by Nils Skudra, Communications Specialist, DI-NC
Among the Congressional leaders who supported the Americans with Disabilities Act, Senator Bob Dole led one of the most distinguished careers as a supporter of disability rights legislation, both before and after the ADA’s passage. His advocacy for disability rights was significantly influenced by his own experience of having suffered a severe physical disability because of his wartime service, and consequently Senator Dole had a unique empathy for the daily challenges that people in the disability community faced. Throughout his career, he championed disability rights in both the national and international spheres, and he earned widespread renown in 1996 as the first presidential nominee with a visible disability since Franklin Roosevelt, challenging negative assumptions about disability and aging. As we commemorate the anniversary of the ADA’s passage this year, it is important that we pay homage to Senator Dole’s life and career as a devoted supporter of disability rights whose tireless efforts helped ensure the enactment of the ADA and numerous other disability rights laws.
Bob Dole was born in Russell, Kansas on July 22, 1923. As a student at the University of Kansas, he was highly athletic, playing for the basketball and football teams and running track. During World War II, Dole joined the US. Army and saw action in the Italian campaign. It was here that he suffered a severe wound from enemy sniper fire, which dislocated his shoulder and crippled his backside. During his hospitalization, Dole drafted a questionnaire that called attention to the “inadequate” care that he and other veterans received in military hospitals, demanding the “best medical attention possible.” To achieve this goal, he sought help with gathering evidence of poor hospital conditions and going public with these facts.
Following numerous surgeries and years of rehabilitation, Dole was able to stand up by himself and walk unassisted, eventually returning to school and then going into public service. During his political career, he openly displayed signs of his disability as a badge of his public image: Lennard J. Davis writes that Dole’s “iconic pen in his clenched fist was almost as much a signature of his public identity as was his sartorial sense of style.” During his Senate career, Dole supported a variety of disability rights laws, including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and its Section 504, which he referred to as “one of the greatest civil rights statutes ever enacted.” Under Section 504, discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities was prohibited in federally funded agencies and institutions. As a native Kansan, Dole took a special interest in the University of Kansas’ Section 504 compliance.
However, Senator Dole’s support for the Rehabilitation Act brought him into conflict with President Richard Nixon, who vetoed the bill. In addition, while Section 504 was a breakthrough piece of legislation, it only covered the public sector of American life. Consequently, seventeen years later, Senator Dole supported the passage of the ADA, which extended disability rights to the private sector. Other disability laws that he supported included the Air Access Carrier Act (1986), which barred discrimination in the airline industry against passengers with disabilities, and the Developmental Disabilities Act (1970), which addressed the rights of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
While Senator Dole’s support for disability rights stemmed significantly from his own experience of having a physical disability, he was also motivated by political considerations since he worked within the Republican Party to promote disability-rights laws and attract people with disabilities to the party as potential voters, as he genuinely wanted them to actively participate in government and the political process. Toward this end, Senator Dole advocated accommodations that would facilitate the political participation of individuals with disabilities, including physical access to government facilities and closed captioning services within the Senate and for national public and commercial broadcasts. Following the passage of the ADA in 1990, telecasts of the U.S. Senate proceedings began using closed captioning technology, mandated by Senate Res. 13, which Senator Dole authored.
Senator Dole also established the Dole Foundation for Employment of Persons with Disabilities in 1983, with the mission of helping disabled Americans earn economic independence through job creation, training, and placement. The Foundation also assisted disabled entrepreneurs and later worked to educate private sector employers about the advantages of hiring people with disabilities. The Dole Foundation sought recognition across the U.S. for its expertise on employment of people with disabilities, lasting until 1998 after its charismatic president, Paul Hearne, died suddenly.
During the Reagan administration, Senator Dole’s disability policy efforts were complicated by his effort to balance disability rights advocacy with “his budget-cutting duties as chair of the Senate Finance Committee,” which were seen by many disability activists as “threats to Section 504 and other laws benefitting people with disabilities. In addressing these issues, Senator Dole shared his advocacy efforts with people and organizations representing a wide range of identities, viewpoints, and concerns, including constituents who wrote personal letters advocating for themselves and for others. People across the nation also wrote Senator Dole, and “[t]heir correspondence educated, moved, and motivated him” to persist in his work for disability rights legislation. Furthermore, Senator Dole’s legislative aides, including Christina Bolton, Maureen “Mo” West, Mary Wheat, Judy Brotman, and Alec Vachon, specialized in disability policy and helped him stay connected with disability activist networks, kept him up to date on legislative developments, and offered policy suggestions.
