Yesterday, DOT headquarters played host to the 20th anniversary celebration of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was an honor to pay tribute to the landmark piece of legislation that prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability and opened up a new world of equality and opportunity for countless Americans.
Looking back on it now, it's hard to believe where we were just two decades ago. Too many Americans were being denied the rights so many of us take for granted - to pursue an education, to find a fulfilling job, and to fully participate in a community. Many with disabilities couldn't get off the curb, let alone on a bus or commuter train. In fact, almost all fixed route transportation systems - whether road, rail, or air - were inaccessible to the people that could benefit from them most.
But, since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we've made some significant strides forward. Because the ADA mandated complimentary paratransit services, more Americans can get from one place to another. We now see ramps cut from sidewalks, and elevators marked with Braille. Schoolhouse and workplace doors open with the touch of a button.
These accomplishments, and many more, are a tribute to the advocates who waged the fight for equality on the streets, in the halls of government, and in courtrooms across America. I got to pay tribute to one of these pioneers when I presented the 2010 DOT Universal Accessible Transportation Award to the late Charles Sabatier, Jr. during Tuesday's ceremony. Charles' wife, Peggy, was on hand to accept his award and recount her husband's efforts to expand accessibility for all persons with disabilities.
At 22, Charles was awarded a Purple Heart for his heroic efforts to rescue a fellow soldier during the Vietnam War. However, his service left him paralyzed and using a wheelchair for the rest of his life. But, Charles never allowed his injury to limit him. He dedicated his life to changing the policies, physical structures, and attitudes that affected people with disabilities.
In the 1980s, Charles was a leading force in helping Delta Airlines change a misguided policy that made it difficult for wheelchair-bound passengers to fly. He went on to become the National Advocacy Director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America and served as a Senior Policy Advisor in the Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy.
With the help of people like Charles Sabatier, Jr., we've made tremendous progress over the last twenty years. But, we still have a ways to go to ensure that all Americans have access to the same opportunities for living, learning, and earning.
During yesterday's event, I recalled a great story I once heard that seemed appropriate for the occasion. It was about a newspaper reporter who asked Helen Keller, one of America's earliest advocates for people with disabilities, if she could imagine an ailment worse than a lack of sight.
Without missing a beat, Keller replied, "Yes. A lack of vision."
Well, there was certainly no lack of vision from the policymakers, advocates, and citizens that fought to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. And it's equally important that we don't suffer from a lack of vision now. DOT is committed to doing its part.
Our office recently welcomed Richard Devylder, who was appointed by President Obama to serve as the first ever Senior Advisor for Accessible Transportation. Richard will coordinate our accessibility programs and policies across all of DOT's agencies. And we're committed to the promotion of livable and sustainable communities that consider the needs of all of their citizens when planning local housing and transportation solutions.
The bottom line is this: we recognize that our systems of transportation are about much more than just getting around. They are avenues that connect people with the chance to achieve their dreams.
Our challenge is to make sure that everyone has access to the most fundamental of American rights - to dignity, independence, security, and opportunity. And the Department of Transportation fully intends to meet that challenge head on.