by Nils Skudra, Communications Specialist, DI-NC
Among the leading political figures involved in the passage of the ADA, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh played a prominent role, representing the Bush administration in its negotiations with Congressional leaders. Like most of the Senate co-sponsors of the bill, Attorney General Thornburgh had firsthand experience with disability in his family, which therefore gave him a personal understanding of and empathy for the struggles of people with disabilities. Consequently, he actively promoted equal rights for the disability community throughout his career, and as Attorney General he helped to work out regulatory measures for the ADA’s prohibition against discrimination and its provision for reasonable accommodations in schools, workplaces, and transportation. Through Thornburgh’s efforts, the ADA’s implementation facilitated profound changes in the lives of people with disabilities, and he has remained a dedicated ally of the disability community in the continuing dialogue over disability-related issues.
Dick Thornburgh was born on July 16, 1932, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He began his legal career in 1958 at the firm of Kilpatrick, Pomeroy, Lockhart, and Johnson, where he served before his election as Governor of Pennsylvania in 1978, becoming the first Republican to serve two successive terms in the gubernatorial office. As a young lawyer, Thornburgh learned of a tragic car accident in which his first wife was killed and two of his sons were injured, one of whom, Peter, suffered traumatic brain damage at the age of four months. At the time of this accident, “no effective advocacy networks for persons with disabilities even existed, and the ADA was still 30 years away.” Thornburgh would later reflect that, through the years of hard work on the part of his second wife Ginny, Peter was able to live independently in an assisted living apartment and work full-time as a volunteer at a local food bank. The episode had a profound impact on Thornburgh’s outlook regarding disability, which would strongly contribute to his subsequent advocacy for disability rights over the course of his career.
During his governorship, Thornburgh balanced Pennsylvania’s state budgets for eight consecutive years, “reduced both personal and business tax rates, cut the state’s record-high indebtedness and left a surplus of $350 million.” In addition, he eliminated 15,000 positions from the state’s swollen bureaucracy to make it more efficient, and he implemented important economic development, education, and welfare reform programs. Furthermore, Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate went from being among the ten highest in the nation to among the ten lowest by the time Thornburgh left office, with 50,000 new businesses and 500,000 new private sector jobs being created during his tenure.
Following his confirmation by the U.S. Senate, Thornburgh served for three years as Attorney General of the United States (1988-1991) under the Reagan and Bush administrations. He earned a reputation for his prosecution of white-collar crime among savings and loan and securities officials, defense contractors, and corrupt public officials, as well as his collaboration with law enforcement agencies on a global level to “help combat drug trafficking, money laundering, terrorism, and international white-collar crime.” In addition, he twice argued and won cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, being cited in the Legal Times for building a reputation “as one of the most effective champions that prosecutors have ever had.”
During the debate over the ADA, Thornburgh played an integral role in the negotiations between Congress and the Bush administration surrounding the details of the legislation and its provisions regarding reasonable accommodations, costs of implementation, and the legal remedies that the bill would provide in cases of discrimination. Like most of the leading Senate co-sponsors – Edward Kennedy, Tom Harkin, Orrin Hatch, and Bob Dole – Thornburgh had personal experience with disability in his family, which thus gave him a personal stake in the bill’s passage. While he articulated the administration’s desire to limit the legal remedies available to those provided in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Thornburgh was able to work out a series of compromises with Congressional leaders, which ultimately contributed to the passage of the ADA in July 1990. In his 2003 autobiography, Where the Evidence Leads, Thornburgh reflected that July 26, 1990, the day of the bill’s signing, “was a high point of my tenure as attorney general.” Furthermore, he described the day as “one of emancipation, not just for the millions of Americans with disabilities who will directly benefit from this Act, but even more so for the rest of us now free to benefit from the contributions which those with disability can make to our economy, our communities and our own well-being.”
In the period following the passage of the ADA, Thornburgh presided over its enactment before retiring from the Attorney General’s office. Pam Katz writes that Thornburgh’s role was critical in “forever changing the lives of people with disabilities in the U.S. and helping to lay important groundwork that we continue to build upon today.” He continued to actively speak on behalf of disability-related causes in the following years.
On February 24, 2000, Thornburgh reflected on the ADA’s legacy at the Health Law & Policy Institute’s Gardere Wynne Sewell & Riggs Lecture in Houston, Texas, calling July 26, 1990 “one of the proudest moments of my life.” While noting that tangible progress is made with each new ramp that makes another facility accessible, he stated that “many Americans view discrimination as stemming from a person’s disability rather than from barriers society has erected.” Since the ADA provides significant flexibility for businesses and others to comply without undue burden on their operations, Thornburgh expressed disappointment “at the number of businesses that expend enormous resources on trying to avoid the ADA instead of using those resources to comply.” He also addressed concerns over the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings on ADA-related issues, urging individuals with disabilities to “work toward a greater voice in the political process,” as only a small percentage of people with disabilities were voting while a third were not even registered to vote during the year 2000. After sharing a personal anecdote about his son Peter and how he successfully achieved independent living, Thornburgh concluded that while the ADA was in place, “Americans must take the next step” by opening “their hearts and minds and chang[ing] their attitudes toward persons with disabilities.”
