On July 26, 1990, I sat on the south lawn of the White House and watched President George H.W. Bush sign the Americans with Disabilities Act. I was there as an observer, along with other activists. The weather was perfect. It was one of those rare days to be reserved purely for celebration. There was still plenty of activism and struggle ahead, but we could worry about that tomorrow.
President Bush signed the ADA enthusiastically. His staff and he helped to push it through Congress so it would make it to his desk. He cited the events of that day as being among the “proudest achievements” of his presidency.
But I didn’t vote for Bush in 1992—because a vote for him was a vote to keep people with conservative philosophies like his in power. It’s true many Republicans helped champion the ADA and other federal legislation that makes life easier for Americans with disabilities. This is often because they, like just about everyone else, have had an important person with a disability in their lives. When disability issues are personal enough, they can penetrate the walls of even a narrow ideology.
But when people fail to use their enlightenment on disability issues to call into question the oppressive philosophical basis of their conservatism, they undermine real progress.
Bush did this when, after signing the ADA, he picked Clarence Thomas for the U.S. Supreme Court. Thomas has steadily voted to declaw the ADA in cases that have come before the court.
The most monumental Supreme Court ADA decision was in the 1999 case of Olmstead vs. LC and EW. The court ruled that when state governments automatically confine disabled people to institutions rather supporting them to live in their homes and communities, that is discrimination under the ADA.
Thomas wrote the dissenting opinion, in which he rejected the idea that indefinitely segregating disabled people away from the rest of society constitutes illegal segregation. “By adopting such a broad view of discrimination,” he wrote, “the majority drains the term of any meaning other than as a proxy for decisions disapproved of by this court.”
Fortunately, Thomas and his two fellow ultra-conservatives that concurred with his opinion were in the minority and the Olmstead decision led to the plaintiffs, and thousands of other people with disabilities, being freed from institutions.
Federal civil rights laws are just empty symbolic gestures unless the executive branch vigorously enforces them and judges take them seriously. Presidents have great control over all that, too.
Another realm where the ADA has had an enormously positive impact is access to public transit. Here in Chicago, every public transit bus is wheelchair accessible. On that day when the ADA was signed, Chicago did not have a single accessible bus.
So Bush deserves credit for what he did to make the ADA happen. But federal civil rights laws are just empty symbolic gestures unless the executive branch vigorously enforces them and judges take them seriously. Presidents have great control over all that, too.
I believe Bush viewed the ADA as a law about accommodation—making small cultural adjustments that allow some disabled people to fit into the mainstream. But I see it as a transformational law that strives to radically redefine the mainstream by exposing and eliminating oppressive cultural structures.
Sometimes conservatives have a temporary burst of sanity and do the right thing when it comes to disabled Americans. But we can’t rely on them to finish the job.