Tyree Brown was barely able to write her own name after the accident. The 2015 car accident injured her spine and left the 26-year-old Maryland artist paraplegic and paralyzed parts of her upper and lower body. This was followed by longer periods in rehab and nursing homes, coupled with careful occupational therapy. Beautiful portraits that once took Tyree five days can now take her up to a month.
But earlier this week I was amazed when Tyree introduced me to her remarkable black and white drawings. Inspired, I watched on Monday as she was driven to a low table in the rose garden of the White House and confidently introduced the President of the United States.
On the occasion of the 31st, “I was afraid that I would not be able to live independently and realize my dreams of becoming an artist,” she said. “But now there are programs that will help me achieve my goals.” Next to her, an interpreter signed energetically.
By banning discrimination against Americans with disabilities in many areas of society, the ADA opened doors that had long been slammed, along with important laws such as the Rehabilitation Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Ramps are widely used in public housing and public facilities. Service animals are increasingly welcomed as part of daily life. Technology has become more accessible to the blind and deaf.
Despite these remarkable advances, significant obstacles remain. Just over a third of the 60 million American adults with disabilities are employed, compared with over three quarters of those without disabilities. And because of an outdated and unjust loophole in federal law, employers are allowed to pay disabled workers a subordinate wage, which can be as low as a few cents an hour.
At the same time, many people with disabilities continue to struggle to find affordable and barrier-free living space with freedom of movement and safety rails in the bathrooms. Voting also poses countless hurdles for people with disabilities. In the last two presidential elections, voter turnout among disabled Americans fell.
During the 2020 campaign, President Joe Biden made a commitment to address these barriers and ensure the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all parts of our society. He’s already delivering.
On his first day in office, President Biden signed an executive order directing the entire federal government to prioritize justice, including for people with disabilities. Through the American Rescue Plan, his government is allocating billions to states to support home and community-based services – like those that empower Tyree – as well as funds to support students and young people with disabilities.
The Biden administration is working to make it easier for disabled Americans to vote, identify obstacles, and modernize voting websites. And as Americans grapple with the long-term effects of COVID-19, President Biden is mobilizing federal agencies to ensure that Americans whose “long-term COVID” symptoms reach disability levels get the support and shelter they need.
That’s just the beginning. As President Biden said in the Rose Garden on Monday, we ensure that “the dignity and rights of disabled Americans are recognized in all of our policies.” It’s not just talk.
The president has urged Congress to adopt its “Build Back Better” agenda, which makes unprecedented investments in people with disabilities, from young children to older Americans. For example, it would greatly expand long-standing programs like Medicare and Medicaid, both of which are celebrating their 56th anniversary on Friday. More Medicaid support for home and community care would enable people with disabilities to live more independently and provide better pay and benefits to caregivers, who are disproportionately colored women.
The Build Back Better agenda would also support children with disabilities. It would provide a free, high quality, accessible and inclusive preschool for all 3 and 4 year olds and help train and certify more special education teachers.
President Biden is also committed to harnessing the bipartisan dynamic to gradually eradicate the injustice of the sub-minimum wage, as 10 states from Alaska to New Hampshire have done, while investing in “competitive integrated employment” that empowers workers with disabilities like everyone else treats workers.
These guidelines are not a luxury. They are essential investments in America’s competitiveness and future. According to an Accenture study, we could increase US GDP by $ 25 billion if only 1 percent more people with disabilities entered the workforce. The pursuit of more justice reflects the best in us as Americans. It’s the smart thing too.
Three decades after the ADA, it is time to deliver on its promise in full. If Tyree can teach himself to pick up a pencil and start drawing again, the rest of us can come together to write the next chapter in the history of a more inclusive, accessible, and just America.
Ambassador Susan E. Rice is the domestic policy adviser to President Joe Biden. CNN