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CNN Heroes: Disabled But Not Really
07:08 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Ambassador Susan E. Rice serves as the domestic policy advisor to President Joe Biden. Follow her on Twitter @AmbRice46. The views expressed here are her own. View more opinions on CNN.

CNN  — 

After the accident, Tyree Brown could barely write her own name. The 2015 car crash injured her spine and rendered the 26-year-old Maryland artist quadriplegic, paralyzing parts of her upper and lower body. Lengthy stints in rehab and a nursing home followed, coupled with painstaking occupational therapy. Beautiful portraits that had once taken Tyree five days to draw can now take her up to a month.

Susan E. Rice

Yet, earlier this week, I marveled as Tyree shared with me her remarkable black-and-white drawings. Inspired, I watched Monday as she was wheeled to a low table in the White House Rose Garden and confidently introduced the President of the United States.

On the 31st anniversary of the signing of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Tyree gave voice to the millions of Americans living, and often thriving, with a disability. “I was worried I would not be able to live independently and pursue my dreams of being an artist,” she said. “But now there are programs that are helping me achieve my goals.” An interpreter signed vigorously alongside her.

By outlawing discrimination against Americans with disabilities in many aspects of society, the ADA—alongside vital laws like the Rehabilitation Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act – opened doors that had long been slammed shut. Ramps have been installed widely in public housing and public facilities. Service animals have increasingly been welcomed as a part of daily life. Technology has become more accessible to those who are blind and deaf.

Despite this remarkable progress, significant barriers remain. Just over a third of the 60 million American adults with disabilities are employed, compared to more than three-quarters of those without disabilities. And, because of an antiquated and unjust loophole in federal law, employers are permitted to pay disabled workers a subminimum wage that can amount to mere pennies an hour.

At the same time, many people with disabilities continue to struggle to obtain affordable and accessible housing, with room to maneuver and safety rails in bathrooms. Even voting poses countless hurdles for people with disabilities. In the last two presidential elections, turnout among disabled Americans dropped.

During the 2020 campaign, President Joe Biden committed to addressing these obstacles and ensuring full inclusion of individuals with disabilities in all parts of our society. He’s already delivering.

On his first day in office, President Biden signed an executive order directing the entire federal government to prioritize equity, including for people with disabilities. Through the American Rescue Plan, his administration is providing states billions to support home- and community-based services—like the ones empowering Tyree—as well as funding to support students and young people with disabilities.

The Biden administration is working to make voting easier for disabled Americans, identifying barriers and modernizing voting websites. And, as Americans grapple with the long-term effects of Covid-19, President Biden is mobilizing federal agencies to ensure that Americans whose “long Covid” symptoms rise to the level of a disability have the support and accommodations they need.

That’s only the start. As President Biden said in the Rose Garden Monday, we’re “ensuring that the dignity and rights of disabled Americans are lifted up in every policy we pursue.” That’s not just talk.

The President has called on Congress to pass his Build Back Better agenda, which makes unprecedented investments in those with disabilities, from toddlers to older Americans. For instance, it would significantly expand longstanding programs like Medicare and Medicaid, both of which mark their 56th anniversaries Friday. Increasing Medicaid’s support for home- and community-based care would enable people with disabilities to live more independently and provide better pay and benefits to caregivers, who are disproportionately women of color.

The Build Back Better agenda would also support children with disabilities. It would offer free, high-quality, accessible, and inclusive preschool to all 3-and 4-year-olds, and would help train and certify more special education teachers.

President Biden is likewise determined to harness bipartisan momentum to phase out the injustice of the subminimum wage, as 10 states from Alaska to New Hampshire have already begun to do, while investing in “competitive integrated employment” that treats employees with disabilities much like any other worker.

These policies are not luxuries. They’re essential investments in America’s competitiveness and its future. According to an Accenture study, if only 1% more people with disabilities entered the workforce, we could grow US GDP by $25 billion. Striving for greater equity reflects what’s best in us as Americans. It’s also the smart thing to do.

Three decades after the ADA, the time has come to deliver fully on its promise. If Tyree can teach herself to pick up a pencil and draw again, the rest of us can come together to write the next chapter in the story of a more inclusive, accessible, and equitable America.