Honoring Six People Who Made the ADA Possible

Each year, as the Anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) approaches, I like to take a moment and reflect on the journey of my people, my brothers and sisters with disabilities, as we continue our fight for equality in this country. We have come so far and yet, there are still many more miles to travel to reach that mountaintop called freedom. Even as we celebrate the successes of the ADA, and there have been successes, we must not lose sight of that mountaintop that we still have to climb and each of the steps we must take to continue to move forward along the path forged by those who helped to make the ADA possible.

We must never forget that our journey toward freedom has not been an easy road to travel. The history of the Disability Civil Rights Movement is one that contains, as many other civil rights journeys, a fight for the very right to live, and more so, the right to live well, to contribute to society and be viewed, as a people, with dignity and respect. To be seen as we are – as individuals, with our talents and successes, as well as our mistakes and failures; to be seen not as less than, but equal in our country. There have been so many champions who have contributed to breaking down the barriers for people with disabilities and changing the laws and attitudes that prevent people with disabilities from equality.

It seems only right as we celebrate our nation’s independence this week, to take a moment to honor some of those people who helped to make the ADA possible. When we formed this country, it was with the simple ideal that all men are created equal, and it was founded on the hope of an end to tyranny and oppression for our citizens. For people with disabilities, the ADA is our declaration of independence; this civil rights legislation assures our place as equals in this country and finally delivers the promise our country made to its people all those years ago to its citizens with disabilities. The people I highlight below, through their work to support the ADA, have given us lessons in what it means to have heart, to reach deep inside of us and find the courage to make a difference; to inspire hope in others of a brighter future and better tomorrow; and to push forward even when the lights of hope grow dimmer, to persevere even as others tell us our dreams are futile and success is impossible. We owe so much to these champions of justice, equality and independence!

President George H.W. Bush

June 12, 1924 – November 30, 2018

George H.W. Bush served as the 41st president of the United States from 1989 – 1993. While serving, President Bush signed the ADA into law. President Bush considered the ADA to be one of his greatest legacies and one of the things he was most proud of accomplishing while in office.

What many people may not realize is that President Bush supported the idea of civil rights for people with disabilities, even before becoming president. He was asked when serving as vice president under President Ronald Reagan to lead a team tasked with weakening the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. After hearing the outcry from parents of children with disabilities, Bush determined that they should move away from this action.

Then in 1986, three years before being sworn into office, Bush had the opportunity to be the recipient of a report that reviewed how disability was represented in laws to identify representation and address gaps for the disability community. This report could be considered a precursor to the ADA. After reading the report, Bush shared that if he were elected, he would support this issue.

The ADA was drafted largely by a group of Democrats in the House and Senate and to the consternation of American businesses, during a time when decisions were being made to provide campaign donations. President Bush however did not allow this pressure to cause him to waiver in his support of the ADA. As a person with family members, including children with disabilities, Bush believed in the necessity and the importance of this civil rights legislation.

Bush leaves us with another legacy, one that teaches us to be steadfast in our pursuit of what we know to be right and just. To stand strong by our principles and to strengthen those ideals that surpass party affiliation and personal agendas for the betterment of humanity.

"I now lift my pen to sign this Americas with Disabilities Act and say, let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down."

Tony Coelho

June 15, 1942 – Present

Tony Coelho served as the first elected Majority Whip from 1987 – 1989 and served as the Chairperson of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 1981 – 1987. Coelho was elected into the US House of Representatives in California in 1979 and served until 1989.

Coelho is known for being open about being a person with a disability and a strong supporter of disability rights. While in office, Coelho was a primary sponsor of the ADA and is credited as one of the authors of the legislation. Since leaving Congress, Coelho has continued to support civil rights for people with disabilities, including serving as the Chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities and Vice Chair of the National Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities under President Clinton and has served on the board of the Americans Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). Coelho also worked to ensure the ADA Amendments Act was signed, restoring the original intent of the ADA and cementing the definition of disability as it was meant, inclusive of all people with disabilities.

Coelho has been a leading advocate for the rights of people with disabilities and supporter and mentor for many people with disabilities looking to make a difference in the lives of this community, including me. As a person living with epilepsy, Coelho experienced first-hand the discrimination that the ADA was designed to address.  

Coelho is a good friend and mentor of mine, and has taught me many things, but perhaps the most important lesson is this: we are on a crusade and our work is never done. The ADA has given us the opportunity to strengthen that crusade, but we must continue to take action and we must never waiver in our pursuit of freedom. What has been given to us can and will be taken away if we are not diligent. It is up to us to take a stance and speak up at every opportunity – to ensure that the whole nation hears our voice.

"My passion for expanding job opportunities for disabled Americans is rooted in my life – in the pain and personal failure I felt when I was prevented from working – and in the confidence and ability to contribute I rediscovered when I was finally able to find work once again."

Justin Dart, Jr.

“The Godfather of the ADA”

August 29, 1930 – June 22, 2002

Justin Dart is a great humanitarian and activist for the rights of people with disabilities. He worked tirelessly to define commonality of purpose and unite the many factions within the disability community. Dart contracted polio at a young age and used a wheelchair. His advocacy delivered support from the disability community and allowed for maturation of the purpose of the ADA. Dart brought together people with different needs and concerns in a way that was necessary for the ADA to achieve success.

He traveled throughout the US, multiple times, while with the National Council on Disability as a vice chair to meet with different groups to identify stories and mediate considerations and concerns – each time at his own expense! These ‘Road to Freedom’ tours were essential in opening a national dialogue on the concerns and agendas of the disability community. They created a network of information that was fundamental in the passing of the ADA. On the day the ADA was signed, Dart was honored by President Bush as one of the select individuals invited to sit upon the stage. He can be seen in pictures of the signing of this legislation sporting his signature cowboy hat.

In addition to his work to pass the ADA, Dart is one of the founders of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). He served as the Chairman of the Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities from 1989 – 1993 and served on the Official Governor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities in the state of Texas from 1980 – 1985. Dart was the Commissioner of Rehabilitation Services for the US Department of Education from 1984 – 1987. He founded Justice for All, which was established to protect the ADA from attempts to weaken its impact.

Justin Dart is one of the most revered and loved champions of the disability community. He receives his honor as the grandfather of the disability movement because of his love for the disability community and his unending commitment to its members. Dart is someone who inspires others because his generosity is truly delivered from the heart and is undeniably genuine. Dart inspires us all to give more to our brothers and sisters with disabilities, to listen with an open mind and an open heart. He embodies kindness and shows us that we can lead and create powerful impact when we are motivated by love.

"Lead On!"

Tom Harkin

November 19, 1939 – Present

Tom Harkin served as Senator for the state of Iowa from 1985 – 2015 and in the House of Representatives from 1975 – 1985. Harkin was the first Senator to testify on the floor of the US Senate using sign language; he did so in support of the ADA. Inspired by the close relationship he shared with his late brother, a member of the Deaf community, Harkin was a strong supporter of the rights of people with disabilities. Working with other leaders, such as Bob Dole, Harkin is one of the many leaders to help author the ADA.

Throughout his time in the Senate, Harkin’s political platform reflected strong support of disability policy. In addition to his work on passing the ADA, he authored legislation that required closed captioning be available on all new television sets, legislation creating the National Institute of Deafness and Communication Disorders and helped write legislative reform for education of children with disabilities. Harkin strongly supported health care reform that would improve mental health services and insurance coverage. Harkin worked to promote the ADA Amendments Act to help protect the ADA from being weakened by US Supreme Court decisions. During his service as a Senator, Harkin also worked to improve public access to voting for people with disabilities.

Harkin was never wavering in his support of the disability community throughout his political career. When people with disabilities needed someone to hear their needs and address their concerns, Harkin was someone who could be trusted to be their voice and to seek support of others in the Senate. He saw first-hand the cruelties and isolation of discrimination and never faltered in standing against legislation that reinforced this legacy for people with disabilities. From Harkin we learn what it means to provide support to our community in a way that gives strength to the voice of others and sheds light on issues of injustice.

"I strongly believe that it is important to level the playing field and give eligible individuals equal access to community-based services and support. This vital legislation will open the door to full participation by people with disabilities in our neighborhoods, workplaces, our economy, and our American Dream."

Dick Thornburgh

July 16, 1932 – Present

Dick Thornburgh served as the US Attorney General from 1988 – 1991 after a unanimous confirmation from the United States Senate. Prior to that, he served as the Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from 1979 – 1987. Thornburgh was the first Republican to ever serve two successive terms in that office. He served as the Chair of the Republican Governors Association.

