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Disabilities

“Mr. President, my remarks today concern an exceptional group which I joined on April 14, twenty-four years ago, during World War II.

It is a minority group whose existence affects every person in our society and the very fiber of our Nation.

It is a group who no one joins by personal choice – a group whose requirements for membership are not based on age, sex, wealth, education, skin color, religious beliefs, political party, power or prestige.

As a minority, it has always known exclusion; maybe not exclusion from the front of the bus, but perhaps from even climbing aboard it; maybe not exclusion from pursuing advanced education, but perhaps from experiencing any formal education; maybe not exclusion from day-to-day life itself, but perhaps from an adequate opportunity to develop and contribute to his or her fullest capacity.

It is a minority, yet a group to which at least one out of every five Americans belongs.

Mr. President, I speak today about 42 million citizens of our Nation who are physically, mentally or emotionally handicapped.”

– Dole’s maiden speech to the Senate, on the 24th anniversary of the day he was wounded in WWII, April 14, 1969

July 26, 1990 was one of the most rewarding days of Senator Dole’s life – the day the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. The act was one that Dole had worked toward for 30 years. A landmark piece of civil rights legislation, the act decreed “that persons with disabilities ought to be judged on the basis of their abilities; they should not be judged nor discriminated against based on unfounded fear, prejudice, ignorance or mythologies.”

Dole was a fitting advocate for people with disabilities. In an interview with ABILITY Magazine, Senator Dole described the effect of his war injury:

“Experiencing a disability yourself, you could almost walk around with a blindfold and pick out the other people with disabilities… Having a disability changes your whole life, not just your attitude.”

Throughout his career, Dole advocated for the disabled, as he expressed in the above excerpt from a speech to the Senate. In 1989, he founded the Dole Foundation, an organization that helps disabled people find employment. In a 2000 interview with C-SPAN, he remembered the ADA as one of his proudest achievements.

The road to the successful passage of the ADA was not an easy one. In June 1990, the bill seemed on the verge of unraveling as legislators hammered out a compromise, and one unhappy senator dubbed it “the month from hell.”

The controversy was centered on two key items: the contentious Chapman Amendment and the question of how Congress itself would be affected by the act.

The Chapman Amendment was designed to protect restaurant owners from public fears, but opponents to the amendment argued that it violated the spirit of the bill, which was to end discrimination based on unfounded fears. The disabled community showed remarkable unity by unanimously threatening to withdraw support of the bill and effectively kill the legislation should the amendment be passed.

Dole later commented on public misunderstanding of disabilities, “With some employers you have to go through this myth list with them and show them that persons with disabilities can be valuable employees.”

Gradually, through the continued pressure of the disability community and through the shift in attitudes of many senators, the amendment was defeated by a small margin in both houses.

The second controversial aspect of the bill was the question of who could enforce its application to Congress. The Senate rejected the idea that the House could wield enforcement power over it, and decided that the Senate itself would be responsible for adhering to the new law. Also at issue was the question of whether people could sue Congress directly for violating the ADA. Ultimately, the private right to action was upheld, and it was decided that private citizens could sue Congress just as they could sue any other entity covered by the act.

In its final form, the act prohibited discrimination in public or private employment, in public entities (such as public universities or hospitals) and in places of public accommodation (such as hotels and restaurants). It introduced a new concept of nondiscrimination: reasonable accommodations. It required that businesses protect people with disabilities from discrimination, such as allowing guide dogs or making structural changes to allow wheelchairs. According to the bill, qualified individuals with disabilities must be accommodated in the workplace and in public. It also protected employers from extreme expense with an “undue hardship” clause, which states that if an alteration or service to accommodate a disabled person is prohibitively expensive, the proprietor is not required to do it.

On July 16, 1990, more than 3,000 people attended the signing ceremony on the White House lawn. As he signed the bill, President George H. W. Bush said:

“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… We will not tolerate discrimination in America.”

Dole added:

“This historic civil rights legislation seeks to end the unjustified segregation and exclusion of persons with disabilities from the mainstream of American life… the ADA is fair and balanced legislation that carefully blends the rights of people with disabilities… with the legitimate needs of the American business community.”

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