Skip to main content

How George H.W. Bush Proved Himself to the Disability Rights Community

The ADA stands as one of Bush's greatest legacies. He didn't do it alone.
Former President George H.W. Bush shakes hands as he departs from the East Room of the White House following the official portrait unveiling of his son, former President George W. Bush, on May 31st, 2012, in Washington, D.C.

Former President George H.W. Bush shakes hands as he departs from the East Room of the White House following the official portrait unveiling of his son, former President George W. Bush, on May 31st, 2012, in Washington, D.C.

On July 26th, 1990, President George H.W. Bush sat down at a desk on the stage that had been constructed on the White House lawn. Flanked by Evan Kemp Jr., the Equal Employment Opportunity commissioner, and Justin Dart, the disability rights leader, Bush signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The president said, "With today's signing ... 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."

That vision of total inclusion has not quite come to pass, but there's no doubt that the ADA, the last major civil rights bill to be signed into law, has transformed American society for the better.

When Bush became vice president in 1980, few would have predicted his pivotal support for disability rights. Lex Frieden, executive director of the National Council on the Handicapped (later renamed the National Council on Disability) from 1984 to 1988, says that Bush's first engagement with disability was when President Ronald Reagan appointed Bush, then vice president, to oversee a task force that was working to weaken the landmark Education for All Handicapped Children Act.

"Parents of kids with disabilities heard about that and began to call and write the White House and express their anger and angst to Vice President Bush," Frieden says. "He was taken aback about that. He addressed his staff and told them back off [from gutting the EHCA]."

A few years later, by chance, Bush had a new opportunity to prove himself to the disability rights community. Congress had ordered the council to produce a report assessing all federal laws and programs that affected disability, and then to make recommendations for legislation that could fill in the gaps. The council had a statutory deadline to submit the report by February of 1986. The eventual document, entitled Toward Independence, provided an early draft of what would become the ADA. Frieden says that the council felt it was critical to get presidential approval of the report and made an appointment with Reagan for January 28th, 1986, right before the deadline.

That morning, alas, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. Frieden tried to reschedule, but was told that the calendar was now locked up for months.

"We were anxious because we needed this endorsement before we were required to give a report to the Congress," he says, but they wanted someone in the White House behind them, so they accepted a photo op of the council submitting the report to the vice president as a kind of consolation meeting. As they arrived, staffers told them that they would just take the picture and leave, but Bush had other plans. Frieden recalls that, after the picture, the vice president said, "If you have time, please come in and sit down, I'd like to discuss this report with you."

Bush told Frieden and the others that he had read the report with his wife, Barbara, the previous night, and said: "This report speaks to us. It should speak to everybody." Bush talked about his daughter who had died young of leukemia, their son with a learning disability and his challenges reading, and more. As Frieden recalls, "He ticked off every recommendation and spoke to us and asked us questions about how we imagined how this could be done." At the end, Bush warned that, although he would brief Reagan, he would not try to go around the president—but he did promise to support the issue if he was ever elected himself.

Presidential legacies are complicated. In the days since Bush's death, we've seen powerful analyses of his endorsement of racist politics, his failures around HIV/AIDS, and the consequences of the first Iraq War. The ADA is also part of his story. Passing the ADA required the efforts of thousands of people, if not more. Activists and academics, political staff in both Congress and the White House, and elected politicians collaborated to craft the bill and shepherd it through the legislative process. Wealthy disabled people and parents of disabled people plied elected officials with donations to secure their support. Congressional staffers, as documented by Lennard Davis in Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans With Disabilities Act Gave the Largest U.S. Minority Its Rights, emphasized the behind-the-scenes efforts of congressional staffers to keep the bill moving, even as activists crawled up the steps of the Capitol to seize public attention and maintain the pressure. It's vital to make sure that the history of the bill celebrates the efforts of the many, rather than the few, even as we recognize that White House support and Bush's genuine concern for disability rights mattered a great deal.

As Frieden reminisces, "Just a few years ago, after [Bush] was a wheelchair user, his staff told me he had to park his limo a few blocks away for a speech he was giving. His staff rolled him up and down sidewalks and ramps, and [Bush joked]: 'Those ramps and those sidewalks [curb cuts] are very convenient. Who thought of putting those there?' It was the stroke of his pen that changed that world."