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Secretary Buttigieg delivers remarks on the 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act alongside Vice President Kamala Harris

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

I have the honor of kicking us off. I’m Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. I want to thank all of you for being here. By way of a visual description, I am wearing a blue suit, seated next to the Vice President, in the middle of a u-shaped table here at the White House. We are delighted to be here with you, and of course, I’m very honored to be here alongside Vice President Harris. 

We know that our country would not be the country that it is today if it weren’t for the tireless work of so many disability advocates: from non-profit leaders, to community voices, to elected officials who have spent careers and lives advocating for transformative legislation, like the Americans with Disabilities Act.  

The ADA is unquestionably one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in American history. It expanded rights for one in four people in our country. And it transformed every aspect of Americans' lives for the better.  

Having said that, it’s worth remembering that at the time it was being debated, the ADA faced a great deal of opposition. The US Chamber of Commerce said that it would have “a disastrous impact on many small businesses struggling to survive.” A congressman, I’m afraid from my own home state, said it would “crush small and medium-sized businesses.” And the nation’s largest bus company predicted that the ADA would, if passed, “deprive millions of people of affordable intercity public transportation.” 

Of course, none of those things turned out to be true. Instead, our schools, our workplaces, our communities, our businesses have changed so much for the better that it is difficult to imagine life in America without the ADA. So, it is fitting this month, as we mark the anniversary of the ADA, to recommit to our efforts to ensure that people with disabilities can move freely and fairly through every part of their lives, including by means of our transportation systems.  

To give you an example of some of the work going on in this, we’ve been taking a number of major steps to improve the safety and dignity of air travel. Last year, I had an opportunity to speak with Charles Brown, a Marine Corps veteran and then-President of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, who shared the story of how airline staff once dropped him onto the jet bridge while removing him from his wheelchair during boarding, leading to his tailbone being broken, and causing an infection that almost cost him his life.  

And while not every story is that dramatic, I have heard so many stories from friends, including many wheelchair users in this room, about the multiple situations that you have faced dealing with airline travel as wheelchair users. And that’s why we’ve begun laying the preliminary groundwork for a rule that will make it possible for passengers to stay in their own wheelchairs when they fly—affording them the same dignity that so many Americans count on in other forms of transportation.  

We have also awarded billions of dollars through the infrastructure law that has been led by the Biden-Harris Administration to modernize airport terminals, including adding wheelchair ramps, accessible restrooms, and more. And because civil rights are only meaningful when enforced, we are calling on Congress to pass legislation that will ensure that passengers with disabilities can pursue legal action against airlines that violate their rights. 

Beyond aviation, we're working with automakers to ensure the vehicles of the future, including automated vehicles, serve people with disabilities well. 

Last December, we awarded nearly $700 million through the infrastructure law to retrofit older rail and subway stations, adding elevators, ramps and other improvements in a piece of the legislation that was championed by Senator Tammy Duckworth. 

Now, we know that even with these steps, and even with the knowledge of all the good that the ADA has done for America, there are those who will push back on this work too, claiming that it's putting too great of a burden on airlines, or automakers, or transit agencies. But again, I think it bears remembering that's exactly what they said about the ADA itself 33 years ago. History proved that view wrong, and I think it will do the same as we look forward.  

The reality is that improving accessibility benefits everyone in our country: those with disabilities, those who will age into disability, and everybody else. Because when we empower millions of Americans to live their lives to their fullest potential, we are not only empowering them to thrive, but also ensuring that the country can benefit from their contributions.  

With that, it is my great honor to introduce a leader who understands this so well. As Attorney General of California, she helped to shut down predatory health insurance fraudsters whose operations would have disproportionately impacted people with disabilities. As a leader in the United States Senate, she authored legislation that always considered the unique needs of people with disabilities. And as Vice President, she has spoken powerfully about the intersection of accessibility and other civil rights, particularly reproductive freedom and voting rights. 

So, it is my great honor to introduce the Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris.