Thirty years of access for those with disabilities


PITTSBURGH – Some 83 years ago, a group of disgruntled Americans organized a sit-in at a broom shop here. There were 107 of them, and their spokesman said, “We are only asking for our legal rights.” Their sit-in was in the tradition begun by the radical International Workers of the World, and their action was the physical expression of what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would say the day before he was killed: that by sitting in, protesters were standing up.

Those long-ago demonstrators were not professional activists. They were blind workers, and their act constituted one of the first sit-ins for the rights of the disabled. They were joined by Rep. Matthew A. Dunn of Pittsburgh, blind since he was 20, and their protest helped us see the future. 

Their sit-in led directly to a landmark event whose 30th anniversary we marked Sunday, the implementation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down,” President George H.W. Bush said when he signed the law in 1990. It was the disabled version of the Book of Exodus sentiment – Let my people go! – that Harriet Tubman used as a code for enslaved people escaping to the North and that Al Jolson and Paul Robeson made famous.  

That phrase is enshrined in the American Songbook, in the hearts of the marginalized and the striving, in the soaring words of a patrician president who claimed the ADA was the achievement of which he was most proud, in the American spirit and, 30 years ago, in the American legal code. 

“President Bush truly was passionate about disability rights and felt the ADA was the greatest civil rights act in the country after the civil rights movement of the 1960s,” Andrew H. Card, deputy White House chief of staff at the time and interim chair of the George and Barbara Bush Foundation, said in an interview. “He used to say that disability knew no barrier between ethnic groups and religious affiliation. People with disabilities were pushed aside, and he was proud to make them part of the fabric of America.”

Bush had a helping hand from political figures of both parties. Two were important Republicans: Sen. Robert J. Dole of Kansas, injured in combat on an Italian hillside in the last days of World War II, and Sen. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, whose son was born with Down syndrome. There were two Democrats: Rep. Tony Coelho of California, who suffered from epilepsy after a head injury at age 16, and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, whose brother became deaf at age 5 because of spinal meningitis and was sent to the Iowa Institute for the Deaf and Dumb.

They were not alone. One of the unsung heroes was Ginny Thornburgh, wife of former attorney general and Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh. When she married Thornburgh – after his first wife, also named Ginny, was killed in a 1960 automobile accident and their son Peter was left disabled – the new Mrs. Thornburgh took up the cause. 

“I came to understand the rights and opportunities that had been denied to the disabled,” she told me, “and I felt strongly especially that people had a right to be welcomed in their house of God, whatever that house was.” It was Mrs. Thornburgh who pushed to have the Rev. Harold Wilke – born without arms – deliver a blessing striking the let-my-people-go theme after taking Bush’s signing pen in his toes:  

“Today we celebrate the breaking of the chains which have held back millions of Americans with disabilities. Today we celebrate the granting to them of full citizenship and access to the promised land of work, service and community.”

And there was indispensable assistance from Robert L. Burgdorf Jr. of the University of the District of Columbia Law School, who drafted an early version of the ADA three years before Bush attached his signature to the final product. 

Burgdorf was a polio victim, like my father, Dick Shribman, who rarely discussed legislation with his son the congressional correspondent, but who felt the ADA was a personal gift from Washington. “In today’s polarized political climate,” Burgdorf wrote in The Washington Post in 2015, in words that would be appropriate in 2020, “it’s enlightening to contemplate that the ADA was an exemplary fruit of bipartisan congressional cooperation.” 

This achievement did not come with ease.

Months before it passed, with the legislation stalled in the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation, hundreds of disability-rights activists converged on Washington, left their wheelchairs and other mobility aids, and crawled up the stairs of the West Front of the Capitol. The Capitol Crawl, as it was called, was another example of standing up even while not balancing on two feet.

The ADA literally changed the world for the disabled. “If you were a person of color and went to a restaurant and they wouldn’t serve you the day before July 26, 1990, you could go right to the courthouse,” said Harkin, now retired from the Senate but still working on issues of employment access for the disabled and running a global conference on disability issues. “On that same day, someone in a wheelchair could go to the same restaurant and be denied service. That day the courthouse door would be closed. But a day later, July 26, that courthouse door would be open. That’s what the ADA did.”

Nearly two decades before the ADA, the disabled were, in the characterization of a New York judge, “the most discriminated (against) minority in our nation.” Today, entrance ramps, smooth curb cuts, parking spaces for the disabled, widened doorways and commodious bathroom chambers are unremarkable parts of the American landscape. Hiring discrimination is illegal.But there are still obstacles to – and here is the signature phrase of every civil rights movement – full integration. 

“There is much more to do,” said former Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, who became chairman of the National Organization on Disability soon after President George W. Bush appointed him to direct the nation’s post-9/11 homeland security offensive. “The highest level of poverty and unemployment in America are the disabled. There are still doors locked to the disabled. The challenge we have is to realize disability is a human condition.” Let all of our people go, where and when they want.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

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