Braille Monitor               August/September 2023

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Distinguished Accessibility Champion Award

Presented by John G. Paré

John Paré holds up the award.JOHN: Our next award recipient presented to us earlier today. He grew up in California. He went to Loyola Marymount University. He first thought he would be a priest. He went and took his physical, which is needed to become a priest, and when he took it, he found out that he had epilepsy, which means that he failed his medical test and would not be able to become a priest.

He decided then to go into politics. I'm not sure that's the traditional alternative career progression, but that's what he decided to do.

He worked for a congressman in California, Congressman Bernie Sisk, and Tony did very well. He started as a very junior staffer and worked his way up very quickly to senior staffer and then to staff director. He was instrumental in producing some of the rules associated with CSPAN and was doing terrific in Washington. Eventually the congressman decided not to run, so this gentleman ran for his seat, and on January 3rd, 1981, Congressman Tony Coelho was sworn into Congress.

He continued to do very well. He quickly became the chair of the DCCC, which is a position of great honor, and worked his way up to the majority whip, the number three Democrat in the House of Representatives. He then started to realize, partly from way back with the discrimination he encountered with epilepsy, that a real civil rights bill for the blind and in fact a civil rights bill for all people with disabilities was needed, and he actually introduced the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1988.

The representative decided to leave Congress in 1989, the next year, but not until he found another champion for people with disabilities in Steny Hoyer from Maryland. He recruited Steny to take over the bill. Really they worked as a team. In fact, I talked to Steny Hoyer, and he's always attributed all of the ADA to Tony Coelho. The bill did pass in 1990, as many of you probably know, and was signed into law on July 26, 1990.

In 1994 it was said that 800,000 people with disabilities—new people—were employed because of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Congressman Coelho kept working, and when the courts started to chip away at the ADA, he sprung back into action and helped instrument the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act, which was signed into law on September 25th, 2008.

But he still kept going. When we started working on the website bill, Tony reached out to us and said, as you heard earlier today, that the lack of access to the websites and applications he considered to be just as egregious and just as important as the original ADA work that he had done twenty years earlier. He joined us, and joined us in a big way. He has influence, power, knowledge, and has done this really twice before with the original ADA and the ADA Amendments Act. He started attending our weekly phone calls, calling members of Congress, educating them, calling other disability groups to join our effort. And he has done this not just with this bill, but also with the website regulations work at the Department of Justice. He contacted the assistant attorney general. He's contacted people at the White House. He has put all he's got into working to improve website accessibility for all people with disabilities, especially blind people.

I do want to mention one other thing. He realizes how important the bipartisan nature of this is. So he contacted former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, as I mentioned earlier today, and they published an article. I want to repeat a key quote from that article. I think it shows you how much he and Newt Gingrich believe in what we're doing. This is a quote: "It's about time that companies realize that digital accessibility is a key brand imperative and took ownership for the role that websites and software play in the employee customer experience. People with disabilities should have universal access to technology, even as innovations occur."

It's because of that that we are now presenting Tony the Distinguished Accessibility Champion Award. It says—and I'll hold up the plaque in a minute—

DISTINGUISHED ACCESSIBILITY CHAMPION
PRESENTED TO

The Honorable Tony Coelho

FOR YOUR SKILL, PERSEVERANCE, AND DRIVE TO ENSURE THE PASSAGE OF THE AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT;
AND FOR YOUR TENACITY, WISDOM, AND PASSION TO MAKE THE WORLD MORE ACCESSIBLE FOR ALL PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES;
AND FOR YOUR COMMITMENT, EXPERIENCE, AND LEADERSHIP IN ENSURING THE ACCESS OF WEBSITES AND APPLICATIONS TO THE BLIND.

July 6, 2023

I'm going to hold up the award. Tony, we know you're on Zoom. [Cheers and applause]

Tony Coelho on the big screen via Zoom.

TONY: Thank you, John. Thank you very much for your comments. I'm really sorry I can't be with all of you tonight. I had planned to, but my health concerns decided it was not appropriate, so I'm not there. But I want you to know that I feel very strongly about access to the Internet for the blind and other disabilities. As I indicated earlier today, I think it's a moral issue. I think it's critically important that we make sure that every American has the right to access the Internet. So I've been working hard to try to make that happen, along with John and other members of the blind community. I've been working with the chief of staff at the White House and other members to try to make that happen. I think we're making great progress, and I appreciate all the work that the Federation and others have done to make this possible.

My passion and my ministry is to make a difference in the lives of those of us with disabilities, and in this case in particular, those of you who are blind.

I love you all for your work, your enthusiasm, and Mark, I want you to know that I totally agree that those of us with disabilities have the right and have the ability to run organizations. I made sure that that was the case with the Epilepsy Foundation. It only took thirty years for that whole effort that I started back then to get it to a situation today where the chair of our facility is a person with epilepsy. There's always been an attempt by others who feel they know better about our disability than we do, and that is wrong. And I agree totally with you Mark on making that happen.

Again, I want to say thank you. It means a lot to me that you honor me with this award. I hope to see all of you at one of your conventions at a later date. Thank you very, very much.

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