A milestone for disability history in the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library
Today’s guest post comes from Amber Powell, archivist at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library.
At the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (known as the ADA) on July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush said, “Three weeks ago we celebrated our nation’s Independence Day. Today we’re here to rejoice in and celebrate another ’Independence Day,’ one that is long overdue. With today’s signing of the landmark Americans for Disabilities Act, 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.”
The ADA proved to be a comprehensive declaration of equality, expanding federal civil rights laws to include disabled Americans. The legislation prohibits discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations, transportation, and telecommunications.
Introduced in Congress on April 28, 1988, the ADA progressed through numerous drafts and revisions. The final bill was a product of the negotiations between President George H.W. Bush and Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, with input from business organizations, disability rights groups, and concerned citizens. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), the Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Handicapped, made the disability civil rights bill a high priority for Congress.
At the same time, then-Vice President Bush endorsed civil rights protections for the disabled. In his Republican National Convention acceptance speech during August 1988, he proclaimed that “I am going to do whatever it takes to make sure the disabled are included in the mainstream. For too long they’ve been left out. But they’re not going to be left out anymore.”
The ADA-related holdings at the George H. W. Presidential Bush Library contain many memos, working papers, and correspondence regarding the development of the bill. Letters from the public and private sector were sent to the White House, expressing both support and concern for the development and implementation of the pending ADA legislation.
Most of the correspondence received was from small business owners, religious groups, disabled individuals, and organizations. The White House had many working group meetings dedicated to producing workable legislation that would expand civil rights without imposing undue harm or costs on those already in compliance with existing rules and laws.
The ADA anniversary is a time that we can reflect on a law that has had a positive effect on the lives of people with disabilities and on our country over the past two decades. The preamble to the legislation states the intent of the law: to “assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”
President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law in front of 3,000 people on the White House lawn. The president’s directive on that day—“Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down,”—encapsulated the simple message of the ADA: that millions of Americans with disabilities are full-fledged citizens. Now they would have legal protections to ensure them equal opportunity and access to the mainstream of American life.
For more disability history records in our Presidential libraries, visit the new research page on the National Archives website.