Remembering A Champion For People With Disabilities


Many will write about the passing of our 41st President, George H. W. Bush.

I did not vote for him for President. That being said I respected him as a leader.

His accomplishments on behalf of our nation and the world were legion. At a time when our politics are coarse and seemingly getting more so, he was respectful and refined.

His marriage of 73 years to Barbara Bush is the stuff of legend. An Example. He was the father of both our 43rd President and a two term Governor of Florida. At 18, instead of leaving for the protected confines of Yale, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and went on to become a decorated pilot, shot down in the Pacific. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

As a nod to fairness, then Congressman Bush voted for the Fair Housing Act in 1968 angering his constituents. Again he did what he thought was right. Before becoming President, he was our Ambassador to the United Nations, and a special envoy to China. He directed the CIA.

As President he was a coalition builder, especially with the 30 nations he pulled together to get Sadam Hussein and Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. He also presided over the ending of the cold war with diplomacy and skill.   He raised taxes, after promising not to do so, because he felt it was best for the country.

He is known less widely for signing the Americans with Disabilities Act, P. L. 101-336 (ADA) into law.  The ADA is widely viewed as an overarching civil rights law focused on people with disabilities. His signing statement on July 26, 1990, included this summary “The Americans with Disabilities Act presents us all with an historic opportunity. It signals the end to the unjustified segregation and exclusion of persons with disabilities from the mainstream of American life. As the Declaration of Independence has been a beacon for people all over the world seeking freedom, it is my hope that the Americans with Disabilities Act will likewise come to be a model for the choices and opportunities of future generations around the world.” The language resonates today. For the full text go here.

Former Congressman Tony Coelho, the original sponsor in the House of Representatives of the ADA, said “George H.W. Bush, our 41st President, was a great American leader and humble public servant. The disability community will always consider him a hero for his support of the ADA and for signing its most important piece of legislation in the last thirty years.”

On December 1st former Attorney General Dick Thornburg (he is the father of a man with intellectual disabilities) said “It would be a great loss if people do not remember the important breakthrough the Americans with Disabilities Act represented. It was characterized by many as the most important civil rights legislation since the 1960s. And those of us who went through that struggle vote by vote to try to get – secure passage remember very well the day that President Bush signed the ADA.”

The promise of the ADA has yet to be fully realized. But people with disabilities, their families and those of us who work in the field owe President George H. W. Bush a debt of gratitude. Rest in peace Mr. President.

Steven Eidelman is the H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Human Services Policy and Leadership at The University of Delaware and the faculty director of The National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities. He has worked for the last 35 years to help people with disabilities lead full lives in the community.