By Eric Garcia, The SoapBox
In 1969, Bob Dole gave his maiden speech on the Senate floor on a topic with which he was intimately acquainted. From the moment he lost the use of his right arm and the feeling in his left, in Italy as a soldier in World War II, the challenges of a world not built for disabled people animated both Dole’s life and his political persona: Journalists familiarized readers with his trademark strategies, from holding a pen in his right hand to keep his fingers from splaying to wearing loafers, since he couldn’t tie his shoes. More importantly, the impact of it on his life shaped his ideas and played a role in his own determinations about whom he hired.
In that first address to the Senate, Dole told the story of a man who became a paraplegic and was referred to the state-federal vocational rehabilitation office, which enabled him to get a job as an insurance agent, have a new home, and adopt a child. “It takes place now because the Congress and the federal government initiated and guided a vital, vigorous program of vocational rehabilitation,” he said.
Dole’s praise of a federal government program was surprising given his role as a Republican “hatchet man.” At different points, Dole served as Republican National Committee chairman under Richard Nixon; Gerald Ford’s running mate in 1976; Senate majority leader; and thrice as presidential candidate, his last foray coming in 1996 as the GOP standard-bearer who could not prevent Bill Clinton’s reelection.
At the same time, Dole was a consummate dealmaker whose efforts helped bring about the Americans With Disabilities Act, which he co-sponsored not just with Republicans such as John McCain and Orrin Hatch but with prominent liberal Democrats like Ted Kennedy and Tom Harkin, as well. President George H.W. Bush would sign the bipartisan bill into law.
“The fact that the ADA was bipartisan was hugely important, and Senator Dole was a key player in that,” said Chai Feldblum, the lead attorney on the team that drew up the bill. Feldblum’s words are all the more remarkable considering she more famously worked as the legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union’s AIDS Project, and they illustrate how concern for disabled people once spanned the wider political spectrum, from liberals like her to Republicans like Justin Dart and Evan Kemp, who served on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the Reagan and Bush administrations.
Dole’s passing on Sunday has allowed Washington, D.C., to engage in one of its favorite activities—reminiscing on the days when bipartisanship reigned; the ADA looms large as a prime example. But it also forces a round of uncomfortable questions, regarding the way the Republican Party has strayed from Dole’s heyday, abandoning the positions on disability rights it once proudly defended.
“The history of the Republican [Party] writ large in the area of civil rights, up until recently, there’s been a strong and sustained advocacy for civil rights,” said Tom Ridge, who was a Republican congressman at the time of the ADA’s passage and is now chairman of the National Organization on Disability. Ridge’s words about the decline of bipartisanship on disability aren’t empty “party of Lincoln” platitudes: Dole voted for the Civil Rights Act as well as the Voting Rights Act; he brokered a compromise that helped extend the Voting Rights Act in 1982 with future ADA collaborator Kennedy.
“Regrettably, there hasn’t been as strong a champion within the Republican Party since he left the Congress,” said Ridge.
The arc of Dole’s political career traces the trajectory of a Republican Party that largely gave up on governing in favor of promulgating a scorched-earth form of politics as America entered the 1990s. Similarly, as the Republican Party has shifted from being a party that focuses on using government to enact conservative policies to a party that simply wants to defang government, it might mean the end of the old way of disability advocacy and the successes it wrought.
Dole’s introduction to disability was inextricably linked to a desire for bipartisanship. As he recovered at Percy Jones Hospital, Dole met future Democratic Senators Phil Hart and Daniel Inouye. His recovery would also guide Capitol Hill’s debates in a direction favorable to the disabled.
“I was a nurse, and he liked me because a lot of nurses helped him get through his disability after World War II,” said Maureen “Mo” West, who was Dole’s adviser on disability during the debate around the Americans With Disabilities Act, noting that Dole’s chief of staff at the time, Sheila Burke, was a nurse as well. Before that, West had worked for Senator Lowell Weicker, the liberal Republican from Connecticut who introduced the ADA in 1988, who conservatives loathed so much, William F. Buckley endorsed Joe Lieberman to replace him.
But Washington’s recherche du temps perdu betrays the fact that even at that time, disability advocates did not receive a smooth ride in the halls of power. In fact, when the initial legislation for the ADA was first introduced in 1988, Dole had his own concerns—such as the removal of the “undue hardship” criteria for reasonable accommodations, what was considered a public accommodation, and what those public accommodations would be required to do in terms of retrofitting—despite being a co-sponsor.
And gauzy memories about the ADA’s passage gloss over those whom the law left behind. The ADA specifically excluded homosexuality from protection against discrimination, and lumped it in with “transvestism, transsexualism, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments, or other sexual behavior disorders.”
The bipartisanship of the era didn’t always lead to laudatory results when conservative Democrats teamed up with right-wing Republicans. This was the case when Senator Jesse Helms, the racist and homophobic senator, attempted to rekindle an amendment from conservative Democratic Representative Jim Chapman from Texas that would have allowed for restaurants to shift people with diseases such as AIDS from working in food-handling jobs.
The conservative movement, unmoved by the spirit of bipartisanship that guided the ADA’s passage, vehemently denounced the law. Upon its signing, National Review chided the law in a piece titled “Disabling the GOP.” Conservatives lumped the ADA together with a litany of other bills passed contemporaneously, such as the Clean Air Amendments Act and the 1991 Civil Rights Act. Ed Feulner, the founder of the Heritage Foundation, decried all three pieces of legislation as “a new onslaught of economic and social nannyism.”
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