Thirty years ago, President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. In the speech announcing the enactment, President Bush noted that “We will not accept…discrimination in America” and his desire to “take a sledgehammer to another wall,” effectively equating this legislation to the end of Communism as a marker for freedom.
Surrounded by disabled Americans who had worked on the legislation, President Bush empathized: “prejudices,” he noted, “separated Americans from a freedom they could glimpse but could not grasp.” He closed by exhorting businesses to help make this a success by complying with the law and its requirements, and encouraged all Americans to help ensure that the “shameful wall of exclusion” will “come tumbling down.”
That was 30 years, but near the anniversary of the signing (which was on July 26, 1990), the Bush School at TAMU brought in PBS News Hour journalist Judy Woodruff to moderate a great panel–all of whom had something to do with the Act’s passage.
Indeed, the Bush School thought this so momentous an occasion that they invited President Obama to introduce the event…
…because the first section addressed a new documentary–produced by the Obamas–called “Crip Camp,” about one of the few places in the 1960s-1970s that allowed the disabled freedom to be who they were and participate in what most Americans consider everyday things.
The co-directors, Jim Lebrecht (who attended the camp) and Nicole Newnham…
Woodruff then brought in one of the Senate heroes of the bill: Senator Bob Dole, who had just celebrated his 97th birthday.
Dole is now in a wheelchair, but his disabilities stem back some 80 years, when he was in World War II. He was shot by a machine gun, which hit his shoulder and right arm. Soldiers who found him expected him to die, but they administered morphine and, using Dole’s blood as ink, wrote “M” on his forehead, so that in the event he was found by medics, they would not administer a second (and potentially fatal) dose of the medicine.
Dole survived, but barely. He was in a body cast for 9 months, paralyzed from the waist down. When he got out of his cast, the 6′ 3″ former athlete weighed 110 pounds. He would recover movement in his lower body, but the right side of his body would be partially immobilized for the rest of his life.
Dole said a few words, and then turned over the discussion to Carolyn Osolinik (former Chief Counsel for Senator Ted Kennedy) and Audrey Coleman (archivist at Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics) who discussed the strategies of getting the bill through the US Senate. Osolonik called the bill a “sea change,” and emphasized that the bill was about “empowerment.” It was not a bill to give away things; it was a bill to remove barriers so they could achieve what they were capable of. Senator Kennedy called it the “emancipation proclamation for people with disabilities.”
Kennedy’s Counsel: “sea change” “empowerment.” Kennedy called it “emancipation proclamation for people with disabilities”
Serving his first time in the US Senate during this time was Tom Harkin, the Chair of the Senate Policy Committee, who ultimately introduced the bill on the Senate floor. For part of the introduction, he introduced the bill in sign language so that his brother, who is deaf, could follow along. Harkin joined the panel to discuss his recollections…
…noting that the bill had four main goals:
- Full participation of disabled in US society;
- Equal opportunity;
- Independent living;
- Economic self sufficiency.
Harkin noted that the bill was ambitious: “we wanted these things to be the norm, the baseline, not an aspiration.” To this end, he noted, “President Bush never wavered. He stood behind the bill from the very beginning.”
Tony Coehlo, who helped engineer the bill’s passage in the House, was also on hand.
The bill encountered much more resistance in the House, where it was actually assigned to five different committees (typically a delaying tactic by leadership). The bill did not lack support from rank-and-file members–it would eventually pass with 252 sponsors, but in the legislature, leadership is crucial, and without that support, passage was delayed.
One way to break through legislative logjams is through White House support, so Woodruff invited C. Boyden Gray (White House Consel), Lex Frieden (a disabled activist), and John Sonunu (White House Chief of Staff) to the show to discuss these efforts.
Frieden, interestingly, was scheduled to meet with President Ronald Reagan in 1986, to provide a recommendation of a bill such as ADA. That day, however, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on liftoff, and the meeting was “rerouted” to the Vice President. While this was no doubt disappointing to Frieden and the other activists on hand, it turned out to be fortuitous. Vice-President Bush discussed his sympathies with the bill’s sentiment, and he said he thought the bill could become the “voice for 36 million Americans.” When he became President two years later, the passage of the bill became a potential reality. And a year and a half after he became President, the bill was signed into law.
This bill was different than other civil rights legislation in that it imposed proactive requirements on businesses, governments, and non-profits. It was seeking simply to remove impediments; it was requiring bearing actual costs: building ramps, adding elevators, reconfiguring buildings. In some cases these costs were enormously expensive, and it took much political will to convince people that it was the correct thing to do.
Of course, the bill’s passage has not ended the barriers that the disabled face. To discuss these challenges, Woodruff invited former Governor Tom Ridge (he also served as Director of Homeland Security) to discuss his role as Chair of the National Organization on Disability.
He was joined by Carol Glazer (President, National Organization on Disability), who argued that the most progress has been made in physical accessibility, symbolic areas (as more people with disabilities achieve positions of prominence), but, as expected, fighting people’s prejudices is the most difficult aspect of achieving progress. The work ahead, she noted, will deal with fighting the “stigma” of disabilities, the “locked-in stereotypes,” and the “tyranny of low expectations.”
With Glazer and Ridge were William “Tipper” Thomas, an engineer, and actor Danny Woodburn. Thomas was “4 or 5” when this passed, but in his senior year in high school, he was the innocent victim of a shooting, one which ended his football career and relegated him to a wheelchair. He is now the principal engineer for Northrop Gruman Corporation.
Danny Woodburn is a little person and an actor (IMDB here), with, as he describes it, “strikingly good looks.” When he was born, his doctor told his parents: “You’re son is a midget, like what you see in a circus.” Woodburn noted much progress, but also said that there is little engagement with the disabled in civil rights conversations, noting that he’s often told, “We’re going to focus on cultural or racial diversity.”
Jack Chen (Product Counsel for Google) and Moeena Das (Chie of Staff, National Organization on Disability) also discussed their experiences navigating the still-difficult post-ADA waters.
Chen, for example, noted that while he works in the field of technology, which can make things better for people, it can also exacerbate inequalities, something most people don’t consider.
To conclude the program, Judy Woodruff invited former President George W. Bush on. This, too, was fitting, because in the early 2000s, the Supreme Court ruled against some of the requirements of the ADA, and the way to help the law fulfill its original objectives was to amend the legislation in a manner that met Court scrutiny. President Bush signed those amendments into law, with his dad (far left) looking on…
George W. Bush said that he believed the bill was what his father was most proud of accomplishing, and described his father as a “man of enormous compassion, who cared about all people, and the ADA reflected that spirit.”
By the end of his life, President George H. W. Bush was also disabled. Parkinsons disease had attacked his body, and he began using a walker and then a wheelchair. But that didn’t stop him from parachuting out of a helicopter at the age of 90!
Also of note, Director of the Bush Foundation, Andy Card…
…came on to note that, with the help of Lex Frieden (which he called the “conscious” of the ADA), they would be issuing a new Bush Medal to “those making a difference to the disability community.”
In the midst of coronavirus and civil unrest, which in many ways have hit the disabled community the hardest, this program on the ADA and the progress made was a welcome reflection.
Many thanks to the Bush School at TAMU for the opportunity to experience these programs. You can see this event in its entirety here.