by Nils Skudra, Communications Specialist, DI-NC
As we commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the passage of the ADA, we should recognize the contributions of the Congressional leaders who supported the bill on a bipartisan basis. These leaders had a variety of reasons that reflected their respective party lines. While Democratic leaders supported the extension of civil rights to people with disabilities as part of their party’s support for federal legislation on behalf of minority rights, Republican leaders favored the creation of employment opportunities to promote greater economic independence for members of the disability and to facilitate growth in the business sector. Among these Republican leaders was Steve Bartlett of Texas, who worked together with Democratic congressman Steny Hoyer to pass the ADA in the House of Representatives. Airing his views on a viewer call-in discussion of the ADA in May 1990, Bartlett delivered a powerful conservative rationale for passing the bill along conservative lines, addressing a variety of concerns raised by constituents. These motivations played a significant role in Republican support for the ADA, ensuring its passage in both houses of Congress.
Steve Bartlett was born on September 19, 1947, in Los Angeles, California, and was raised by a farming family in Lockhart, Texas. As the eldest son on the farm, he was responsible for managing family operations at home while his father was at work, sending his siblings to do chores that he assigned them. This experience provided him with valuable discipline, a strong work ethic, and a belief in the importance of saving one’s earnings rather than spending extravagantly. He later reflected, “There wasn’t any magic to it… If you want to go to college, you have to save money. I had learned from my parents that, if you want to save, you should focus on decreasing spending and saving the rest.” These values would later have an important influence on Bartlett’s conservative political views.
Steve first became politically active during his time in high school, taking part in Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign and recruiting students for the Young Republicans, creating the largest Young Republicans Club in Dallas County, and becoming its president. During a Young Republican bake sale, he met his future wife Gail, who subsequently attended the University of Texas at Austin together with him. During his college studies, Steve assumed leadership as Chairman of the Texas Young Republicans, which comprised 13,000 members divided among 150 clubs. While he quit this role, at Gail’s urging, to focus on his studies, the position provided him with valuable leadership experience, which would later benefit his political career.
Following graduation from college, Steve and Gail moved to Dallas, where he began a career in real estate. He remained politically active, becoming Chairman of the City’s Urban Rehab Club and President of the Dallas County Republican Men’s Club. In these roles, he continued to volunteer with candidates’ campaigns, “as well as learn the hopes and aspirations of the people around him with the goal of helping others accomplish their own goals.” While he was committed to the prospect of running for political office himself, he focused on familiarizing himself with constituents firsthand as part of public service. He later recalled, “Public service is about serving the public, and that’s where you have to start… If you want to be elected to Congress, you don’t set out to get elected to Congress. Instead, you set out to help a whole bunch of people in a Congressional district, and at some point your name will come around. Public service cannot be a scheme, or a ladder for your career path. Everything in your life has to be about serving others with genuine intent.”
Bartlett first ran for political office in 1977, winning a seat on the Dallas City Council. Four years later, in the spring of 1981, he set his sights on running for Congress, dividing his district into eight distinct neighborhoods, setting a vote goal for each one, and creating a chart listing his goals. When the district lines were redrawn, he drew up a new chart with new goals, winning both the nomination and the election in 1982, becoming the representative of Texas’ Third Congressional district at the age of 34. As a freshman Congressman, he interviewed one hundred incumbent members of Congress to gain insights on how to pass meaningful legislation without seniority as a member of the minority party. He reflected that of the sets of Congressmen that he interviewed, “the other set said I could do anything I wanted to do. Come up with a good idea, follow the rules, master the subject, and never give up, and I could pass any sensible legislation I put my mind to.” Through this approach, Congressman Bartlett proved to be an effective legislator, helping to pass an amendment allowing the market to set Federal Housing Authority (FHA) interest rates.
During the debate over the ADA, Congressman Bartlett played a prominent role in working to pass the House version of the bill. As the ranking minority member of the Select Education Subcommittee, he collaborated with Congressman Steny Hoyer (D – MD) in negotiating modifications to a substitute ADA that was aimed at clarifying parts of the Senate-passed bill. None of these modifications weakened the bill. Following the defeat of eight amendments aimed at weakening the coverage of the ADA, further committee action was postponed until after the holiday recess on January 23, 1990.
On May 17, 1990, the same day that the House began consideration of the ADA, Congressman Bartlett held a viewer call-in that was broadcast on television. He elaborated extensively upon the issues addressed in the bill, including the problem of discrimination, which he said was growing larger since more people with disabilities were seeking to return to the workforce. He noted that employers assume that persons with disabilities can’t do the job, so they simply don’t get an interview. In addition, Congressman Bartlett pointed to discrimination in public accommodations, which he argued in favor of “putting behind us.” Furthermore, he maintained that the ADA should be extended to the private sector in its entirety as a civil rights protection, calling it an extension of current law to the private sector.
In discussing the criteria for people with disabilities covered under the ADA, Congressman Bartlett defined “disabled” as anyone who had a physical or mental impairment that prevents them from performing a major life function. He stated that, with respect to employment, the bill covered a “qualified individual with a disability,” defining them as someone who could do the job and cannot be discriminated against because of their disability.
Congressman Bartlett subsequently elaborated upon his creation of the Taskforce for Empowerment, a special agency dedicated to helping individuals with disabilities find employment and independent housing. In discussing his motivations for creating the Taskforce, he incorporated his conservatism into the rationale for the ADA, arguing that conservatives should support programs that empower people to control their own lives, such as buying a home, so that they would not be dependent on public welfare services. This constituted a significant factor in the broader Republican support for the ADA since conservative leaders, such as Bartlett, viewed the bill as enabling people with disabilities to join the workforce and achieve greater self-sufficiency. Bartlett also addressed this issue during the viewer call-in discussion by pointing out that the ADA would take away one of the barriers to employment in the business sector, pointing out that only 23% of working-age adult men and 13% of working-age adult women with disabilities were employed.