On May 2, 2015, Thornburgh issued a statement in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, expressing his views on the achievements of the ADA: “Perhaps the most satisfying change the ADA has brought about is a change in attitude. As new generations of Americans have worked, lived and played side-by-side with persons with disabilities, the debilitating barriers of stereotypes and prejudices are disappearing. Participation in everyday American life has brought a sense of self-worth for persons with disabilities.” He recalled that the auto accident, which left his son Peter with a mental impairment, “made me think about what I wanted to do with my life, what I can do to contribute to the world.”
Thornburgh’s family was also actively involved in disability rights causes. His wife, Ginny Judson Thornburgh, served as Director of the Interfaith Initiative of the American Association of People with Disabilities and co-authored That All May Worship, an award-winning handbook for religious organizations to include people with disabilities in their congregations. His son David Thornburgh reflected, “Issues of rights for people with disabilities have always been important issues for my family… I have a brother with a disability, so his circumstances and our need to make sure he enjoys the full rights of citizenship have always, I think, motivated particularly my mom and dad.”
During the 30th anniversary week commemorating the passage of the ADA, Thornburgh was presented with a leatherbound book filled with about 30 notes from members of the disability community, former Governor Tom Corbett, previous colleagues, and others thanking him for his work on the ADA. The honor was coordinated by Achieva, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit aimed at helping people with disabilities. On December 31, 2020, Dick Thornburgh died at the age of 88 in a retirement facility outside Pittsburgh. The role that he played in the passage and enactment of the ADA remains one of the shining hallmarks of Thornburgh’s legacy. DREDF cofounder Patrisha Wright, who played a leading role in advocating for the ADA, reflected, “Attorney General Thornburgh was the linchpin that secured the draft of the ADA… His life experience and legal and political skills led the way for the Bush Administration to endorse and support the law.” As we commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the ADA this year, we should honor the memory of Dick Thornburgh by continuing to work closely with government officials to uphold the rights enshrined in the ADA.
- “Biography | Dick Thornburgh Papers | University of Pittsburgh.” https://thornburgh.library.pitt.edu/. The Dick Thornburgh Papers. University of Pittsburgh. Accessed May 22, 2023. http://thornburgh.library.pitt.edu/biography.html.
- Davis, Lennard J. “Ted Kennedy had one thing in common with the heavyweights gathered to negotiate the ADA: Experience with disability.” https://www.salon.com/. com. Published July 11, 2015. Accessed May 13, 2023. https://www.salon.com/2015/07/11/ted_kennedy_had_one_thing_in_common_with_the_heavyweights_gathered_to_negotiate_the_ada_experience_with_disability/.
- Katz, Pam. “Celebrating the Life of the Honorable Richard Thornburgh.” https://thearc.org/. The Arc. Published January 2, 2021. Accessed May 14, 2023. https://thearc.org/blog/celebrating-the-life-of-the-honorable-richard-thornburgh/.
- The Legal Times. Cited in “Biography | Dick Thornburgh Papers.”
- Margolis, Melanie R. “Former Attorney General Thornburgh Reflects on the Americans with Disabilities Act’s Tenth Anniversary.” https://www.law.uh.edu/. University of Houston Law Center. Published February 28, 2000. Accessed May 14, 2023. https://www.law.uh.edu/healthlaw/perspectives/Disabilities/20000228Former.html.
- Scolforo, Mark. “Dick Thornburgh, ex-governor and US attorney general, dies.” https://apnews.com/. Associated Press. Published December 31, 2020. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://apnews.com/article/pennsylvania-pittsburgh-dick-thornburgh-746fe9abb81012e54d20ee94da078fe3.
- Thornburgh, Dick. Cited in “In Honor of Richard ‘Dick’ Thornburgh 1932-2020.” https://dredf.org/. Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. Accessed May 14, 2023. https://dredf.org/2021/01/01/in-honor-of-richard-dick-thornburgh-1932-2020/.
- Tomasic, Megan. “30 Years later, Americans with Disabilities Act still lauded but ‘work is never done.’” https://triblive.com/. TribLIVE.com. Published July 26, 2020. Accessed May 14, 2023. https://triblive.com/local/regional/30-years-later-americans-with-disabilities-act-still-lauded-but-work-is-never-done/.
- Wright, Patrisha. Cited in “In Honor of Richard ‘Dick’ Thornburgh 1932-2020.”