George H.W. Bush was nothing if not a flawed man and politician. As someone said this week, he would be the second to admit it, right after his wife. But he is also our most recent one-term president, in large part because he approved raising taxes when he said he wouldn’t – doing what was right for the country even knowing that it would end his political career. We have heard a lot about his accomplishments and failures this week as the country eulogizes and mourns him, but one thing I have not heard mentioned in any of the news coverage is the accomplishment that impacts me the most -- the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
I was young when Bush 41 was elected, but talk around the kitchen table was that voters wanted more of the Reagan era and they thought Bush could give it to them. As part of that, Republicans were looking for a civil rights campaign issue to make their own. Disability rights was it.
Best case scenario, Bush was empathetic to people with disabilities because he lost his three-year-old daughter to leukemia in 1953 and instead of taking the doctor’s advice to just let it run its course, he and his wife fought like hell to save her. Worst case scenario, after using racially based civil rights issues – affirmative action, desegregation, criminal justice stereotypes – to divide voters his whole career, disability rights was a racially neutral policy that would sit well with Republican voters. After all, Jim Brady, famously paralyzed during the attempt to assassinate President Reagan in 1981 was the face of the issue throughout the 1980s.
So, Bush and his team ran on disability rights, and shortly after winning the White House, began working with Congress to ensure a bi-partisan passage of the ADA.
A Brief History
People with disabilities were not wholly missing from legislation before the ADA. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower provided for special assistance for people with disabilities to operate within the job force, as opposed to being paid to stay out. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act outlined reasonable protections for minority groups. At that time people with disabilities were not protected under that umbrella. That didn’t come until 1973, when the Rehabilitation Act, which extended the protections outlined in Title IX of the Civil Rights Act to people with disabilities, was signed into law. Even then, it took regulators another four years for the Federal government to start implementing the civil rights section of the 1973 law.
Oh, the Irony
One of the reasons we may not be hearing much about the ADA this week is that, because it was passed by a Democratic Congress, it is that Congress that gets to log political capital for passing the bill.
That is really too bad because the ADA is the reason that I can work from home when I have doctors’ appointments and when my conditions act up. It’s the reason that my friend has legal recourse when her employer doesn’t allow her to attend her doctors’ appointments and the reason kids get to attend free public school even if their districts claim that there isn’t appropriate support for a child who needs injections in the middle of the school day (they have to accommodate). It’s the reason we have special doors for people who are in wheelchairs or on crutches, and why we can’t be fired because we take up too many resources.
However I feel about George H.W. Bush’s mixed political legacy, I would like to give credit where credit’s due, and say thank you to the guy who helped make it so I can work the same as everybody else, getting what I need to accommodate my conditions, and not be labeled for doing so.