Justice Department officials past and present celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act Friday, the same day as the Civil Rights Division announced it was considering new accessibility rules for movies, equipment and furniture, 911 services and websites.
Attorney General Eric Holder, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas E. Perez, former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) — the primary sponsor of the law — spoke at the ceremony.
Thornburgh recalled how when he was Attorney General in the early 1990s, the Justice Department planned to hold an event in the Great Hall to announce new ADA regulations. Shortly before the event they realized that the Great Hall itself wasn’t handicapped accessible, but engineers got to work and made it so in time for the event.
Since the passage of ADA, the Justice Department has “had some problems in the courts,” which Thornburgh said came from judges with a “woeful lack of understanding about what it meant to have a disability.” He also urged state and local governments not to cutback on compliance with ADA regulations because of the recession.
Holder touted the work of the Justice Department on access for the disabled, saying that the department has returned to a model of aggressive enforcement actions.
“At every level of our work – and in cooperation with our partners across the administration – we have placed a renewed focus on enforcing the ADA,” Holder said in prepared remarks.
But the Justice Department had not done enough within its own house to offer work opportunities to those with disabilities, he said.
“Put bluntly, we do not have sufficient numbers of people with disabilities who serve as our colleagues in this great agency,” Holder said.
As part of the Justice Department’s Diversity Management Plan, Holder said, the new position of Special Assistant for Disability Resources would be filled in the coming weeks. The Attorney General’s Committee on the Employment of Persons with Disabilities is also making recommendations for improving the recruitment, retention and accomodation of persons with disabilities, he said.
The event came the same day as Justice Department officials announced new ADA regulations are in the works to address the accessibility of movies, equipment and furniture, 911 services and websites.
Being unable to access websites “puts individuals at a great disadvantage in today’s society, which is driven by a dynamic electronic marketplace and unprecedented access to information,” the department said in an advanced notices of proposed rulemaking.
Many websites “fail to incorporate or activate features that enable users with disabilities to access all the site’s information or elements. For instance, individuals who are deaf are unable to access information in Web videos and other multimedia presentations that do not have captions.”
Making websites friendly to disabled users is neither difficult nor especially costly, and often does not require changes to the format or appearance of a website, the DOJ said.
In another advanced notice of proposed rulemaking concerning video and movie captioning, the DOJ said representatives from the movie theater industry had strongly urged the government not to issue regulations regarding movie captioning at theaters, noting that new advances in digital cinema will make it much easier to provide closed captions or video described movies.
While the Justice Department is aware that costs associated with providing equipment “may indeed constitute an undue burden” on some movie theater owners and operators, the notice said the DOJ “believes that it may be unnecessary and inappropriate to wait to establish rules pertaining to closed captioning and video description for movies.”