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Disability History from the Presidential Libraries

First Page of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Read the transcript: http://www.archives.gov/research/americans-with-disabilities/transcriptions/naid-6037488-americans-with-disabilities-act-of-1990.html

Today’s blog post is written by Susan K. Donius and Sierra Gregg. Susan K. Donius is the Director of the Office of Presidential Libraries at the National Archives and Records Administration. Sierra Gregg is a summer intern at the National Archives and a senior at Truman State University in Missouri, where she is studying Computer Science. This year, she was awarded a scholarship from the National Federation of the Blind

This year marks the 22nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the act into law on the White House South Lawn in front of an audience of 3000 people. On that day, America became the first country to adopt a comprehensive civil rights declaration for people with disabilities. The ADA was a landmark moment in history, designed to provide universal accessibility in the areas of employment, public service, public accommodations, and telecommunications. As President Obama noted in 2009 at the signing of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Proclamation, the ADA “was a formal acknowledgment that Americans with disabilities are Americans first, and they are entitled to the same rights and freedoms as everybody else:  a right to belong and participate fully in the American experience; a right to dignity and respect in the workplace and beyond; the freedom to make of our lives what we will.” http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-on-Rights-of-Persons-with-Disabilities-Proclamation-Signing/

On July 26, 1990, President George Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. With him on the South Lawn of the White House are (from left to right, sitting) Evan Kemp, Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Justin Dart, Chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities; and (left to right, standing) Rev. Harold Wilke and Swift Parrino, Chairperson, National Council on Disability. Image from the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library.

Among the holdings of the Presidential Libraries of the National Archives are many letters, meeting notes, photos, and White House memos that document the collaborative process of creating the ADA. The Presidential Libraries protect and share the records of every Presidential administration since 1929, and the history of people with disabilities is woven throughout.

Sierra Gregg is a second-year intern in the Office of Presidential Libraries who recognizes the importance of sharing Presidential records related to disability history. She has been closely involved in a project to make a selection of these documents accessible to a wide audience through the Americans with Disabilities research page that is now available on the National Archives website. 

The following is written by Sierra:

I was born visually impaired one year after the signing of the ADA. I have grown up in a world where my visual impairment is not a hindrance to my success, only a characteristic of who I am. The ADA has made it possible for me to get the help I need to work toward my academic and professional goals.

However, the story of disability civil rights did not start with the ADA, and it certainly did not end on that day 22 years ago. The efforts to ensure independence and equality for people with disabilities have a long and fascinating history. Over the course of two summer internships, I have worked on the Presidential Libraries team to collect a small sample of records related to Americans with disabilities. This collection will be added to the the National Archives website and will contain at least one record from every Presidential administration since Herbert Hoover.

Although the collection contains records related to different disabilities, the records directly related to visual impairments are particularly meaningful to me. My favorite record in the collection is a Braille letter written to President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 by 13-year-old John Beaulieu. I first saw the letter on display in the Public Vaults exhibit of the National Archives in Washington, DC. (Read the transcript of the letter.)

I still wish I could read the words with my fingers instead of just listening to the description. I was duly impressed that Beaulieu wrote the letter using a slate and stylus; I never quite mastered the art of using the slate. In order to write using the slate and stylus, a thick piece of paper is placed face down in the slate, the stylus is used to punch out dots in the paper. The trick is every letter has to be written backwards so it can be read when the page is flipped.

Letter from Helen Keller to Herbert Hoover about her upcoming trip, 2/04/1955. From the Hoover Presidential Library.

The collection also contains two letters written to President Herbert Hoover by Helen Keller. (Read the transcript of the letter.) She wrote letters to eight U.S. Presidents, starting in 1903 with Theodore Roosevelt. She also personally met with 13 Presidents from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson.

I must admit to feeling a twinge of envy when I learned that during a visit to the White House she investigated her historic surroundings with touch. She even identified a bust of George Washington with her fingers.

The Americans with Disabilities research collection currently includes over 50 different records. They range from Keller’s letters to President Hoover to photos of a White House dinner hosted by President Clinton honoring the Special Olympics. It’s a resource that will continue to grow, and one that sheds light on an important part of disability, and American, history.

More on the Americans with Disabilities research page from the Presidential Libraries at http://www.archives.gov/research/americans-with-disabilities/.

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