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Disability Action Center NW

A Justice Department disability rights pioneer

The Partnership for Public Service

Monday, January 24, 2011; 11:53 AM

John Wodatch may be anonymous to most Americans, but the Department of Justice attorney has been a pivotal behind-the-scenes player during the past four decades in breaking down discriminatory barriers for tens of millions of people with disabilities.

Now chief of the department’s disability rights section, Wodatch wrote the first federal disability rights regulations in the 1970s, played an important part in drafting the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its implementing rules, and since then has been devoted to enforcing the landmark law.

“Every piece of federal disability rights law that exists today is there because of John Wodatch,” said Sam Bagenstos, the principal deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“He is a real hero of the disability rights movement, and a hero of government service,” said Bagenstos. “He is a demonstration of what a committed person can do in government.”

After passage of the ADA, Wodatch established the Justice Department section responsible for enforcing the law and has shaped the department’s approach for two decades.

Through litigation and settlements, Wodatch’s efforts have resulted in the removal of discriminatory barriers in a wide variety of settings, including employment, housing, public transportation, hotels, restaurants, theaters, health care facilities, retail stories, sports arenas, day care centers, nursing homes and hospitals.

Wodatch said he has sought to use persuasion and reason combined with the power of the legal system “to make the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act a reality” and “to spur the social change necessary to open up every day American life for people with disabilities.”

He said the success in enforcing the ADA and the “steady progress that we make each day for persons with disabilities in this country, whether achieving results for one person or systemic change,” has been “the source of personal satisfaction of a career in public service.”

“I really love my job,” he said.

Wodatch began his career at the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1969, where he worked on a number of racial discrimination cases. These included employment discrimination cases and lawsuits in Alabama and Mississippi where hospitals were segregating the blood supply by the race of the donor.

He also was involved in writing the rules to carry out Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a law that barred discrimination on the basis of sex under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. This law broke down the barriers to the full participation of women in high school and collegiate athletics.

Wodatch’s involvement in disability rights came after Congress approved the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies, in programs receiving federal financial assistance and in federal employment. He wrote the rules to implement this law, was involved in its enforcement and over time became one of the government’s primary experts.

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