In working with colleagues on drafting the ADA, Senator Dole issued a statement on September 6, 1989, explaining his reasons for supporting the bill: “My support for ADA is based upon my commitment to seeing that its provisions can work to the benefit of all and the detriment of none.” He championed S. 933 as a “good example of Bi-Partisanship in action.” This version of the ADA passed the Senate in September 1989, with 76 “yes” votes. Senator Dole’s tactics were significant in that while he was the Senate’s Republican leader, his approach was bipartisan, organizing Republican support for the ADA and joining forces with Democrats, including Senators Edward Kennedy (Massachusetts) and Tom Harkin (Iowa), and therefore proved crucial to the Senate’s passage of the ADA. In paying tribute to his colleagues for passing the bill, Senator Dole noted that Senators Wiecker, Harkin, Kennedy, and Durenberger “had been especially helpful in getting the ADA through the Senate.”
Senator Dole’s effective negotiations with the executive branch and President George H.W. Bush were also critical to the passage of the ADA. Despite their history of political rivalry, Senator Dole and President Bush shared a commitment to disability rights and other issues: “When President Bush signed the ADA into law in 1990, he was putting his name on legislation that testified to Dole’s political skills and personal character.” Both Senator Dole and President Bush credited each other for their role in passing the ADA: Dole remarked, “Let’s face it. We would not be here today without the support of the President.” Bush, in turn, stated upon signing the ADA on July 26, 1990, “… it is very risky [to say] with all these members of Congress here who worked so hard. But I can say on a very personal basis, Bob Dole inspired me.”
Senator Dole complemented his national disability rights leadership with international efforts on behalf of people with disabilities around the world, especially in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the closing stages of the Cold War. This included seeking President Reagan’s support for coordinated advocacy between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the International Decade of Disabled Persons. In addition, during Mikhail Gorbachev’s summit meeting with President Reagan in 1988, Dole sought to place disability issues on the agenda.
In the years following the passage of the ADA, Senator Dole continued to promote disability rights and actively utilized his own image as an individual with a disability. When he ran for president against Bill Clinton in 1996, Dole became the first presidential nominee with a visible disability since Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as the oldest person in U.S. history to become a major presidential nominee. His Republican platform, “Restoring the American Dream,” affirmed Senator Dole’s views on disability rights: “… We believe in the equality of all people before the law and that individuals should be judged by their ability rather than their race, creed, or disability.” Although he lost the presidential election, Senator Dole continued to address various disability-related issues that were relevant to the ADA, including cancer and diabetes. As a prostate cancer survivor, he testified before Congress about prostate cancer awareness and prevention in 1997 and 1999, bringing attention to potentially life-saving screening procedures. His efforts brought widespread acclaim and recognition over the years: In 2015, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights presented Senator Dole with the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award for “selfless and devoted service in the cause of equality.”
Bob Dole died on December 5, 2021, at the age of 98. One of the longest-serving Republican senators, Dole was praised by President Biden as “an American statesman like few in our history. A war hero among the greatest of the Greatest Generation… To me, he was also a friend whom I could look to for trusted guidance, or a humorous line at just the right moment to settle frayed nerves.” A dedicated public servant and lifelong champion of disability rights, Bob Dole’s support for the ADA and other disability laws remains one of the shining hallmarks of his distinguished career, and members of the disability community today can look to his example as a model for advocacy and close collaboration with political leaders. By following Senator Dole’s example, disability activists can continue to successfully strive for greater social and economic equality and inclusivity for the disability community.
- Biden, Joe. Cited in Katherine Q. Seelye, “Bob Dole, Old Soldier and Stalwart of the Senate, Dies at 98.” https://www.nytimes.com/. The New York Times. Published December 5, 2021. Accessed May 15, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/05/us/politics/bob-dole-dead.html.
- Bush, George H.W. Cited in “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/.
- “ADA at the Dole Archives.”
- 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 “ADA at the Dole Archives.”
- Seelye, Katherine Q. “Bob Dole, Old Soldier and Stalwart of the Senate, Dies at 98.”