A Fitting Way to Honor the ADA
By Lisa Yarkony, PhD
Twenty-four years ago, 3,000 people gathered on the White House lawn to witness a historic act. The sea of faces focused on President George H.W. Bush as he made the world’s first declaration of equality for the disabled. “Three weeks ago,” he said, “we celebrated our nation’s Independence Day. Today, we’re here to rejoice in and celebrate another ‘independence day,’ one that is long overdue. With today’s signing of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright, new era of equality, independence, and freedom.”
The new civil rights act, Bush went on to explain, was the work of a committed coalition. It included Democrats and Republicans, public officials and private citizens, members of the executive and legislative branches, both the able bodied and the disabled. What linked them was a dream and determination to make it come true. They also shared personal experience of disability and the recognition that the disabled deserved access to the mainstream of American life. There were too many people for Bush to thank them all as he signed the act into law but he did single out Senate minority leader, Kansas Republican, and disabled World War II veteran Bob Dole. “On a very personal basis,” Bush said, “Bob Dole has inspired me.”
Dole was among the founding fathers of the ADA who tore down walls of exclusion for the disabled. These champions of the disabled also included Senators Tom Harkin, Orrin Hatch, and Edward Kennedy; House Majority Whip, Tony Coelho; and Justin Dart, who chaired the Congressional Task Force on the Rights and Empowerment of Americans with Disabilities. Their work fulfilled the promise of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for a new group of people and showed what leaders can do when they work in a bipartisan way. The ADA’s progress in Congress depended largely on these key figures and their faith in the goals of the ADA.
They needed to keep the faith as they faced protests from the many public and private organizations that would have to make costly accommodations for the disabled under the act. “It was a very contentious debate on the ADA,” Dole said, since many lawmakers feared losing votes from businesses in their states. “But finally a majority of senators changed their minds,” and what made the difference was “all of us persuasive supporters,” he reminisced. “I had a lot of personal contact with them and the White House was involved, too. We had a lot of help. A lot of them were on the fence and weren’t for the ADA. They had heard from people back home about elevators and other problems for people who didn’t have access. That’s a principal part of the bill because if I’m in a wheelchair and can’t get into a restaurant, that’s a problem. We were contacting these undecided people personally.” And no one reached out to more people than Justin Dart, whose public forums helped put the ADA on the legislative map.
The son of a prominent family, Dart contracted polio at age 18 and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. This didn’t stop him from building several successful companies in Mexico and Japan, where he provided work for women and the disabled. The turning point in Dart’s life came in 1966 when he went to war-torn Vietnam to investigate the status of rehabilitation. During a visit to a “rehabilitation center” for kids with polio, he was shocked at the sight of disabled children left on concrete floors to starve. One young girl took his hand and looked into his eyes in a way he couldn’t forget. “That scene,” he would recall, “is burned forever in my soul. For the first time in my life, I understood the reality of evil and that I was part of that reality.”
This insight led Dart to devote himself to the cause of civil and human rights. After returning to the U.S., he engaged in tireless grassroots activity on behalf of the disabled. He spoke for millions as he issued an adamant battle cry, “We are Americans and we will be part of the American dream.” His voice reached the nation after he became chair of the Congressional Task Force on the Rights of Americans with Disabilities. At his own expense, he collected over 5,000 documents supporting the ADA and held 63 public forums in all 50 states. Over 30,000 people attended the forums where Dart addressed the crowds while sitting in his wheelchair and sporting his trademark cowboy hat. Everywhere he went Dart touted the ADA as “the civil rights act of the future.” He also met with many members of Congress, Vice President Dan Quayle, and President Bush, who introduced him as “the ADA man.”
