TRAINING FOR THE FUTURE GRADUATION CEREMONY
NOVEMBER 12, 1997
There was a time in this country when people hid the fact that they or a relative had cancer or AIDS. That time has passed.
But millions of Americans and their families still feel they must hide the fact that they have a treatable illness. They are afraid they will lose their jobs, their housing or their health insurance if anyone finds out they have a mental illness such as depression, manic-depression or schizophrenia.
I believe that, throughout my lifetime, there have been four major social revolutions -- all still evolving today, and all profoundly important in our collective lives. The first was the civil rights movement, the second was the women's movement, the third was the empowerment of the elderly, and the fourth, which we are all involved with today, is the rights of those who are physically and mentally disabled. That includes the right to work, the right to access, and the right to benefits.
Since 1993, when Boston University's Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation introduced the "Training for the Future" program, people with psychiatric disabilities have realized their right to work and gain meaningful, competitive employment. This is the first program of its kind, and one which is based on public/private partnerships which provide job training and internship opportunities for students.
Its success is based on its underlying philosophy -- that people with mental illness, many of whom have significant educational accomplishments and underutilized abilities, can fulfill their potential and lead independent lives.
My involvement with the issue of mental health began at an early age. My mother suffered from clinical depression. To help myself better understand this disease, I came to Boston University and majored in psychology. I continued my education at the George Peabody College at Vanderbilt University and received a Master's degree in psychology with the thought that I might one day practice.
As you know, my life took a different turn. I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to speak out on a larger scale. It has been an honor and privilege to serve as President Clinton's Mental Health Policy Advisor. He is a leader who truly believes that every American is a person of dignity and worth who deserves the opportunity to make the most of their God-given potential. In 1992, President Clinton issued a challenge to the nation saying that America could not rest until it had a national disability policy based on three simple but powerful principles: inclusion, independence and empowerment.
This past summer, the President signed into law a budget which included a very important component, known as the Children's Health Initiative, which represents the largest investment in children's health care since the passage of Medicaid in 1965. And, I am happy to say, it includes mental health benefits as a part of the benefits package offered by states. I consider the inclusion of mental health coverage a great victory for our families and for our nation as a whole.
For the first time in our nation's history, access to treatment for mental illness will be available to many of the children who need it.
We have also taken the first steps in achieving parity for mental health coverage in health insurance plans. The Mental Health Parity bill, passed in 1996, goes into effect this coming January and will require parity in lifetime coverage limits for mental health benefits. The Administration is currently discussing several issues surrounding this bill and are working to ensure full and effective implementation. While full parity has not yet been achieved, this is an important first step.
But, of course, this too is only a beginning. We must also continue to lift the stigma associated with mental illness. We must continue to help develop the resources and support structures to help those with psychiatric and physical disabilities succeed in the workplace. And, we must work to replicate the "Training for the Future" program in schools, universities and communities across our nation, so that young people and adults with disabilities are given the opportunity and the wherewithal to work and live, to contribute positively to their families, to their community, and to this nation.
As you know all too well, people with disabilities and mental illness face barriers in communication, transportation, architecture and attitude that often exclude them from what most people take for granted -- adequate housing, a decent job, and the opportunity to participate fully and equally in the life of our great country. Thanks to this program, we are finally beginning to break down these barriers.
Today, we are not only facing a new century, but a new economy as well. An economy that values knowledge and skills above all else. An economy that holds out the promise of a better life for all Americans -- including Americans with disabilities -- but only if we prepare for it through education. I cannot stress enough that a world-class education is the single best investment we can make in our children and in our future. The disability rights community won passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975. Before its passage, one million children with disabilities were shut out of schools and hundreds of thousands more were denied appropriate care and services. Since its passage, 90% fewer developmentally disabled children are living in institutions, hundreds of thousands of children attend school in mainstream classrooms, and three times as many young people with disabilities are enrolled in colleges and universities.
I am proud to say that under this Administration, we have created over 13 million new jobs and real wages are rising. However, I also know that almost two-thirds of people with disabilities are unemployed. We are working to change this. Earlier this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published policy guidance on psychiatric disability that goes a long way to educate employers about how people with mental illness can be effectively accommodated in the workplace. The guidance does not say that employees who have mental illness are entitled to special treatment. It says that employers have to find creative ways to enable employees with mental illness to continue to work. Not surprisingly, it has caused some controversy and backlash in certain circles. But we remain determined because we know that every time a person with mental illness or any disability is able to obtain and keep a job, we are making progress.
And each of our graduates today represents one more step forward in that progress. I applaud each and every one of you here today for your achievement. I know how hard you've worked. I know how daunting the task can seem. Your success will pave the way for future students and future generations to have the opportunity to succeed as well.
I wish you all the success in the world in whatever you do. You are leading this nation toward a 21st century that needs and values your contributions -- we thank you and are so proud of your achievements.