Addressing the business community’s concerns about the vague definition of public accommodations, Congressman Bartlett sought to debunk their claims by stating that the only win for public accommodations would be the requirement for restaurants to serve people with disabilities. He maintained, however, that public facilities would not have to provide accommodation if it caused them an “unnecessary expense.” In addition, he saw potential amendments as including backpay and reinstatement on the job, as well as the Chapman Amendment. Introduced by Congressman Jim Chapman (Texas), this controversial amendment allowed employers to transfer individuals with communicable or contagious diseases (i.e., HIV/AIDS) to non-food-handling jobs. Although the Chapman Amendment was approved by the House on May 17, 1990, it was subsequently defeated in the Senate due to the efforts of Senator Orrin Hatch, whose alternative amendment “required the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop a list of contagious diseases that could be communicated through food handling.”
Other concerns that Congressman Bartlett addressed during his viewer call-in included the issue of getting health insurance other than Medicaid and keeping SSI if people with disabilities joined the workforce. He discussed the limitations in SSI, including the loss of SSI if a person got a job, and a bill he passed that would allow people with disabilities to go to work and keep their Medicaid so long as they were still disabled. In addition, he elaborated upon a program that allowed people with disabilities to go back to work and buy into Medicare, pointing out that there were hundreds of thousands of people in their 40s who would become disabled, and he expressed his hope that barriers would be removed so that they would have the prospect of returning to work and “living a much fuller and more productive life.”
When one of the respondents raised the issue of injury on the job and eligibility for disability pension, Congressman Bartlett replied that the ADA prohibited companies from denying an individual employment on the basis of their disability or from firing them because of the disability in and of itself: “If you’re injured and have a disability that you can’t do job A, without causing the employer significant expense, then they have to transfer you to another job if they can accommodate you.” Therefore, he maintained, the bill would prohibit employers from denying individuals employment on the grounds of their disability if they could provide reasonable accommodations.
With respect to the issue of SSI and Social Security, Congressman Bartlett discussed the Trust Bill that he had reintroduced. Under this legislation, parents of handicapped children would be allowed to leave their inheritance in a trust fund without jeopardizing their SSI. In addition, he maintained that the Republican Party was trying to repeal the age limitation on Social Security so that low-income individuals would be eligible for home ownership. The essential problem, he stated, was that “Medicare overpromises,” and that Congress needed to find a way to fix the system.
Regarding enforcement of the ADA’s protections against discrimination, Congressman Bartlett stated that “if you’ve been discriminated against in employment, the goal of Congress is not to get you a lawsuit; the goal is to get you a job… I think there will be some additional relief in this bill, and it will be illegal to discriminate against someone just because of their disability… This bill just simply says that with your disability or your injury, you can’t be denied employment if you can perform the job and you don’t provide a threat to the safety of other employees or yourself… It simply unlocks the door so that someone has the chance to walk through it.” He concluded that he anticipated passage of the ADA, saying it was “a landmark bill that ten years from now will have helped to make society substantially improved from where we are today.”
By the time Congressman Bartlett decided to retire from Congress after nine years of service, he had authored or co-authored 18 pieces of prominent legislation, including the ADA, the East Texas Wilderness Act, and amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act. He subsequently ran for mayor of the City of Dallas, addressing the problems of race relations, unemployment, and violent crime. As mayor, he helped improve race relations by bringing minorities into the decision-making process, began revitalizing the business sector in downtown Dallas, and passed a $5 million capital plan for infrastructure that guided the city’s development for 15 years.
In his retirement from politics, Steve Bartlett has remained an active supporter of disability-related causes and organizations, including Easter Seals, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of RespectAbility, a disability-led non-profit that works to create systemic change in society’s outlook toward people with disabilities and seeks to “advance opportunities so people with disabilities can fully participate in all aspects of community.” As disability advocates honor the 33rd anniversary of the ADA today, the contributions of Congressman Bartlett should be remembered as a shining example of how bipartisanship played an effective role in enabling the bill’s passage. While members of both parties brought different ideological rationales to their support for the ADA, the articulate message that Congressman Bartlett conveyed in his viewer call-in discussion, together with his close collaboration with Congressman Hoyer and other colleagues, contributed significantly to the success of the bill, and disability advocates can emulate his example by working closely together with political leaders to advance contemporary disability-related causes.
- “About Us – RespectAbility.” https://www.respectability.org/. RespectAbility. Accessed May 26, 2023. https://www.respectability.org/about-us/.
- Bartlett, Steve. Cited in Gordon J. Bernhardt, “Steve Bartlett: The Power of Purpose.” https://www.profilesinsuccess.com/. Profiles in Success. Published January 2016. Accessed May 25, 2023. https://www.profilesinsuccess.com/profile/steve-bartlett.
- Bernhardt, Gordon J. “Steve Bartlett: The Power of Purpose.”
- “Chapman Amendment – The ADA Project.” https://www.adalawproject.org/. The ADA Project. Accessed May 26, 2023. http://www.adalawproject.org/chapman-amendment#:~:text=H.,to%20non%2Dfood%20handling%20jobs.
- “Hon. Steve Bartlett.” https://www.respectability.org/. RespectAbility. Published July 11, 2017. Accessed May 26, 2023. https://www.respectability.org/2017/07/rep-steve-bartlett/.
“Moments in Disability History 29 | The Final Push.” https://mn.gov/portal/. Minnesota’s State Portal. Accessed May 13, 2023. https://mn.gov/mnddc/ada-legacy/ada-legacy-moment29.html