This photograph, from July 26, 1990, is important.
Centerframe, President George H. W. Bush sits at a wooden desk on a stage in the South Lawn of the White House. To his sides are three men and a woman, watching as he signs the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, or the ADA, is the most significant civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act.
In 1964 it became a crime to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; the ADA extends those protections to people with disabilities.
We cannot downplay the magnitude of the passage of such a law. This bill mandated the destruction of physical and ideological barriers blocking people with disabilities from fully participating in almost every area of public life. This was not business as usual.
President Bush signed this law into being.
A Washington Post obituary captures President Bush’s essence: “His principal achievements were produced at negotiating tables. ‘When the word moderation becomes a dirty word, we have some soul searching to do,’ [Bush] wrote a friend in 1964…”
In many ways, President Bush was moderate, a master bridge-builder, seated centerframe.
So whose were the voices calling him to champion this cause? How does a political pragmatist come to pass the largest piece of civil rights legislation since the days of Rosa Parks and Rev. Dr. King Jr.?
The answer, in some small part, can be gleaned from the photo above. Look to the four people flanking the President. In each their own way, these four represent the hard, hard work of disability rights activists who made this legislation a reality.
• Rev. Dr. Harold Wilke, the first person with a disability ordained in a Christian denomination. Born in Washington, Missouri, Rev. Wilke spent his life fighting for civil rights, working to reform faith communities to empower people of color, women, and people with disabilities.
• Justin Dart, Chairperson of the Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. Mr. Dart and his spouse Yoshiko Dart, travelled across the country talking to people with disabilities about social change. Based on these conversations, Dart and others drafted legislation which would eventually become the ADA.
• Sandra Parrino, Chairperson of the National Council on Disability. Ms. Parrino, a disability advocate and a mother to two children with disabilities, also helped to write the bill and provided the necessary leadership to ensure the introduction and passage of the ADA.
• Evan Kemp, Chairperson of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Mr. Kemp had counseled President Reagan and President Bush on disability issues since the early 1980s, all the while building coalitions of racial and ethnic minorities, women, and seniors, all fighting for equal access under the law.
This landmark moment in American History simply does not happen without the relentless leadership of people with disabilities and other advocates.
Like the Civil Rights Act before it, the passage of the ADA was won through grassroots organizing, direct action, and education campaigns.
Across-the-aisle partnerships were forged to advance the cause. Minds were changed through sustained advocacy efforts. Hard hearts were softened by jarring demonstrations led by bold activists of all ages.
Tirelessly, people with disabilities and advocates continue to work for justice today, at the local and state level, federally, and all across the globe.
Rev. Wilke put it best, in a prayer delivered from the podium that afternoon in July 1990: “Strengthen our resolve as we take up the task, knowing that our work has just begun.”