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Remembering George H.W. Bush, A Champion For People With Disabilities


We are remembering former President George H.W. Bush, who died on Friday at the age of 94. And we're going to take the next few minutes this morning to think back on one of President Bush's most enduring pieces of legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the ADA. The law helped millions of Americans by banning discrimination based on disability in employment and public places.

Lex Frieden was one of the architects of that legislation. He was paralyzed after a car accident. He lived life in a wheelchair after that and faced discrimination himself. Frieden says the ADA wasn't about health. It was about civil rights.

LEX FRIEDEN: The ADA was a profound piece of legislation. It covered every aspect of social and economic life. It changed the landscape of America. And I attribute that to President Bush, his leadership. He could have compromised at any point in time, and each time he refused to move. He said it's a matter of principle.

MARTIN: On July 26, 1990, President Bush signed the ADA into law. And Lex Frieden was there to witness it.

FRIEDEN: That was one of the hottest days that summer in Washington, D.C. And there were more than 2,000 people on the White House lawn. And that was significant. I think that was the largest signing ceremony.


GEORGE H W BUSH: Welcome to every one of you out there in this splendid scene of hope spread across the South Lawn of the White House.

FRIEDEN: The people who were there represented every possible type of disability. There were people who were hearing impaired and visually impaired, people with cognitive impairments, people with intellectual disabilities. It was magnificent.


BUSH: I now lift my pen to sign this Americans with Disabilities Act and say, let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down. God bless you all.


FRIEDEN: He had a lot of inner strength that one could feel just to be in his presence. And I was always moved by that and will always cherish the times I have spent with him, many of them since he became a wheelchair user himself.

MARTIN: Those are the voices of Lex Frieden, an architect of the ADA, and of course of President George H.W. Bush, who signed it into law. NPR's Joe Shapiro joins us now. Joe is the author of a book titled "No Pity: People With Disabilities Forging A New Civil Rights Movement." He is also a reporter with NPR's investigative team. Joe, thanks for being here.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Thank you. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: We heard Lex Frieden say the ADA essentially wouldn't have happened without President George H.W. Bush. Is that true?

SHAPIRO: I think that's right. I think without President Bush, there would not have been an Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. This bill was being drafted at the time largely by liberal members of - liberal Democrats in the House and Senate. And there were businesses that were worried that it was going to be expensive to comply with it. Some of them wanted to kill it. They were giving campaign donations. But while this bill was being debated in Congress, President Bush signaled his support. And once the White House was on board, then Republicans in Congress supported it. And the ADA ended up passing through the House and Senate by very wide margins.

MARTIN: Why? What made George Herbert Walker Bush such an ally for this legislation?

SHAPIRO: Well, for one thing, disability doesn't recognize party lines. And I mentioned that it was mostly liberal Democrats who were writing the law. People like Senator Ted Kennedy and the Kennedy family had championed people with intellectual disabilities. There was Tom Harkin, who was a senator from Iowa who had a brother who was deaf, Tony Coelho in the House who had epilepsy, Steny Hoyer, whose wife had epilepsy. And - but there are also Republicans, key Republicans like Bob Dole, who had been wounded in World War II, had been shot and had limited use of an arm.

But George Bush knew disability, too. He had a favorite uncle, a surgeon, who contracted polio. George and Barbara Bush dealt with the death of a child, a young daughter, Robin, to leukemia. And remember how Barbara Bush, when she was at the White House - as first lady, she took on the issue of literacy? Well, there was a personal connection to that. A son, Neil, had very severe learning disabilities. And he worked very hard to learn to read. But in some ways, George Bush was an unlikely ally.

MARTIN: How come?

SHAPIRO: Let's go back to the start of the new Reagan-Bush administration, 1981. Ronald Reagan gives his new vice president an assignment. And he says, cut government regulations. And two of the biggest targets are new disability rights laws. One guarantees kids with disabilities for the first time the right to go to school. And the second one is kind of a precursor to the ADA. It's a law called Section 504. And it bans discrimination against people with disabilities. But unlike the ADA, it just - it only applied to places that took government funding. So largely we're talking about state and local governments that had to make this promise not to discriminate.

So these were some of the first laws to protect people with disabilities. And George Bush was the head of this commission that was reviewing them with this idea of cutting them back. And people with disabilities and particularly parents of children with disabilities, they were angry at the thought of losing these new protections. They wrote thousands of letters.

And George Bush met some of these people. And he was impressed by them. They weren't asking for government money. They wanted laws so they could - help them get an education, get jobs to become taxpayers. And he didn't forget it. And so several years later, when he becomes president and Congress is writing the ADA, he supports it.

MARTIN: You mentioned a little bit of this earlier, but can you say more about the kind of opposition he faced in supporting the bill?

SHAPIRO: Some of it came from his own staff. His staff was divided. He had some people who were very strongly supportive of the ADA. And that actually had also come out of those meetings from 1981. And he had some who were thinking that this was going to be too costly and thought that it shouldn't pass.

MARTIN: So the big question - how did it change things? How did it change life for people with disabilities?

SHAPIRO: Well, it's a law that - you heard Lex Frieden say it changed the landscape. It's a law that promises access to be included in American life, to go to public places like restaurants, to go to school, to get a job, to live a life like everyone else. And George Bush is a good example because in the last years of his life, he - we saw those images of him in a wheelchair, needing that to get around. He had a form of Parkinson's. And the ADA gave people - it gave George Bush access to public places with curb cuts and ramps.

He had a favorite movie theater. Lex would go to the movies with him in Houston. And there was an extra ramp built so that the Secret Service could get him in and out. But here's the other thing that I think was important about what the ADA did to change lives. It erased a lot of the stigma of having a disability. And think about George Bush. This was the guy who at 75, 80, 90 jumps out of an airplane to show how fit he is.

MARTIN: Right (laughter).

SHAPIRO: And - but he doesn't mind then in these last years being seen in a wheelchair. The ADA is - helped erase that stigma. He did not hide that disability.

MARTIN: NPR's Joe Shapiro, thank you.

SHAPIRO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.