Bill Lann Lee
Acting Assistant Attorney General
Civil Rights Division
United States Department of Justice

at the

Spirit of ADA Torch Relay
State Capitol
Montgomery, Alabama

July 15, 2000

Spirit of the ADA Torch Rally crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama (below)People with disabilities march over Pettus Bridge

Man carries Spirit of ADA torch at Pettus Bridge

marchers with disabilities carry torch

Spirit of the ADA Torch Rally arrives at the Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama Spirit of ADA Torch arrives at Capitol

Acting Assistant Attorney General Bill Lann Lee
Bill Lann Lee gives speech in Montgomery

Thank you Sheron for that kind introduction. I am honored to be here today to join the Spirit of ADA Torch Relay as it passes through Montgomery. I would like to thank AAPD and the local organizers here in Montgomery for all their efforts in making today so memorable.

I can think of no more appropriate place to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act than this city. For Montgomery was the cradle of the modern American civil rights movement.

In 1955, when the Supreme Court’s recent promise of desegregation remained a hollow one throughout the nation, it was in Montgomery that a seamstress named Rosa Parks had the courage and strength to force the issue.

No, she would not give up her seat. She had as much right to ride the City’s buses as anyone else.

It was in Montgomery that Rosa Parks’s single, courageous action inspired a massive show of determination, as the African American community refused to board the buses for an entire year -- until everyone could use them on equal terms.

It was in Montgomery that the nation first met a brilliant young preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr., whose dream of a beloved community transfixed the country and transformed it as well.

Nearly a decade later, it was in Montgomery that Dr. King brought 25,000 people here at the state capitol to demand the right to vote. It was in Montgomery, on these steps, that Dr. King called on America to live up to its ideals -- to become "a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience."

What started in Montgomery did not stop here. Waves of justice rippled throughout the nation, as citizens challenged segregation, discrimination, and denial of equal opportunity in every state in the Union. Eventually, Congress heard the call and passed a series of laws that would help America make good on its promises of equality, opportunity, and fair play. The litany is familiar to us all: The Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the Fair Housing Act, passed in 1968. These laws powerfully stated a fundamental American principle: That we don’t have two classes of citizens in this country. That our nation’s political, economic, and civic life must be open on equal terms to everyone.

People with disabilities knew that the still-lingering racial divide was not the only threat to our cherished principles of fair play. In society’s eyes, disability too often meant disadvantage, denial of opportunity, and exclusion from the life of the community. Prejudice, stereotypes, and malign neglect all conspired to make people with disabilities -- in an all too familiar way -- second-class citizens.

But like Rosa Parks on that cold December day, people with disabilities were no longer in a mood to be second-class. Inspired by the civil rights movement she catalyzed, people with disabilities began to take action.

To those who had been with Dr. King in the civil rights struggles of the 50’s and 60’s, the targets of the disability civil rights movement were depressingly familiar:

  • Schools that consigned people with disabilities to a segregated, inferior education -- if they did not exclude people with disabilities entirely.

  • Employers who openly discriminated against applicants with disabilities and refused to allow them any opportunity to show their talents or demonstrate their merit.

  • Stores and restaurants that were closed to many people with disabilities -- whether because of unnecessary physical barriers or because the proprietors simply thought that other customers shouldn’t have to see people with disabilities when they went out to shop and eat.

  • And public transit that offered people with disabilities separate and unequal service.

And the tactics of the disability civil rights movement were familiar as well: protests and demonstrations; organizing and lobbying; and, where necessary, turning to the courts.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Bill Lann Lee
at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama
Bill Lann Lee visits Civil Rights Memorial

It was a struggle, with great victories and great setbacks along the way, but ten years ago, our nation finally heeded the call of the disability civil rights movement. We enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act -- the most comprehensive civil rights legislation in our nation’s history. And great things followed. In the ten years the ADA has been on the books, opportunities for equality, independence, and inclusion have opened up in workplaces, businesses, and government offices across the country. This Administration has shown a firm, unflagging commitment to that effort. We have focused on the essentials -- on the important activities that can make such a difference in the daily lives of people with disabilities:

  • In the Department of Justice, we have more than doubled the size of our ADA enforcement program. We have removed barriers in city halls, court houses, hospitals, hotels, theaters, stores and restaurants across the country and have improved access for those with hearing impairments to hundreds of 9-1-1 centers.

  • We have also vigorously defended the constitutionality of the ADA -- and we will continue to do so in every case and every forum where that most important law comes under attack.

  • Together with the Department of Health and Human Services, we have taken the lead in implementing the Supreme Court’s historic Olmstead decision, which prohibits the unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Bill Lann Lee carries the Spirit of the ADA Torch down from the Capitol in Montgomery, AlabamaBill Lann Lee carries Spirit of ADA Torch down stairs at AL Capitol

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Ten years after passage of the ADA, we can look back with pride on a decade of progress. But our work remains unfinished. Unemployment is at its lowest rate in decades, but almost three-quarters of Americans with significant disabilities remain unemployed or underemployed.

Technological change promises to open up opportunities to compete in a new global economy, but barriers built into this technology threaten to leave some people with disabilities behind. And far too many businesses still have not taken even the simplest steps to allow people with disabilities to use their services or enter their premises.

This Administration is responding to these problems --and in the most aggressive of ways. But we must do more. Now is the time to finish the job our nation started when we passed the ADA. As Senator Mitchell stressed, it takes all levels of government to do the job, the State of Alabama and the City of Montgomery, led by Mayor Bright, as well as the federal government. And the Department of Justice means not just the Civil Rights Division, but also the United States Attorneys Office, led by Redding Pitt, your United States Attorney. But what drives it all is the grassroots, people like you.

We all must continue to work for full enforcement of the ADA, so that no employer, retailer, or government agency is closed to people with disabilities. In his most recent budget, President Clinton proposed a 35% increase in Justice Department ADA enforcement. These additional resources will enable us to fund a new initiative to remove barriers that prevent people with disabilities from obtaining basic community services. They will help us train law enforcement officers on how to interact appropriately with people with mental disabilities. And they will help us educate small towns, rural businesses, and minority communities about their rights and responsibilities under the ADA. These new funds are critical for the vigorous enforcement of our nation’s most comprehensive civil rights law.

If we rededicate ourselves to the job we started with the ADA, we can make this the millennium of universal opportunity. We can create a world where no one is denied access to the American dream -- where everyone has the chance to go as far as hard work and skills can take them. We can create a world where -- in the words Dr. King was so fond of quoting -- which are emblazoned in this city -- "justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream."

We can do it, but only if we keep up the fight.

Thank you.

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last updated July 28, 2000