Like Dart, Bush had personal reasons for advancing disability rights while serving as vice president under Ronald Reagan. He had a daughter who died from leukemia, a quadriplegic uncle, a son with a learning disability, and another son whose cancer required him to wear an ostomy bag. This family history led him to pledge support to any bill that gave persons with disabilities “the same protection in private employment that is now enjoyed by women and minorities.” He expanded on this promise after becoming Republican nominee for president in 1988. At the Convention in August, Bush made an acceptance speech that stressed his commitment to the disabled: “I am going to do whatever it takes to make sure the rights of the disabled are included in the mainstream. For too long they have been left out, but they are not going to be left out anymore.”
This politics of inclusion may have helped him defeat his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, who took a weaker position on disability rights. After Bush won the election, the Louis Harris polling company sent his transition team a memo that attributed much of his victory to the support he received from the disabled. The memo claimed that one to three points of Bush’s seven point margin came from disabled Democrats who decided to vote across party lines after hearing about Bush’s support for disability rights. The polling data suggested that the election came down to four million votes and that “two of those four million votes came from disabled people who changed their minds during the course of the campaign and voted for the vice president.” His campaign pledges to the disabled made good politics and he had the chance to act on them after Senator Tom Harkin sponsored the ADA in 1988.
This was risky move for the first-time senator and Iowa Democrat who was up for reelection in 1990. By sponsoring the ADA, Harkin locked horns with the opposition: employers, transit operators, owners of public accommodations, railroads, telecommunications providers, and state and local governments. In addition, the prospects for expanding civil rights safeguards to include another “class” of people were still uncertain despite support from the new administration. If the bill failed, Harkin’s political career could also fade, as he was strongly warned. Yet he remained resolved to push the legislation through. “I didn’t get elected to get re-elected,” he said. “My brother is deaf. I understand discrimination. I understand what it means and what this country can look like in 30 years.”
He also understood how the walls of exclusion had limited his brother’s life. “If my brother had been able to be mainstreamed in school rather than going to a school for the deaf, he would have had more choices,” Harkin sadly explained. “The school gave three choices to my brother: he could be a baker, a shoe cobbler, or a printer’s apprentice, and that was it. If interpretative services or job training had been in place, he would have had a much different life.” Meanwhile, Harkin’s nephew had an accident that left him a quadriplegic while doing military service. The U.S. military provided him with good care, rehabilitation, a wheelchair, an accessible van, an education, and nurse who came every morning to help him get ready for the day. “He goes to work, and he actually pays taxes,” Harkin said. “What happens in the military ought to happen in the rest of society.”
Making this dream come true depended on maneuvering the bill through Congress, so Harkin’s first step was to form ties with Ted Kennedy, a longtime leader in civil rights. The Massachusetts Democrat was a senior senator who enjoyed the status of a heavy hitter. Yet life had hit Kennedy hard because he had a son who had lost a leg to cancer and a sister with a developmental disability. This tragic family history led him to see the ADA as an end to “the American apartheid,” as he dramatically phrased it. “The act has the potential to become one of the great civil rights laws of our generation. Disabled citizens deserve the opportunity to work for a living, ride a bus, have access to public and commercial buildings, and do all the other things that the rest of us take for granted,” Kennedy maintained. “Mindless physical barriers and outdated social attitudes have made them second-class citizens for too long. This legislation is a bill of rights for the disabled, and America will be a better and fairer nation because of it.”
Given what was at stake, Senators Kennedy and Harkin made a commitment to achieving bipartisanship as they pushed the bill through. Fortunately, Kennedy had a warm friendship with Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican with a long, solid record of supporting the disabled. “We disagreed on nearly every issue,” Hatch said when Kennedy passed away. “But to our mutual surprise, during our service on the Senate Labor, Judiciary, and other committees, we soon realized that we could work well together. If the two of us — positioned as we were on opposite sides of the political spectrum — could find common ground, we had little trouble enlisting bipartisan support to pass critical legislation that benefited millions of Americans,” including the disabled.
Hatch empathized with this neglected group because his brother had lost the use of his legs to polio. Hatch had also spent years convening an active Utah advisory group of service providers and advocates for the disabled. Before the inception of the ADA, he had heard from hundreds of Utah residents about the needs of the disabled and how to meet them. Touched by their concerns, he issued a stirring call to his colleagues in the Senate. “The time has come,” he said, “for the Senate to send a loud, clear message across this country: individuals with disabilities, no less than all other Americans are entitled to equal opportunity to participate in the American dream. It is time for that dream to become a reality.”
