Indian Treaty Room
Eisenhower Executive Office Building
1:08 P.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Secretary Buttigieg. (Applause.) Thank you. Appreciate it. Thank you.
As we have blind and low-vision folks here today, I will describe what I am wearing. I’m wearing a lavender-color suit and a flag pin, and seated here with all of the colleagues and friends at a U-shaped table.
Thank you, Secretary Buttigieg, for your work, for your leadership, as we know when we think about this movement — which is the fight for the rights, the dignity, for equality, equity for folks with disabilities — the issue of transportation is a very foundational and fundamental one. And you have been a great leader on this and many other issues through your role of leadership of the Department of Transportation. So I thank you for that.
Representative — former Representative Tony Coelho will be joining us when he gets through security — (laughs) — I believe downstairs. But — but it is important to recognize his longstanding leadership on this issue. And he continues to be a fighter for all of these rights.
So to everyone here, I thank you again. There are many longstanding colleagues and friends in this movement. And thank you again for — for accepting the invitation to have this important discussion, and as I said before the press came in, for my benefit, mostly so I can hear from you and understand and get feedback from you about the status of where we are in terms of the movement and where we have yet to go. So I want to thank you all for that.
So let’s start with a fundamental point: Every person in our nation has a fundamental right to participate fully in our society and to determine their own future, the right to self-determination, the right to dignity.
And we, as members of a civil society, have a duty. It is not about a whim or a desire, but a duty to ensure that that promise is a reality for all people in our country.
And it is with that spirit that we approach this movement, this work, this fight, and this convening today.
And the fight for disability rights — Tony Coelho, a great leader in this fight — has been a fight longstanding for dignity and for opportunity and for self-determination — the right of self-determination of all people.
So this month, we, of course, celebrate then a milestone in that fight, which is the 33rd anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And, of course, we can’t celebrate these last 33 years with also remembering Judy Heumann, who, of course, we lost this year, who was a tireless champion. And we will always remember her as being present, actually, always in the work that we are doing.
So we celebrate, today and this month, the progress that we have made, but we also then recommit clear-eyed to the work that we still have yet to do.
People with disabilities still face incredible challenges in participating fully in our society. And we have to be responsible and truthful about where we are and what we must yet do.
Voting rights, for example: I was proud to convene a group of many of the leaders who are here — many, many months ago — to discuss, on the issue of voting rights, how folks with disability are directly impacted by laws that are being passed in various states that, in my opinion, many are intentional in the desire to make it more difficult for people to vote, not to mention the status quo before those laws, which has created incredible obstacles for people with disabilities to be able to exercise their legal right to have a voice in the future of their country and their government.
I’ve heard stories of polling stations, for example, without ramps. I’ve heard stories of individuals going to the polling place asking for a private place where they can then, in a private way, register and submit their vote, and having to have the courage — which we shouldn’t have to require people to speak in a crowded room — about the need to have accommodations, not being given the dignity to just go in and have those accommodations and be able to vote.
On reproductive healthcare — and we know that since the Dobbs decision, which took that constitutional right from the people of America to make those kinds of decisions for themselves and not have the government decide what is in their best interest — on this issue, we have heard and have learned and know about the disproportionate impact of reproductive restrictions on people with disabilities.
For example, for people who live in states that have essentially banned access to reproductive healthcare, the challenges that are then presented in terms of, again, Secretary, the need to be able to then travel to another state where they will have access to that reproductive healthcare, and the requirement that then is imposed on them of trying to figure that out through mechanisms that may not be friendly to or adaptable to their specific needs.
Small businesses: A lot of the work that we’ve been doing with small businesses takes into account that we have to — we have to address the barriers to access to capital that folks and small-business owners with disabilities face.
What am I talking about there? There is still bias in the system around making decisions about who should have access to capital based on some false assumption about who could actually run a small business, who could actually do the work of growing a small business, are they capable.
Some very fundamental issues are at play in terms of the work that we still have to do to have a society that treats all people fairly and equally.
And then, of course, one of the most recent issues that has been a topic of discussion around our country among many people: the issue of AI. So, let’s think about that in terms of algorithms that are being written and employed for a variety of decisions that are being made, including employment decisions, and how ingrained bias — because it still exists in our society — about folks with disabilities can and may be integrated into those algorithms, in terms of making decisions in a way that could discriminate against people with disabilities.
So we still have a lot of work to do. But today is a day to mostly celebrate the accomplishments that have been achieved since Tony Coelho and so many at this table have been leading this movement.
And I, again, want to thank the Secretary for your work. This issue of transportation is fundamentally about just making sure that people have the ability to get where they need to go. It’s that basic. But we know the obstacles to that goal can be great.
And, for example, when we think about air travel, as the Secretary mentioned, a majority of domestic flights still have no accessible restrooms. When we think about the stories that I’ve heard of individuals with disabilities, knowing that they may not be able to access the restroom on a plane, and what they must do to deprive themselves of food or liquids for hours and hours before that flight, out of concern that they may need to then take care of themselves but have no access to the ability to do that because that restroom on that plane just does not physically allow that to happen.
This is an issue fundamentally, again, about what is morally right and what is right in a society where we say that we prioritize and value the dignity of each human being to be able to live a full life.
So, with that, I want to thank everyone. Again, the solutions are at hand. We’re going to be announcing some of those solutions very soon.
But, in conclusion, I would say that an accessible America is a better America. And — and I want to thank everyone for your leadership.
And, Tony, would you mind — I know this is a bit off-script, but would you mind sharing some of your thoughts before we get into the rest of the meeting?
MR. COELHO: Thank you, Madam Vice President. I’m sorry, everything went wrong today.
First off, I just — I was prepared to say that this is the most pro-disability administration that I have ever seen, and I’ve been involved in seven different administrations. Nobody comes close.
And you start with President Biden. He was one of the original sponsors of the ADA. Vice President Harris was very involved in disability issues when she was attorney general, when she was a U.S. senator, and now — what she does now, in regards to all kinds of different issues that she’s talked about, the same way. She is very aggressively supportive of our efforts, and we appreciate that.
Secretary Buttigieg — I’ve known him. And I went up to him one time when he was speaking, and I said, “I’m very impressed. You’re going to go someplace at some point.” (Laughter.) And now, here I am sitting with him in this — on the President’s Cabinet, which I’m very happy.
Transportation, as the Vice President said, is a critical, critical, critical issue for our community. And to have people that oriented towards that and the staff that you have, Pete, is — I think it’s fabulous, and I applaud you for it.
So, with all that, the only last thing I’ll say is: Carmel Martin I’ve known for six years. She works her tail off — sorry — she works hard in making sure that our community is included in everything that we’ve wanted. So, I appreciate her as well, and I think our community should know that.
Thank you, Madam Vice President.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, the great Tony Coelho.
And with that, I’ll thank the press for being here, and we’re going to now begin our meeting. Thank you.
END 1:19 P.M. EDT