Today marks the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a comprehensive piece of legislation signed by President George H.W. Bush that has paved the way for the over 50 million Americans with disabilities.
“Today more people with disabilities are working with us than at any point in the last 30 years. Some of these folks are some of my closest colleagues and have been incredible leaders on behalf of the administration on a whole host of issues, and I’m grateful for their contributions every single day.”President Obama on the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act
As an intern at the White House, I recently had the opportunity to witness the White House's environment of inclusion at an intern program led by Leah Katz-Hernandez, West Wing Receptionist and Coordinator for Operations, and Maria Town, Disability Community Liaison in the Office of Public Engagement. It was incredible to learn about the numerous ways that the Administration is making a conscious effort to make the White House as inclusive as possible — from having sign language interpreters and visual aids at White House events to ensuring that all videos on the White House digital platforms have closed captions.
While I was listening to Ms. Katz-Hernandez's and Ms. Town's stories, I was so moved that I left the event with tears in my eyes. It was the first time that I had heard two professionals openly talk about how it is becoming the norm for individuals with disabilities to not only find employment at places they love, but that individuals with disabilities have just as much a chance to be successful and fulfilled at their jobs.
That hits close to home for me. My mom has difficulty hearing and recently returned to the workforce. As she is figuring out what she is passionate about, she has thought about becoming a teacher who works with children with disabilities or an administrative assistant. My mother is one of the smartest people that I know, but I think that it can be discouraging when people are often too quick to make assumptions about her competence when she is unable to hear everything that’s going on in a conversation.
Under the Obama administration, the country has made tremendous gains to continue to improve accessibility in education, employment, health care, and more. The President has bolstered efforts to improve opportunities for young Americans with disabilities through signing the Every Student Succeeds Act to assist teachers in learning about the best ways to support their students with disabilities. The President signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act to provide more employment opportunities for people with significant disabilities and youth with disabilities.
And, of course, since taking office, President Obama has made health care reform a priority. With the Affordable Care Act, we've ended discrimination based on pre-existing conditions and medical history or genetic information, along with additional policies to protect the rights of Americans with disabilities. In May, the Obama administration enhanced protections against disability-based discrimination. The President created the Administration on Community Living, which works to help people with disabilities can live in their homes and not in institutions.
Recognizing that Americans with disabilities are especially underrepresented in the federal workforce, the President issued Executive Order 13548, which set the historic goal of hiring more individuals with disabilities in the federal government. Leading by example, the President has hired more individuals with disabilities to serve in this administration than any other president in the past 33 years.
One of these hires is Leah Katz-Hernandez, who is the first deaf West Wing receptionist. As President Obama has said, “She is poised, she is talented – and as she puts it, a lot of her accomplishments may not have been possible without the ADA.
I applied to intern at the White House because I wholeheartedly believe in the President's proven track record of giving all Americans a fair shot. Yet, no amount of research could have prepared me for the overwhelming realization that the President's attitude toward accessibility is not just words written on a page, but can be felt through his conscious actions to make the White House an accessible space for all Americans.
Dana Frayne is an intern in the Office of Digital Strategy.