The National Council on Disability mourns the loss of President George H.W. Bush, a visionary statesman and steadfast supporter of civil rights for people with disabilities who, by signing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), forever changed the lives of people with disabilities in the United States of America.
President Bush's personal experience with disability shaped his relationship with the disability community. He had a daughter who died from leukemia, a son with a learning disability, an uncle with quadriplegia, and a son who had cancer.
As Vice President, he was committed to improving the lives of people with disabilities, stating, “I am going to do whatever it takes to make sure the disabled are included in the mainstream. For too long, they have been left out, but they are not going to be left out anymore." He advocated for the rights of people with disabilities during his presidential campaign and after he was elected President in 1988, he promoted the passage of the ADA - the comprehensive federal civil rights mandate that guarantees people with disabilities independence, freedom of choice, control of their lives, and the opportunity to fully blend into the American mainstream.
President Bush likened the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act to Independence Day, which had been celebrated just three weeks earlier. The ADA was the world's first "declaration of equality" for persons with disabilities, he said. Because of it, "every man, woman and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence and freedom."
In the words of President Bush during the signing of the ADA on July 26, 1990 – “now I sign legislation which takes a sledgehammer to another wall, one which has, for too many generations, separated Americans with disabilities from the freedom they could glimpse, but not grasp. Once again, we rejoice as this barrier falls, proclaiming together we will not accept, we will not excuse, we will not tolerate discrimination in America. . . . Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”
President Bush pointed out that the law answers the needs of American businesses by providing them with a tremendous pool of workers “who want to work, can work, and who will bring diversity, loyalty, and a proven low turnover rate” to jobs. He called on employers to give applicants with disabilities the opportunity to "move proudly into the economic mainstream of American life." We must do more to make this happen.
Twenty-eight years later, the results of the ADA are visible across the nation - from the physical access created by curb-cuts, ramps, and electronic doors that are now ubiquitous, to the opportunity to work and to fully participate in civic, educational, and recreational opportunities - people with disabilities have taken their place as an important and integral part of American society.
As we bid farewell to a statesman whose words and actions improved the lives of millions of people with disabilities and helped make America the pinnacle of disability inclusivity in the world, let us honor his memory by vigilantly pursuing the promises of the ADA and making them a reality.