How Jeff Sessions Could Threaten The Disability Rights Movement

Trump’s nominee for Attorney General has a troubling track record on disability rights.

O n July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law, declaring, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down!” Notably, this was not the first or last time a federal disability rights law was enacted by a Republican president. In fact, disability rights have normally enjoyed bipartisan support.

But of course, these are not normal times — and the many successes we have made in disability rights are at risk of being undone.

This week, Senate hearings will begin to confirm Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees. The hearings for Senator Jeff Sessions, who has been nominated to be the next Attorney General, will begin tomorrow, and Republicans have pushed for a rushed two-day hearing.

Notably, this is not the first time Sessions has been chosen for a federal position. In 1986, Sessions was nominated for a federal judgeship. Ultimately, however, the Senate rejected Sessions’ nomination, in part because of his prosecution of black voting rights activists on voter fraud charges when he was a U.S. attorney in Alabama.

Disability rights have normally enjoyed bipartisan support. But of course, these are not normal times.

The fact that Sessions has been tapped to lead the Department of Justice (DOJ), the federal agency responsible for enforcing civil and voting rights, is both ironic and frightening. Indeed, Sessions has a disgraceful 30-year record of strongly opposing civil rights. Nearly 150 civil rights and progressive organizations have spoken out in opposition to his nomination, including groups that work to protect the rights of the disability community.

One such organization is the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, which stated:

“Sessions has devoted his career in public service to upholding inequality. This is incompatible with the responsibilities of the Attorney General.”

The most immediate threat to the disability community is challenges to the ADA, a landmark act that has opened countless doors, both literally and figuratively, for people with disabilities. Because of the ADA, employers can no longer discriminate against people with disabilities, and public entities must be fully accessible.

Because people are not always compliant with the ADA, enforcement by the DOJ is vital. And on this front, significant advances have been made during Obama’s tenure. In fact, the Department’s civil rights division has made investigating ADA violations and increasing enforcement a top priority.

For example, DOJ has vigorously enforced the Supreme Court’s Olmstead v. L.C. decision, which found that the unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities violates the ADA. Today, more people with disabilities are living in their communities because of DOJ.

Likewise, because of DOJ, sheltered workshops — entities that are legally allowed to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage — are on the decline.

Moreover, the DOJ, together with the Department of Education, has made efforts to advance the rights of students with disabilities, such as reforms to school discipline.

Sessions, though, appears to have a less-than-positive view of the ADA.

For instance, in 2001, Sessions defended a Supreme Court decision to prevent people with disabilities from being able to sue states over ADA violations. His defense ran counter to other Republicans who expressed concerns about the Court’s ruling and its narrowing of the ADA.

As a woman with a disability who relies on protections afforded under the ADA, this is deeply troubling. How can someone with such apathy for this important law be expected to vigorously enforce it?

How can someone with such apathy for the ADA be expected to vigorously enforce it?

Sessions’ negative view of the ADA is just one of many examples that reveal his disdain for disability rights.

Disturbingly, Sessions has argued against a Supreme Court ruling which stated that the Constitution protects people with intellectual or developmental disabilities from being executed.

Further, Sessions has repeatedly criticized the IDEA, a federal law guaranteeing a free and appropriate public education for students with disabilities. Sessions has instead supported the segregation of students with disabilities, remarking that the inclusion of students with disabilities is “the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today.”

Meanwhile, many facets of life continue to be inaccessible to people with disabilities — including in the realm of voting rights. In 2013, voting rights took a major blow with the Supreme Court’s Shelby County vs. Holder decision, which repealed key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The decision impacted the rights of various marginalized groups, including those with disabilities; Sessions applauded it. It’s also hard to imagine the DOJ, under Sessions, continuing its essential fight against voting barriers that the disability community continues to encounter.

My concerns as a disabled woman do not end with Sessions’ disregard for disability civil rights laws, though. The disability community is diverse; it transcends race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, and socioeconomic class. Many in the disability community are multiply marginalized and, as such, encounter discrimination in more than one form.

Sessions’ deplorable record of opposing all civil rights should worry people with disabilities.

Sessions’ deplorable record of opposing all civil rights should worry people with disabilities.

As a woman with a disability, I am very aware that women and girls with disabilities are much more likely to be victims of violence. In fact, women with disabilities have a 40% greater chance of intimate partner violence than nondisabled women. As such, it is unconscionable that as Senator, Sessions voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act.

Relatedly, Sessions opposed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added sexual orientation, gender identity, and disabilities as protected classes under existing federal hate crimes law. Given last week’s egregious attack on a disabled man in Chicago, the need for hate crime protections is unquestionable.

Lastly, Sessions is a staunch opponent of LGBT rights. As Senator, he voted yes on a constitutional ban of same-sex marriage, and opposed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

DOJ’s mission is to safeguard the civil rights of all Americans, including people with disabilities and other marginalized communities. As a disabled woman, I have greatly benefited from the agency’s strong and steady work on my community’s behalf. I have also benefited from decades of bipartisan commitment to the rights of people with disabilities.

What will come in the years ahead remains uncertain and deeply worrisome.

What I do know is that we should never have someone with a long record of racism, ableism, bigotry, homophobia, and overall disdain for civil rights as our next Attorney General.

The next four years will be challenging and could have devastating consequences. As such, it is imperative that we unite against all forms of oppression. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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