March 10, 2011
Contact: Anne Sommers
Prepared Remarks of Jonathan Young, Ph.D. for the Swearing in Ceremony of Council and Staff of the National Council on Disability, National Archive Building Rotunda
I am truly honored to join all of you here in this glorious space to profess our oath of office. On behalf of all Members and staff of the National Council on Disability, thank you, Lisa, for joining us and representing President Barack Obama. We are grateful for this Administration's leadership and honored to have the opportunity to answer President Obama's charge, and before him President George W. Bush's charge, in service of people with disabilities. We thank Senators Tom Harkin and Mike Enzi, as well as the late Ted Kennedy and Judd Gregg, who helped guide our nominations through the United States Senate, and we look forward to working with both chambers to advance disability policy. And we are profoundly privileged to have Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Tom Perez administer our oaths and share his insights.
Today we gather in the permanent home for our nation's Charters of Freedom: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights. These three documents form the foundation of our national experiment in self-governance and preservation and protection of individual rights. The Declaration of Independence proclaims self-evident truths. Equality. The right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. The Constitution begins with a seemingly simple yet revolutionary statement that "We the People" are responsible for holding ourselves, and our government, accountable to delivering justice, tranquility, liberty, and equality of opportunity to all citizens. The Bill of Rights reminds us that our government should never lose sight of serving the people that created and sustains it.
Certain truths may be undeniable, to use Jefferson's original turn of phrase, and certain rights may be written in law, but their full realization is an unfolding story. Millions of individuals were subjected to chattel slavery when our Charters of Freedom were immortalized. More than half a century passed before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It took nearly 50 years more before women secured the right to vote, and more than 50 more years before people with disabilities formally secured rights as full and equal citizens under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The ADA is a milestone in our nation's journey to live up to our Charters of Freedom. And the establishment of a National Council on Disability within the Federal Government, as our authorizing statute makes plain, charges us with ensuring that our nation's freedoms and rights extend to people with disabilities too. Our stated purpose mirrors the ADA itself: to help "guarantee equal opportunity for all individuals with disabilities" and to "empower individuals with disabilities to achieve economic self-sufficiency, independent living, and inclusion and integration into all aspects of society." Truly, the National Council on Disability is a tiny federal agency with an oversized mission. Fortunately, we are not alone. People with disabilities and allies from the broader disability community hold prominent positions throughout our national government.
Today we mark a turning point for the Council and demonstrate our bipartisan unity rather than mark the new appointments of selected Council members. In the past year, our efforts have been directed largely inward. We undertook a strategic planning process to map out a sustainable future for the Council's leadership in disability policy. With the appointment of a new Executive Director and a new executive leadership team, we've structured our agency around the twin functions of policy and engagement, as well as ensuring that we run our operations efficiently and responsibly and are equipped with the technological infrastructure needed to do our job.
Disability policy has a long history of bipartisan support, but none of us could have foreseen the remarkable way we have come together as a Council. For that, we are all especially indebted to my immediate predecessor as Chairperson and current Vice Chair, Linda Wetters. It is unusual to unite presidential administrations as we do today, and equally unusual to unite political appointees and career civil servants. But it is by design. Our collective oath symbolizes that we are one agency with a singular purpose.
Today we shift our focus squarely to the policy work for which we have been appointed. These are difficult times, particularly for millions of people with disabilities who are often the first to feel the pain of economic distress. Our efforts as a Council must rise to meet these challenges. This means being proactive in helping to set the agenda. To do this the Council must be continually engaged with disability community stakeholders and be vigilant in identifying opportunities to influence priority policy issues as, and even before, they emerge.
Here are just three examples of how we plan to do our work. First, NCD will exercise its statutory authority to hold hearings. The voices and needs of people with disabilities are neglected in today's debates about the national budget. We know well that the ability of many people with disabilities to claim and fulfill their rights and responsibilities as citizens of these United States depends on a loose patchwork of federal, state, and local programs, services and supports. Tony Coelho often says that people with disabilities are the only group that likes to pay taxes - because paying taxes means you're making money. But opportunities to be productive tax-paying citizens are threatened by budget cuts that may offer short-term savings while costing much more in the long run. We need to understand and communicate the direct and indirect impact of federal programs on people with disabilities. Plans are therefore under way to hold our first hearing to help ensure that people with disabilities are part of our budget debates.
Second, NCD will build on its successful 2010 Disability Policy Summit and convene regular regional forums around NCD's new theme of Living, Learning & Earning. Real opportunities to live, learn, and earn require extensive coordination. A job opportunity, for instance, is a real opportunity only if one has appropriate, accessible and affordable transportation, housing, technology, health care, and other services and supports. Each forum will be an opportunity to learn more about how federal disability policies play out - or fail to play out - in the lives of real people. We will listen for emerging trends and identify specific ways to help frame and influence the national policy agenda.
Third, we will use public-private ad hoc working groups to help develop actionable policy recommendations and find ways to help implement these recommendations. Our work groups recognize that policy is being made and unmade too swiftly to rely principally on long, published reports. For instance, our current Health Care Reform Working Group, which consists of NCD Members, staff, disability community advocates, and others, is tracking the unfolding implementation of the Affordable Care Act. It is impossible to overstate the importance of health care and related services and supports for millions of people with disabilities. Indeed, quality and affordable health care is often a prerequisite for one's ability to live, learn, and earn. We will continue to meet directly with key decision-makers to help ensure that they are aware of the health care and long-term care needs of people with disabilities and that they are equipped with the necessary information and resources to take action. We cannot afford to leave people with disabilities behind in the implementation of this landmark law.
These are just three examples of how we plan to fulfill our public charge. We will respond to requests for advice by the President, his Administration, and the Congress. We will consistently engage with our stakeholders and be proactive in helping to set the national policy agenda. We will adapt our strategies to the challenges we see. We will hold ourselves and our government accountable to the self-evident truths and universal rights enshrined in our Charters of Freedom-and the ADA. And we will not forget that our greatest strength lies not in our individual talents but rather in our capacity to understand and harness the collective power of "We the People." Thank you.