Why the Americans With Disabilities Act Wouldn’t Pass Today
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By now, most of us will have heard one news piece or another about the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Twenty-five years doesn’t seem like that long ago, really. In fact, I remember writing a blog on the 20th anniversary of the bill’s signing into law. I guess we’ve been at this a while now.
A video of President Obama talking about his father-in-law’s MS during a White House event marking the ADA milestone is even making the rounds.
I’ve just started reading Lennard J. Davis’ book Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans With Disabilities Act Gave the Largest US Minority Its Right, published by Beacon Press, in time for the anniversary. I’m only part way in and find it fascinating.
Now mind you, I am (or, more accurately, was) a political being, so I really enjoy the back story of such things. That said, I think there is a lot of information in Davis’s book that many would find interesting.
What strikes me hardest is the fact (and I’d say it’s an all-but-foregone fact) that the ADA could not pass Congress today.
When asked last year to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities — a document far weaker than the ADA — the U.S. Senate voted it down. This led the co-sponsors of the ADA, senators Bob Dole (R) and Tom Harken (D), to assert that “if the ADA came up for a vote in 2015, it would be defeated," according to Davis.
Today’s legislators couldn’t even get behind a UN document that didn’t go nearly as far as the U.S. law that now celebrates 25 years on the books. As a citizen of the world, and as adisabledcitizen of the world with multiple sclerosis, I have been abandoned by my lawmakers. The same is true for my fellow 650 million disabled citizens of the world.
The bi-partisanship that was required to negotiate and pass the landmark ADA bill spanned four decades, six presidents, and hundreds of drafts. The ADA began as what Davis calls the “forty-six words that changed history," which were slipped into a Vietnam War-era rehabilitation act and set in motion the process that resulted in the law we celebrate on July 26th.
“No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States, as defined in Section 7(6), shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
President Nixon signed that bill (which he had twice vetoed) in 1973, tying it to previous civil rights legislation.
By the time that ADA was in its final negotiations between the White House and Congress, the heaviest of heavy hitters were at the table, and all of them had personal connections with someone from the disability community. Today, with 10 percent of the U.S. population living with disabilities, we must assume that many who voted against the UN disabilities document also had ties to or were closely related to someone with a disability.
Hell, in 2012, Sen. Bob Dole came to the floor of the Senate from Walter Reed Army Medical Center — as he was not well at all — to personally argue for ratification of the accord. The man who was rather famously disabled in World War II, served several terms in the Senate, and was his party’s nominee for President of the United States — the man who many consider instrumental in getting ADA passed in the first place — couldn’t even persuade the body to put a stamp of approval on a non-binding accord.
What hope would legislation as important as ADA have in today’s even more divided political world?
Sure. I will stand on Monday and celebrate the monumental achievement of good men and women doing good work for a very long time to get an important law passed. I won’t, however, expect that the current lot of people representing us would be willing to do it again. Thus, “fixing” the many issues that the disabled still face seems beyond their reach as well.
Though I’m only part way in, I would definitely recommend Enabling Acts for those who would like to know how the ADA came to be. It’s not an easy read, but it’s fascinating.
Wishing you and your family the best of health.
My book, Chef Interrupted, is available onAmazon. Follow me on theLife With MS Facebook pageand onTwitter, andsubscribe to Life With Multiple Sclerosis.
Photo: ADA legislators (L-R) senators John McCain, Orrin Hatch, Steny Hoyer, Tom Harkin, and Ted Kennedy with celebrants after U.S. Senate passage of the Americans Disabilities Act Bill in 1990 (Terry Ashe/Getty Images).
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