by Nils Skudra, Communications Specialist, DI-NC
As we commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the passage of the ADA, it is important that we pay homage to the various political figures and disability rights advocates who made its implementation possible. One of the key figures in the debate over the ADA was George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States, who worked together with Congressional leaders to have the bill passed and who signed it into law on July 26, 1990. The signing of the ADA remains one of the landmark achievements of the elder Bush, whose policies led to the enactment of one of the most far-reaching disability rights bills in U.S. history.
George Herbert Walker Bush was born on June 12, 1924, in Milton, Massachusetts, to a family with a longstanding tradition of public service. This upbringing instilled in Bush a sense of responsibility to make his contribution to the U.S., both in war and peace. On his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the armed forces during World War II, rising to become the youngest pilot in the Navy upon receiving his wings. After flying 58 combat missions as a torpedo bomber pilot in the Pacific Theatre, Bush was shot down by Japanese antiaircraft fire and was rescued from the water by a U.S. submarine. This episode led to his decoration with the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in action.
Following his military service, Bush married Barbara Pierce in January 1945 and channeled his energy into completing his education at Yale University, where he excelled both in his athletic and academic pursuits, becoming captain of the baseball team and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Together with Barbara, he raised a family of six children – George, Robin, John (known as Jeb), Neil, Marvin, and Dorothy. Of these children, three would struggle with significant disabilities: Robin died of leukemia when she was almost four years old; Neil had severe learning disabilities; and Marvin later underwent a colostomy. These experiences, together with the history of disability in the Bush family (his uncle John M. Walker had had polio while one of Bush’s brothers had been born with only one eye), had a profound influence on Bush, which would later contribute to his support for the ADA.
After pursuing a career in the oil industry of West Texas, Bush embarked on a political career, serving two terms as a Representative to Congress and twice running unsuccessfully for the Senate. He was subsequently appointed to a series of high-level government positions: Ambassador to the U.N., Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in the People’s Republic of China, and Director of the CIA. In 1980, Bush campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination, which he lost to Ronald Reagan. Serving as Vice President under the Reagan administration, Bush had responsibility in several domestic policy areas, including Federal deregulation and anti-drug programs, and undertook diplomatic visits to numerous foreign countries. During this period, he developed a strong interest in disability policy, as his adviser C. Boyden Gray helped Bush align conservative principles with disability rights. Working together with Senator Bob Dole, Bush pursued a strategy of using government to create opportunities for people with disabilities to contribute to the U.S. economy as workers, which resonated with disability rights activists who promoted the slogan “We want to be tax payers, not tax users.”
On the domestic scene, the disability rights movement and the debate over the ADA were highly pressing issues for President Bush. His meeting with Sandra Jansen, a woman with Downs syndrome, made a profound impression on President Bush since he was impressed by her strength and independence. Together with his firsthand experiences with disabilities in the Bush family, he drew upon this interaction to bring a personal dimension to the ADA’s political drama.
During the Congressional debate over the ADA, President Bush’s administration worked closely with the bill’s sponsors. Upon becoming president in 1989, he had teamed up with Senator Bob Dole to work on behalf of disability rights, which now manifested itself in the negotiations between the White House and Congress. However, an important consideration was the issue of balancing disability rights with the concerns of the business sector, which factored into President Bush’s initial reluctance to endorse the 1989 version of the ADA, despite his personal support for the general principle of the bill. On June 22, 1989, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, representing the Bush administration, testified before the Senate, indicating the administration’s general approval while expressing certain reservations. This was subsequently followed by “an intensive period of what Kennedy described as ‘long tough hard bargaining sessions’ between Congressional Democrats, such as Kennedy, and administration officials, such as John Sununu and Thornburgh.”
