Beyond the Americans With Disabilities Act?

Rachel Withers of Vox reports, George H.W. Bush was a champion for people with disabilities:
George H.W. Bush, who died on Friday at age 94, was probably best remembered, legislatively, for his 1990 budget deal. But for many in the disability community, he is remembered for another bill passed that year: the Americans With Disabilities Act.

A monumental piece of legislation that prohibited discrimination against those with physical and intellectual disabilities, the act that Bush signed was seen as the equivalent of the Civil Rights Act for individuals with disabilities.

To better understand why Bush is remembered as a champion by many in that community, I spoke with Lex Frieden, a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, the then-director of the National Council on Disability, and one of the architects of the law. I spoke with him about Bush’s role in the legislation, which he began as vice president and signed into law as president.

Our conversation, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, follows.

Rachel Withers

Can you explain the legislation to our readers in a nutshell?

Lex Frieden

The Americans With Disabilities Act is in effect the Civil Rights Act for people with disabilities in the United States. It essentially says that discrimination may not occur on the basis of functional impairment or any other condition perceived to be a disability. The law was enacted in 1990 by President George Herbert Walker Bush. At the time it was passed in 1990, it passed the Congress — the House and Senate — by one of the largest majorities ever to pass a bill.

Rachel Withers

What were some of the practical flow-on effects?

Lex Frieden

Well, the law covered several important aspects of life. Essentially, it changed the paradigm of the way we look at disability from a medical diagnosis-oriented paradigm to one of function and accessibility. So it says that buildings and public places may not discriminate by having inaccessible facilities. ... So it’s not only people who are mobility-impaired or in wheelchairs that must be accommodated; it’s also people with hearing impairments, people who have sensory impairments, that are blind, people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities. And the law in that regard is pretty far-reaching.

In addition to the physical aspect of accommodation, there are also the social and interpersonal aspects of accommodation. So personnel need to be trained to interact appropriately with people who are disabled and must provide appropriate accommodation for them if they request it. And some of those accommodations are kind of subtle. For example: If a deaf person goes to check into a hotel, the hotel staff must be ready to communicate with them in an appropriate manner, and not just try to raise their voice to the deaf person.

The law also includes employment, and people with disabilities cannot be discriminated against in employment settings, either as applicants for a job or as workers, and the law covers a broad array of issues pertaining to employment. So it’s pretty far-reaching.

Rachel Withers

You’ve said that “George Bush will be viewed by people with disabilities and their families as the Abraham Lincoln of their experience.” Can you explain his role in passing this act?

Lex Frieden

In 1986, the National Council on Disability produced a report. That report recommended a law like the ADA and said that people with disabilities face discrimination in all aspects of life, and it should be addressed just as nondiscrimination laws for people of different gender, people of different race and color, people of different religious persuasions. So essentially, we recommended in that report that the ADA be passed to complement the other body of civil rights legislation we had already established in the United States.

At that time, we wanted to meet with President Reagan and share the report with him, hoping to receive his endorsement. But the meeting that we had scheduled was canceled because it was coincidentally occurring on the day the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up on launch. … However, the White House offered to enable us to meet a few days later with the vice president, who happened to be George H.W. Bush. We decided that was a good thing to do, that we didn’t want to wait to meet the president after that schedule was reorganized. So we met with Vice President Bush, who immediately understood what our objectives were and, in effect, endorsed our proposal.

Rachel Withers

And I understand that President Bush had previously lost a child with disabilities. How did that impact his interest in the issue?

Lex Frieden

I think it had a huge impact. When we met with the vice president in January 1986, he said at the beginning of the meeting that he and [his wife] Barbara had reviewed the report the night before. He ... said that they could both relate to it because of the child with a disability whom they had lost and because one of their children at the time was coping with disability issues. One of the Bush boys had a disability — pardon me because I can’t recall which one — but he had learning difficulties and they were concerned about that. He had difficulty reading, and I think later I learned that he had dyslexia.

Rachel Withers

And so after this first meeting, how did George Bush’s role in this legislation progress from there?

Lex Frieden

Well, when we left, the vice president said that he really understood and appreciated what we were trying to achieve and that he would report what he had learned to the president, to President Reagan. And he reminded us that he was just the vice president and said that if in the future he had more opportunities to help us promote the legislation, he would do so. And I think that was a sincere promise at the time, although I don’t believe that he at the time imagined that within two years, he [would be] elected president.

And at the time of his election, actually in the campaign, he had committed to supporting the Americans With Disabilities Act and stated so many times during his presidency until he was able to sign the law in 1990.

Rachel Withers

President Bush said in a 1994 speech that “Houston has had a profound effect on the ADA.” What was the city of Houston’s special role?

Lex Frieden

Well in the mid-1970s, there was a group of us who were relatively young people with disabilities, mostly wheelchair users, who got together periodically to discuss the frustration that we felt, the barriers that we encountered in trying to be independent and trying to be part of the community. And we started an organization called the Coalition for Barrier-Free Living and began to try and educate the public and authorities.

At the time, it seemed to us that they weren’t very responsive to the complaints that we made, to the recommendations that we had. So we began to engage in what now is fondly known as civil disobedience. And I think we were clever about it.

To give you an example, one morning the mayor of the city issued a press release and said that he did not believe enough citizens were using the public transit, and that therefore, on the following day he himself would be riding the bus from the city hall. And he encouraged everyone in Houston to get out and ride the bus; it would be free for that day. And we learned about that, and arrived at the bus stop in front of the city hall at the same time the mayor did. We had about 40 people in wheelchairs there waiting to get on the bus.

