I’m a staunch liberal woman who believes strongly and unapologetically in progressive values. I’m also a woman with a disability who has benefited tremendously from the Americans With Disabilities Act.
These two identities have left me feeling greatly at odds after the death of former President George H.W. Bush. Is it possible to honor him for this monumental law and also acknowledge he did things during his time in office that seriously harmed people?
When Bush signed the ADA into law on July 26, 1990, he said it would “ensure that people with disabilities are given the basic guarantees for which they have worked so long and so hard: independence, freedom of choice, control of their lives, the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream.”
I was only 8 years old at the time, but I remember the law being passed and the increased opportunities that followed. Before the ADA was enacted, I couldn’t get into most restaurants, movie theaters and other places of public accommodation. I’ll never forget having to call places before visiting to see if they were wheelchair accessible. For years, the answer was usually “no.”
The ADA both literally and figuratively opened countless doors for people with disabilities. It prohibits employers from discriminating against workers with disabilities and requires they provide reasonable accommodations, such as specialized equipment, sign language interpreters and modified work schedules. The ADA also demands that public and private entities — such as state and local government agencies, restaurants, hotels, museums and sporting venues — be fully accessible to those of us with disabilities.
Of course, this landmark law didn’t make ramps and elevators magically appear overnight. Nor did it completely stop discrimination against people with disabilities. Progress takes time, and that can be incredibly frustrating. However, 28 years after Bush signed the ADA into law, I now expect to be able to visit the vast majority of places I want to visit. I expect to not be discriminated against because of my disability. And the ADA did far more than just require places to be accessible. It finally brought disability rights into public consciousness. It acknowledged that we had historically been segregated and isolated from our peers and that discrimination against people with disabilities was a “serious and pervasive social problem.”
People with disabilities are a heterogeneous community. We don’t live single-issue lives, and we are affected by politics and policies far beyond just the ones that are disability-specific.
For Americans with disabilities, the ADA was our Civil Rights Act. And as time has passed, recognition of disability rights has continued to grow. But although Bush was the president to sign the ADA into law, its passage was only possible because of the tireless efforts of disability rights activists across the country. In March 1990, dozens of people with disabilities literally crawled up the stairs of the U.S. Capitol building to demand that Congress finally pass the bill. Today, the disability community’s ability to mobilize continues; most recently, it succeeded in halting the GOP’s repeated attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. This community is a force to be reckoned with, and I am proud to be a member of it.
The ADA continues to change the lives of the 1 in 4 people in the U.S. who have a disability, and Bush deserves to be acknowledged for his part in this. Sure, a later president may have signed it into law, but people with disabilities had already waited long enough ― and in Bush, we found someone who was willing to champion the bill.
That said, we can’t ignore the countless and egregious errors Bush made during his time in the White House. Several of his policies deleteriously affected the lives of many in our disability community. For example, Bush was and still is rightly criticized for his inaction in addressing the needs of people with HIV and AIDS. He was also known for his racially charged politics that continue to harm people of color today. And Bush completely turned his back on reproductive rights as soon as he perceived it to be politically necessary.
I was too young at the time to understand the significance of these atrocities, but as I grew older and learned more about Bush’s presidency, I found myself increasingly angry. To overlook these errors and the many other intolerable actions Bush took during office would be to erase moments in history we simply can’t afford to forget.
People with disabilities are a heterogeneous community. We don’t live single-issue lives, and we are affected by politics and policies far beyond just the ones that are disability-specific. So how do we correctly recognize Bush for his groundbreaking contribution to disability rights and also acknowledge the harms he inflicted on Americans? More importantly, should we?
I don’t have all the answers, nor can I ever fully comprehend the extent to which many of Bush’s policies and positions directly hurt the lives and well-being of many Americans. To claim otherwise would be untrue and dangerous. At the end of the day, all of us with disabilities must decide for ourselves how we want to remember President George H.W. Bush.
Me? I choose to recognize him for passing a law that has positively changed my life and that of so many others. I also acknowledge he was a very flawed leader who hurt a lot of people. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Robyn Powell is a proud disabled woman as well as an attorney, scholar and writer.