The negotiations between Congress and the Bush administration served, in part, to put a bipartisan stamp on the final product of the ADA bill and “to ensure that both parties received credit for the bill.” In addition, they provided private forums to work out important details of the ADA, in which both Congressional and administration officials compromised on certain points. For example, while Democratic leaders conceded the administration’s preference for restricting legal remedies to those described in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “the administration gave way on its desire to limit the entities covered by the public accommodations section of the bill to hotels, motels, restaurants, and theaters,” agreeing instead to have the law apply to “a broad array of institutions, such as grocery stores and banks.” On August 2, 1989, Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater announced an agreement between the Senators and the administration, explaining that President Bush sought to bring persons with disabilities into the mainstream but wanted to do so “through a framework that allows for maximum flexibility to implement effective solutions, builds on existing law to avoid unnecessary confusion and litigation and attain these goals without imposing undue burdens.” However, the complaints of business leaders about the financial costs of implementing reasonable accommodations and potential litigation continued to complicate the negotiations, thus exerting a significant influence on how the bill would be implemented.
During the spring of 1990, a new controversy resurfaced over the legal remedies provided in the ADA, with some Congressional Democrats calling for an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to allow for punitive damages, and the Senate bill allowed for payment of these punitive damages if the amendments passed. However, the Bush administration sought to “limit the legal remedies to those under the 1964 Act, not the 1964 Act as amended.” Senior administration officials warned that President Bush might withdraw his support if this debate was not resolved in a satisfactory manner. As this controversy unfolded, “protesters in wheelchairs staged a demonstration in the Capitol Rotunda, urging the passage of the ADA.”
On May 22, 1990, the Bush administration lost the battle over the penalties to be included in the ADA, with the House defeating an amendment by James Sensenbrenner that would have limited the penalties to those in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and then passing the ADA by a wide margin. The Chapman Amendment which would have allowed restaurants and similar establishments to transfer people with infectious or communicable diseases from food-handling jobs, was subsequently defeated through Senator Orrin Hatch’s brokering of a compromise in which the Secretary of Health and Human Services was directed to publish a list of diseases that could be transmitted through food handling.
Following the passage of the ADA by Congress, President Bush signed the bill into law on July 26, 1990, in a history-making Rose Garden ceremony, attended by thousands, many of whom had disabilities. Upon signing the ADA, President Bush declared, “Today’s legislation brings us closer to that day when no Americans will ever again be deprived of their basic guarantee of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Disability advocates commemorated this occasion as Independence Day I, since the ADA was the most far-reaching and sweeping disability rights legislation of its time. Nonetheless, President Bush directly confronted and acknowledged the concerns of the business community by noting the law’s provisions for flexibility and its features designed to contain the costs of accommodations or litigation. Over the following years of his presidency, he celebrated the ADA as historic legislation, and in 1993, President Bush attended a luncheon in which Senator Bob Dole predicted that people would look back on the passage of the ADA as “one of George Bush’s greatest achievements.”
George H.W. Bush died on November 30, 2018, at the age of 94, seven months after the death of Barbara Bush, his wife of 73 years. His body was transported to Washington, DC, where he lay in state at the U.S. Capitol for two days, followed by a state funeral at the National Cathedral. President Bush’s support for the ADA remains one of the landmark achievements of his presidency, as the ADA continues to have a substantial impact on the lives of people with disabilities in the United States. It is this aspect of his legacy which disability rights advocates will always remember Bush for, with admiration and respect.
- “ADA at the Dole Archives.” https://dolearchivecollections.ku.edu/. Robert and Elizabeth Dole Archive and Special Collections. Accessed May 8, 2023. https://dolearchivecollections.ku.edu/collections/ada/.
- Berkowitz, Edward. “George Bush and the Americans with Disabilities Act.” https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/. Social Welfare History Project. Virginia Commonwealth University. Accessed May 20, 2023. https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/issues/disability/george-bush-and-the-americans-with-disabilities-act/.
- Bush, George H.W. Cited in “Congressman Steny Hoyer Delivers Remarks at 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” https://hoyer.house.gov/. Congressman Steny Hoyer | Representing the 5th District of Maryland. Published July 12, 2010. Accessed May 20, 2023. https://hoyer.house.gov/content/congressman-steny-hoyer-delivers-remarks-20th-anniversary-celebration-americans-disabilities.
- 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/. Salon.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/.
- Dole, Bob. Cited in Edward Berkowitz, “George Bush and the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
- Fitzwater, Martin. Cited in Berkowitz.
- “George H.W. Bush | The White House.” https://www.whitehouse.gov/. The White House. Accessed May 18, 2023. https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/george-h-w-bush/.