That dream had already come true for Bob Dole whose crippled right arm did not stop him holding considerable power in the Senate. Dole had been injured in combat and the new challenges he faced changed his sense of who he was. “It was an exceptional group I joined during World War II, which no one joins by personal choice,” Dole would recall. “It is a group that neither respects nor discriminates by age, sex, wealth, education, skin color, religious beliefs, political party, power, or prestige.” Their differences notwithstanding, the disabled faced the same problems, as Dole came to see while recovering from his wounds. He learned that many people with disabilities had a hard time finding jobs, getting to work, and just getting around. He realized that a person in a wheelchair found it hard to travel on sidewalks, get into bathrooms, and climb stairs to buildings. This was a travesty of civil rights, Dole pointed out on April 14, 1969, when he made his first speech on the Senate floor. That day was the anniversary of his injuries, and he seized the occasion to speak about the problems faced by the disabled.
Twenty years after that speech Dole brought the ADA to a vote. “I have supported the ADA,” he told his colleagues, “because it is a just and fair bill which will bring equality to the lives of all Americans with disabilities. Our message to America is that inequality and prejudice will no longer be tolerated. Our message to people with disabilities is that your time has come” — though it didn’t come right away since Dole faced an uphill fight getting the votes to pass the act. “I worked with Ted Kennedy on getting it done,” Dole recalled. “Those were the days we worked across the aisle,” leading both parties to come to a remarkable agreement known as “The Pact.” Under the pact, “we would always do things in a bipartisan way on disability legislation,” said California Representative Tony Coelho, a Democratic whip and epilepsy victim who introduced the bill in the House. “If it had become a Democratic bill we would have lost,” Coelho recalled. “It had to be bipartisan.”
The shared desire of lawmakers on “on both sides of the political aisle,” to “put politics aside and do something decent, something right,” was a key factor in the final vote, according to President Bush. In 1989, the Senate passed the bill by an overwhelming bipartisan margin of 76 to 8, and the House passed it the following year. On July 26, 1990, when Bush signed it into law, he said the legislation “has made the United States the international leader on this human rights issue.”
Looking back Dole recalled the passage of the ADA as “one of the proudest moments of my career,” and the former senator has kept working to bring the world closer to the high standard set by the law. In 2012, Dole was 89 years old, just home from an extended hospital stay, and looking frail. It had been 16 years since he stepped down as Senate Republican leader. Yet he was back on the Senate floor in his wheelchair, urging his former colleagues to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It was a moment Dole had awaited ever since bringing the parties together to pass the ADA. Now he wanted the Senate to approve an international treaty that would spur other nations to pass their own version of the law, making the U.S. a role model in helping tens of millions of people worldwide.
The treaty was defeated by just five votes from Republicans who claimed it could compromise U.S. sovereignty and threaten the ability of parents to determine what’s best for their kids. But senators from both parties insisted these concerns were unfounded because ratifying the treaty would not require any change in American law. This strong backing encouraged Dole to persist, and he recently returned to the Senate floor where he again implored lawmakers to ratify the treaty. This time that old bipartisan spirit made a brief return, and on July 23 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the UN treaty.
Dole still faces a tough fight to win the two-thirds majority needed for ratification by the full Senate, but he is determined to tear down more walls for the disabled. In his ongoing push for ratification, he has reminded lawmakers of that shining moment when they came together for the common good. “Passage of the ADA,” he told them, “constituted a proud moment in U.S. history when we joined together as a nation to stand up for a worthy cause. Now is the time to reaffirm the common goals of equality, access, and inclusion for Americans with disabilities — both when those affected are in the United States and outside of our country’s borders. I urge you to support U.S. ratification of this important treaty.” It would be a fitting way to honor 24 years of the ADA.