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George H.W. Bush was a champion for people with disabilities

As vice president and later as commander in chief, Bush helped oversee the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Mourners, Including Former Presidents, Attend Funeral For Barbara Bush Brett Coomer - Pool/Getty Images

George H.W. Bush, who died on Friday at age 94, was probably best remembered, legislatively, for his 1990 budget deal. But for many in the disability community, he is remembered for another bill passed that year: the Americans With Disabilities Act.

A monumental piece of legislation that prohibited discrimination against those with physical and intellectual disabilities, the act that Bush signed was seen as the equivalent of the Civil Rights Act for individuals with disabilities.

To better understand why Bush is remembered as a champion by many in that community, I spoke with Lex Frieden, a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, the then-director of the National Council on Disability, and one of the architects of the law. I spoke with him about Bush’s role in the legislation, which he began as vice president and signed into law as president.

Our conversation, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, follows.

Rachel Withers

Can you explain the legislation to our readers in a nutshell?

Lex Frieden

The Americans With Disabilities Act is in effect the Civil Rights Act for people with disabilities in the United States. It essentially says that discrimination may not occur on the basis of functional impairment or any other condition perceived to be a disability. The law was enacted in 1990 by President George Herbert Walker. At the time it was passed in 1990, it passed the Congress — the House and Senate — by one of the largest majorities ever to pass a bill.

Rachel Withers

What were some of the practical flow-on effects?

Lex Frieden

Well, the law covered several important aspects of life. Essentially, it changed the paradigm of the way we look at disability from a medical diagnosis-oriented paradigm to one of function and accessibility. So it says that buildings and public places may not discriminate by having inaccessible facilities. ... So it’s not only people who are mobility-impaired or in wheelchairs that must be accommodated; it’s also people with hearing impairments, people who have sensory impairments, that are blind, people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities. And the law in that regard is pretty far-reaching.

In addition to the physical aspect of accommodation, there are also the social and interpersonal aspects of accommodation. So personnel need to be trained to interact appropriately with people who are disabled and must provide appropriate accommodation for them if they request it. And some of those accommodations are kind of subtle. For example: If a deaf person goes to check into a hotel, the hotel staff must be ready to communicate with them in an appropriate manner, and not just try to raise their voice to the deaf person.

The law also includes employment, and people with disabilities cannot be discriminated against in employment settings, either as applicants for a job or as workers, and the law covers a broad array of issues pertaining to employment. So it’s pretty far-reaching.

Rachel Withers

You’ve said that “George Bush will be viewed by people with disabilities and their families as the Abraham Lincoln of their experience.” Can you explain his role in passing this act?

Lex Frieden

In 1986, the National Council on Disability produced a report. That report recommended a law like the ADA and said that people with disabilities face discrimination in all aspects of life, and it should be addressed just as nondiscrimination laws for people of different gender, people of different race and color, people of different religious persuasions. So essentially, we recommended in that report that the ADA be passed to complement the other body of civil rights legislation we had already established in the United States.

At that time, we wanted to meet with President Reagan and share the report with him, hoping to receive his endorsement. But the meeting that we had scheduled was canceled because it was coincidentally occurring on the day the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up on launch. … However, the White House offered to enable us to meet a few days later with the vice president, who happened to be George H.W. Bush. We decided that was a good thing to do, that we didn’t want to wait to meet the president after that schedule was reorganized. So we met with Vice President Bush, who immediately understood what our objectives were and, in effect, endorsed our proposal.

Rachel Withers

And I understand that President Bush had previously lost a child with disabilities. How did that impact his interest in the issue?

Lex Frieden

I think it had a huge impact. When we met with the vice president in January 1986, he said at the beginning of the meeting that he and [his wife] Barbara had reviewed the report the night before. He ... said that they could both relate to it because of the child with a disability whom they had lost and because one of their children at the time was coping with disability issues. One of the Bush boys had a disability — pardon me because I can’t recall which one — but he had learning difficulties and they were concerned about that. He had difficulty reading, and I think later I learned that he had dyslexia.

Rachel Withers

And so after this first meeting, how did George Bush’s role in this legislation progress from there?

