Unsung Accomplishments of the Obama Administration: Eric Holder, the DoJ, and Disability Rights

Under Attorney General Eric Holder, the US Department of Justice has really stood out in a lot of ways over the last four years; notably in the area of voting rights and the protection of communities of colour. These accomplishments aren’t really heralded as they should be, and one area where progressives have been especially silent is on the victories for disabled people achieved by the DoJ under Holder’s supervision. Holder acted much more decisively than previous attorneys general to not only enforce existing laws and court rulings pertaining to disabled people, but also to promote the general health and welfare of disabled people living and working in the US.

It’s worth taking a closer look at Holder’s accomplishments in the last four years, drawing attention to the fact that while the Obama administration had some serious flaws, some good things also happened under his watch, and those often get overridden by discussions about Obama’s larger problems. Holder’s DoJ wasn’t perfect either, of course; far from it, in fact, but in the area of civil rights enforcement in the US, it took some major strides in the right direction, and those should be noted and celebrated rather than swept under the carpet because they don’t fit the narrative of a unilaterally bad Presidential administration.

When Holder took office, he pledged to beef up the civil rights enforcement division of the DoJ, which had become a woeful shadow of its former self under the Bush Administration. He took that commitment seriously, and one aspect of that was a renewed interest in disability rights, building on the victories of the 1980s and 1990s to bring about a new era for disabled people. Holder was also aware that the social and medical landscape was shifting quickly, which meant it was time for civil rights for disabled people to catch up with the rest of the country.

One area in which Holder’s DoJ has been instrumental is in pushes for accessible technology, something that wasn’t adequately covered before. In part, this was the result of rapidly evolving technologies that forced the issue, creating both new accessibility pitfalls and new potential for increased accessibility. The DoJ became much more aggressive with manufacturers when it came to ensuring accessibility for all users, and that didn’t just lead to improvements for disabled users, but for everyone; how many people take advantage of the reading function on their Kindles, for example? How many people appreciate the DoJ’s push for captioning even though they’re not d/Deaf or hard of hearing?

General accessibility was also a huge concern for the DoJ, which went after a number of major firms to improve accessibility in housing, businesses, and public spaces. In a country where disabled people are kept out of many spaces with ‘just one step’ and other barriers, this was a huge measure; especially since the ADA had passed 20 years ago, and it was high past time for these accessibility issues to be addressed. Holder refused to back down even in the face of big corporations like Wells Fargo, sticking to his goal of making sure disabled people in the US had full access to society, not a limited level of participation determined by the whims of those in control.

For those with service animals, the DoJ expanded access and went after discriminatory businesses aggressively, protecting the right to bring a service animal with you into a venue. That on the ground enforcement expanded access for people relying on service dogs to navigate the world, help them manage their impairments, and interact with people and the environment. Service animals are also a high profile and obvious disability rights issue that tend to draw sympathy across political boundaries, making them a great mobilising cause for expanding awareness of disability rights and getting people more interested across the board; it was a savvy decision to start cracking down on service animal discrimination and to be so public about it.

And, of course, Holder’s DoJ vigorously enforced the Olmstead decision, which mandates that disabled people receiving government assistance must be able to live in their communities. As long as it’s possible to reasonably accommodate a community placement, whether into a group home, a supervised care setting, or an independent residence, disabled people cannot be kept immured in institutions, yet many were and continue to be. Holder’s DoJ enforced Olmstead in a number of states, protecting the right of disabled people to live in their communities and maintain contact with the people they love. That’s a huge victory for disability rights and society in general, and it’s something even many disabled people were apparently not aware of.

Controversy erupted last year over Holder’s hiring practices when he had the audacity to promote hiring disabled employees at the DoJ in the interest of putting his money where his mouth was. The usual hateful, fearmongering headlines sprouted up quickly, but sadly, the DoJ didn’t get very much support from progressive communities for working to address the mandate to improve employment statistics for people with disabilities within the federal government. Many people seemed to shy away from the issue as though they were afraid it might bite them, instead of celebrating the fact that Holder wisely brought on disabled people into the civil rights department as well as other areas of the DoJ. After all, the best advocates for disability rights are disabled people, and we should have a direct stake in the agency that’s fighting to protect them.

This barely scratches the surface of the strides made for disabled people under Holder, and the stage set for more civil rights developments in the future. When committed people set out to do something important, they can accomplish a lot, even if a lot of it takes place behind the scenes and they rarely receive open credit for it. I for one am thankful for the civil rights progress made in the last four years under Holder, and I’m not afraid to admit it.