As Attorney General, Thornburgh played a leading role in the enactment of the ADA. It was through his direction that enforcement programs for the ADA were provided under the Department of Justice. His work promoted understanding of the ADA at all levels, while building public support. For Thornburgh, success of the ADA was not just a political agenda, but a personal commitment. As a father of a child with a disability, Thornburgh has been a strong proponent for the rights of people with disabilities.

Thornburgh continues to defend the ADA through his advocacy. He and his wife, Ginny Judson Thornburgh, have been instrumental in bettering the lives of millions of Americans with disabilities. Ginny served as the Director of the Interfaith Initiative of AAPD. Both Dick and Ginny were featured speakers for the Vatican Conference on Disabilities held in Rome in 1992 and they were co-recipients of the 2003 Henry B. Betts Award. The Thornburgh’s used the proceeds from this award to fund the Thornburgh Family Lecture Series on Disability Law and Policy at the University of Pittsburgh.

Without the dedicated effort of Dick Thornburgh, the ADA would not have reached the level of success it has in opening doors for people with disabilities. His leadership teaches us the level of work and commitment it takes to continue to build for a better future for people with disabilities. His generosity of time and resources have helped to keep the promise of the ADA and empower a new generation of disability leaders.

"The ADA remains a critically important civil rights law for all Americans with disabilities which must be protected from current threats to weaken its intent."

Lowell Weicker, Jr.

May 16, 1931 – Present

Lowell Weicker served as a member of the US House of Representatives from 1969 – 1971 when he was elected to the Senate for the State of Connecticut. He served in the Senate from 1971 – 1989. Weicker later served as the 85th Governor of Connecticut from 1991 – 1995.

Although he was not in office when the ADA was passed, Weicker’s support for the rights of people with disabilities and this piece of legislature was certainly a focal point of his time in office. During his time in the Senate, Weicker chaired both the Senate authorization and appropriations subcommittees for programs for individuals with disabilities. He stood against attempts under President Reagan to cut spending for education of children with disabilities and relax regulations in 1981, being described as a ‘one-man brick wall.’

As a parent of a child with a developmental disability, Weicker was a strong supporter of equality in education for people with disabilities and, although he could afford private schools, adamantly chose to keep his son in public school where he would have the opportunity to interact with others of his age. Weicker strongly believed that separate was not equal when it came to disability and saw the ADA as the next step in providing true equality for members of the disability community.

His commitment to the ADA, as well as his understanding of the positive impact such legislation would have on this country, for all of its citizens, makes Weicker one of the visionaries of the disability rights movement. Even today, as we fight to move the needle of employment forward for people with disabilities, we are still echoing his words and sentiments when it comes to the social impact of addressing unemployment for all of America’s citizens.

"The legislation before this committee today completes the work begun in 1973 to secure the civil rights of Americans with disabilities. It provides a place in society for everyone. It does not guarantee you a job—it guarantees that you will not be denied a job on the basis of your disability."

I have met or known many of these people and been inspired by what they have done, and in some cases continue to do, for the community of people with disabilities. Their leadership has seen this great piece of civil rights legislation signed into law. They united our community and gave us a commonality of purpose. Doors have been opened, literally, as ADA regulations have forced public spaces to make inclusion possible through physical structure. It is because of these people, and many others, that we have come as far as we have in the United States.

Yet stigma persists in this country, feeding deep-rooted bias that still stands in the way of true equality. Nowhere is this more noticeable than when we look to unemployment statistics for people with disabilities. Today, 29 years after the signing of the ADA, that needle has made no substantial movement – people with disabilities remain the group with the highest unemployment rate. We still allow, legally, for people with disabilities to receive sub-standard pay. People who use assistive software such as screen readers are prohibited from applying for employment due to the lack of digital accessibility. Individuals with noticeable or visible disabilities are still turned away from interviews, not based on their competence for the position, but because of the preconceived notion of what society deems their place, and yet others living with non-visible disabilities are made to feel they must hide this part of them for fear of being viewed as uncapable, unemployable and unpromotable. It is on us, as a people, to move this needle forward, to pick up that flag from our champions and continue to march forward. This is our time and our crusade. We must stand tall and steadfast. I can hear the echo of the victory horn; it sounds out from our future and it reverberates in my heart and soul each day. When I talk to employers and candidates about inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce, I know that every placement takes us one step closer to that mountaintop. We must find our courage and lead with our hearts – we are the forebearers of hope and we must persevere.

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