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Secretary Ray LaHood Remarks as Prepared Air Travelers Disability Forum Holiday Inn Capitol

Washington, DC

Good afternoon.  Welcome to Washington.  Thank you, Sam and Lisa, for organizing this forum – and for inviting me to attend.  I’m pleased to see such a wide spectrum of participants – from government, industry, and the traveling public we serve.  And I’m thrilled to join all of you for this important conversation about how we can work together to make air travel more accessible for more people.

As you know, 2010 marked the Americans with Disabilities Act’s 20th year on the books.  The 25th anniversary of the Air Carrier Access Act’s passage is just around the corner.  In little more than two decades, these groundbreaking legislative achievements have struck a powerful blow for equality.

It wasn’t that long ago when our family members, friends, and neighbors with disabilities couldn’t get off the curb, let alone on a bus or an airplane.  It wasn’t that long ago when employees could lose their jobs if injury or illness left them disabled.  It wasn’t that long ago when hotel and restaurant owners could still deny service to people using wheelchairs.  Not anymore.

Today, you see ramps cut from sidewalks.  You see elevator keys labeled in Braille.  You see schoolhouse and workplace doors that open with the press of a button.

And while the ACAA and ADA were imagined as bids for justice, their implementation has benefited everyone.  When an airport installs a sidewalk ramp, for instance, it doesn’t just serve people using wheelchairs.  It serves mom and dad with strollers.  It serves travelers with suitcases.  When an airline installs communication and entertainment systems, it upgrades everyone’s flying experience.

So, without question, the AACA and ADA rank among the most significant civil rights triumphs in our nation’s history.  But that does not mean that this is the time to rest on our laurels – as you no doubt gathered during your discussions of passenger needs and industry challenges.

Facts are facts.  We need to make it easier for people with disabilities to get on and off planes.  We need to make certain that more durable medical equipment makes it from departure to arrival in one piece.  We need to improve signage and communication both in our airports and on our aircraft.  We need to reconcile international laws with domestic regulations so that travelers enjoy truly universal access.  And we need to remember the simple reality that customers are only as satisfied as they were with the worst part of their trip.  Since the majority of travel is getting to, through, and home from the airport, we need to think about all the different elements of the airport environment – and how we can guarantee that travelers’ dignity and safety are respected and protected.

Now, I have every confidence we can address each of these issues – and you’re the reason why.  Some of you have waged the fight for equality on America’s streets, in its courtrooms, and in its halls of government.  Others have been leaders and partners in generating meaningful change in the aviation industry and its practices.  But in joining forces, you’ve made an enormous difference.  You bring extraordinary skills and strengths to bear in solving today’s challenges.

In July, when President Obama commemorated the ADA’s 20th anniversary, he told the story of Stephen Hopkins to guests assembled on the White House’s South Lawn.  Hopkins was one of the lesser-known patriots to sit in the Continental Congress in 1776.  He was the chief justice and the governor of colonial Rhode Island.  He was the first chancellor of what became Brown University.  He also had a form of palsy so severe that his signature was called the Declaration of Independence’s worst.  “My hand trembles,” he said upon signing the document.  “But my heart does not.”

Our purpose in convening today reaches back to that seminal American charter.  Our purpose is to ensure that all people – regardless of their abilities – are afforded the fundamental rights that charter enshrined: independence, security, and opportunity.

After all, that’s what transportation is about.  It’s more than a way to get from one place to another.  It’s the means by which we lead our lives and pursue our dreams.

For a quarter-century, you’ve helped make the pursuit possible for countless Americans.   But we must keep moving forward.  And I know that’s exactly what we’ll do together.  Thank you very much.

Thursday, January 20, 2011