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Shared Struggles, Shared Successes: Working at the Intersection of LGBTI and Disability Rights

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Editor’s Note: The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division posted this update in the lead-up to the 24th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26. While that anniversary has passed, we thought it was still important to share this information about how the Division has continued to enforce the ADA and civil rights laws that protect the rights of LGBTI Americans and people living with HIV.

This post is courtesy of the Civil Rights Division

During LGBTI Pride Month, advocates, scholars, authors and artists joined officials from across the government at the White House Forum on LGBTI & Disability Issues. This first-of-its-kind event focused on intersections between the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) and disability communities, and was attended by representatives from across the federal government. As the 24thanniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) approaches on July 26, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division reflects on the civil rights challenges faced by both communities.

As the arm of the Justice Department tasked with enforcing both the ADA and civil rights laws that protect LGBTI individuals, the Civil Rights Division was proud to participate in this important forum. Megan Schuller, an attorney in the Disability Rights Section and member of the division’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Working Group, emphasized the similar challenges faced by LGBTI individuals and by people with disabilities, the unique challenges faced by LGBTI people with disabilities and the fact that both groups are stronger when they work together.

Many of the civil rights challenges faced by LGBTI people also confront people with disabilities. Both groups are discriminated against in education, employment and housing. Both groups face stigma from public service providers. And both groups remain targets of harassment and hate crimes. The division strives to address these critical issues.

The ADA demands equal opportunity for people with disabilities in public accommodations, employment and state and local services, and stands as a natural intersection of the civil rights struggles of both groups. Alliances between the disability community and other civil rights movements were critical to passage of the ADA, and provided a united front against challenges to the act, such as efforts to exclude people with AIDS, which were defeated due to the united front of the disability and LGBTI movements.

As a result, the ADA protects Americans with HIV or AIDS, which disproportionately affect LGBTI people. Combating stigma and discrimination based on HIV status is crucial to ending this epidemic. The division’s HIV/AIDS enforcement under the ADA since the National HIV/AIDS Strategy was announced in July 2010 has been robust. Much of that work has involved allegations that individuals were denied care or were treated differently in health care because they have HIV. In 2013, the division also successfully challenged the South Carolina Department of Corrections’ policy of segregating and discriminating against inmates with HIV, and in March 2014, reached a settlement agreement with Gwinnett College resolving allegations that the school did not allow a student with HIV to fully participate in its programs and classes.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, which may include discrimination based on a person’s nonconformity with stereotypes associated with that person’s real or perceived gender, as well as on the basis of disability. Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 also protect students from discrimination on the basis of sex, while the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act prohibit discrimination against students with disabilities.

The division’s settlements with the Arcadia School District in California and the Anoka-Henepin School District in Minnesota also show that sex-based harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated and the division will use the laws and tools it has to fight the next generation of civil rights challenges.

The division also vigorously prosecutes hate crimes, including crimes against LGBTI persons and individuals with disabilities. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 criminalizes violence committed because of actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability, if linked to interstate commerce. Since the act’s passage, the division has made indictments in 27 hate crimes cases, including six separate cases in which 10 defendants committed offenses because of sexual orientation. In 2013, the department charged five people with a hate crime for abuse of victims with mental disabilities; the first case in the nation to challenge a hate crime against people with disabilities.

Though much progress has been made in these areas, substantial work remains. To illustrate, while the ADA protects individuals from disability-based discrimination in employment, the civil rights laws do not yet fully protect individuals from discrimination in employment on the basis of their LGBTI status. The same is true of education, housing and other areas where there are not explicit prohibitions of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Even so, the division is committed to using every tool available to fight for the rights of LGBTI individuals and persons with disabilities. As the White House Forum reminded its participants, those battles are essential to achieving a more equal America for all.

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