement the newly enacted Americans with Disabilities Act, completing the intensive and technical process in just a year. A grand event was to be held in the Justice Department’s historic Great Hall to sign the new regulations. But the team encountered a problem when they realized the Great Hall was not accessible. Staff quickly went to work, installing wheelchair ramps and other features to make the majestic space ready to host individuals with disabilities. Two decades later, those who visit the Great Hall still benefit from the features that were added to make it accessible.
Following implementation of the ADA, Wodatch spent more than two decades as Chief of the Disability Rights Section, leading the Justice Department’s enforcement of the ADA and breaking down barriers in all areas of life for persons with disabilities. His fingerprints are on every ADA enforcement action taken by the Department, every piece of technical assistance, every outreach program, and every new rule or regulation issued since the ADA’s passage.
Wodatch said this of his career at DOJ:
“I have spent the last 20 years on the ADA with the intent of vigorously enforcing the new law, guiding its development, and creating the Disability Rights Section as the best disability rights law firm in the country. We have helped reshape this county, opening doors and opportunities, integrating persons with disabilities into everyday American life.”
Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez said this of Wodatch:
“He was a founding parent of the disability rights movement. John embodies the best that this government has to give.”
Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Sam Bagenstos called working with and learning from Wodatch “one of the great privileges” of his life, and stated:
“This city and this democracy really depend on dedicated, committed career civil servants. That is John Wodatch.”
Wodatch leaves a legacy of commitment and service that spans more than four decades. He has left an indelible mark on the Civil Rights Division, the Justice Department, and the entire nation. He has made the nation a better place for individuals with disabilities.