Lex Frieden

Well, when we left, the vice president said that he really understood and appreciated what we were trying to achieve and that he would report what he had learned to the president, to President Reagan. And he reminded us that he was just the vice president and said that if in the future he had more opportunities to help us promote the legislation, he would do so. And I think that was a sincere promise at the time, although I don’t believe that he at the time imagined that within two years, he [would be] elected president.

And at the time of his election, actually in the campaign, he had committed to supporting the Americans With Disabilities Act and stated so many times during his presidency until he was able to sign the law in 1990.

Rachel Withers

President Bush said in a 1994 speech that “Houston has had a profound effect on the ADA.” What was the city of Houston’s special role?

Lex Frieden

Well in the mid-1970s, there was a group of us who were relatively young people with disabilities, mostly wheelchair users, who got together periodically to discuss the frustration that we felt, the barriers that we encountered in trying to be independent and trying to be part of the community. And we started an organization called the Coalition for Barrier-Free Living and began to try and educate the public and authorities.

At the time, it seemed to us that they weren’t very responsive to the complaints that we made, to the recommendations that we had. So we began to engage in what now is fondly known as civil disobedience. And I think we were clever about it.

To give you an example, one morning the mayor of the city issued a press release and said that he did not believe enough citizens were using the public transit, and that therefore, on the following day he himself would be riding the bus from the city hall. And he encouraged everyone in Houston to get out and ride the bus; it would be free for that day. And we learned about that, and arrived at the bus stop in front of the city hall at the same time the mayor did. We had about 40 people in wheelchairs there waiting to get on the bus.

Of course, we knew that the bus had only steps; there was no way for wheelchairs to get on the bus. And so we surprised the mayor and surprised the press and there was a lot of coverage of the driver confused about how he was supposed to get all these wheelchair users on his bus, and it made for good media coverage.

Over the years, we continued to engage with the city until we began to see some fruits from our labor. The city applied for a federal grant in 1984 and received funding to match that, and built the first fully accessible community center. We were successful in getting the city to agree to purchase buses with ramps on them before the law required it.

So we had a fairly large effect. And of course, Mr. Bush and Mrs. Bush had a residence in the city. ... So the president was aware of all that; he was aware of the community center we had built. He was aware of all the accommodations the city has undertaken. So I believe that’s why he attributed that to Houston, in addition to the fact that I happened to be significantly engaged in the process of recommending and development to legislation.

Rachel Withers

Can you speak at all to how President Bush felt about the Americans With Disabilities Act as part of his legacy?

Lex Frieden

From time to time, I discussed that with him. And he understood that he would be remembered forever as the president who made people with disability a part of their community, the president who changed the face of America, and he was very proud of that. He considered that among some of his greatest accomplishments.

From time to time, he told me he felt like it was the best thing that he did. And then from time to time, I heard him make reference to other domestic legislation that he was responsible for, including the Clean Air Act, as being significant to his administration. So I think he was generally proud of what he accomplished as president, but he was always particularly proud of the ADA.

Rachel Withers

Did he ever speak of the ADA in terms of being a wheelchair user himself?

Lex Frieden

He did. You know, I asked him once if he realized the impact that he had for people with disabilities. He said he certainly understood it more now that he had personal experience with disability.

Rachel Withers

What is the next big legislative goal for the disability community at this point?

Lex Frieden

Well, I can tell you the next big challenge for the disability community. There are probably two.

One of them that anyone will tell you with the disability is getting sufficient enforcement for the law that’s already on the books. The ADA has had a huge impact on every sector of our lives. It has even been used as a model for international rules, the convention pertaining to disability. Yet employers continue to discriminate, people who are inspecting buildings fail to invoke the rules of access, private entrepreneurs ignore the ADA when they’re developing new business enterprises. And that issue pertaining to enforcement is a big issue.

There’s also, I think, a tsunami pertaining to disability among the baby boomers that we have in our society. There are 76 million people who were born between 1946 and 1964. All of those people are retiring now, they’re getting older, and as a person ages, they will most likely and naturally become disabled. They will lose their hearing or their eyesight, their vision, their memory, their mobility, whatever. Different things happen to different people, but aging is coincident with disability. And we are not prepared as a nation.

I don’t think there’s any society in the world that is prepared for the huge number of people with disability that are going to be in our community and who wish to be independent, not living in institutions but accommodated in the home that they’ve lived in most of their lives. So this a real challenge and I’m not even sure the disability community fully appreciate the significance of that challenge.

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