Of course, we knew that the bus had only steps; there was no way for wheelchairs to get on the bus. And so we surprised the mayor and surprised the press and there was a lot of coverage of the driver confused about how he was supposed to get all these wheelchair users on his bus, and it made for good media coverage.

Over the years, we continued to engage with the city until we began to see some fruits from our labor. The city applied for a federal grant in 1984 and received funding to match that, and built the first fully accessible community center. We were successful in getting the city to agree to purchase buses with ramps on them before the law required it.

So we had a fairly large effect. And of course, Mr. Bush and Mrs. Bush had a residence in the city. ... So the president was aware of all that; he was aware of the community center we had built. He was aware of all the accommodations the city has undertaken. So I believe that’s why he attributed that to Houston, in addition to the fact that I happened to be significantly engaged in the process of recommending and development to legislation.

Rachel Withers

Can you speak at all to how President Bush felt about the Americans With Disabilities Act as part of his legacy?

Lex Frieden

From time to time, I discussed that with him. And he understood that he would be remembered forever as the president who made people with disability a part of their community, the president who changed the face of America, and he was very proud of that. He considered that among some of his greatest accomplishments.

From time to time, he told me he felt like it was the best thing that he did. And then from time to time, I heard him make reference to other domestic legislation that he was responsible for, including the Clean Air Act, as being significant to his administration. So I think he was generally proud of what he accomplished as president, but he was always particularly proud of the ADA.

Rachel Withers

Did he ever speak of the ADA in terms of being a wheelchair user himself?

Lex Frieden

He did. You know, I asked him once if he realized the impact that he had for people with disabilities. He said he certainly understood it more now that he had personal experience with disability.
Rachel Withers

What is the next big legislative goal for the disability community at this point?

Lex Frieden

Well, I can tell you the next big challenge for the disability community. There are probably two.

One of them that anyone will tell you with the disability is getting sufficient enforcement for the law that’s already on the books. The ADA has had a huge impact on every sector of our lives. It has even been used as a model for international rules, the convention pertaining to disability. Yet employers continue to discriminate, people who are inspecting buildings fail to invoke the rules of access, private entrepreneurs ignore the ADA when they’re developing new business enterprises. And that issue pertaining to enforcement is a big issue.

There’s also, I think, a tsunami pertaining to disability among the baby boomers that we have in our society. There are 76 million people who were born between 1946 and 1964. All of those people are retiring now, they’re getting older, and as a person ages, they will most likely and naturally become disabled. They will lose their hearing or their eyesight, their vision, their memory, their mobility, whatever. Different things happen to different people, but aging is coincident with disability. And we are not prepared as a nation.

I don’t think there’s any society in the world that is prepared for the huge number of people with disability that are going to be in our community and who wish to be independent, not living in institutions but accommodated in the home that they’ve lived in most of their lives. So this a real challenge and I’m not even sure the disability community fully appreciate the significance of that challenge.
This is an excellent article and there is a reason why I'm alluding to it on a blog on pensions.

First, I fundamentally believe this is one of the most important pieces of legislation ever signed in the United States. It has profoundly changed the lives of Americans with disabilities and is all part of what President Bush called "a kinder, gentler nation."

Second, the way the article ends is sobering. While the ADA has had a huge impact, employers continue to discriminate against people with disabilities which explains why the unemployment rate of persons with disabilities is twice the national average and only 19% of persons with disabilities are employed.

But Lex Frieden is right to point out 76 million baby boomers are retiring, many face pension poverty, and many will also face some sort of a disability.

Businesses that don't adapt to this new reality are going to pay a heavy price. In my opinion, not hiring people with disabilities and not taking them into account is just plain stupid.

What else? On Monday, it was International Day for Persons with Disabilities. This year’s theme is “Empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality” and the Royal Bank of Canada posted a comment on LinkedIn that caught my attention, Joel’s Story:
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to go really fast. That I happened to use a wheelchair certainly wasn’t going to get in the way of that.

I was born with a spinal tumour. It was successfully removed, but it caused a spinal paralysis and severe scoliosis: meaning standing or walking would be incredibly difficult for the rest of my life. I spent much of my childhood in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation clinics. The most frustrating aspect of having surgeries was that it took me away from my true passion: sport.

Whenever I played a sport, I would forget about my wheelchair and the fact that I moved differently from classmates at school. Sport was pure fun. And it gave me the motivation to continually surpass my limitations. But most importantly it gave me the opportunity to experience inclusion—especially after I was introduced to wheelchair tennis.

Through tennis, I had the opportunity to spend time with some of the older athletes, all of whom used wheelchairs. I saw in them the things I wanted for myself: confidence, independence and dare I say…swagger. Wheelchair tennis truly gave me a sense of belonging and community.

From then on I was completely hooked into the life of a wheelchair athlete. I traveled the world independently, played countless tournaments and represented Canada at the Paralympics.

After winning a medal at the 2015 Pan Am Games, I retired from sport and joined RBC. As part of our Executive Communications team, I help shape perceptions of RBC’s brand, business strategy and role as a thought leader, supporting the communications activities of our CEO and Economics team.

Just as wheelchair sport gave me a sense of inclusion, I have had a similar experience as part of RBC REACH, our Employee Resource Group for Persons with Disabilities.

One of my priorities since retiring from wheelchair sport has been to elevate the conversation around disability in Canada’s public and private sectors. I feel incredibly passionate about the value persons with disabilities bring to the workplace. And I believe disability should be a greater point of focus for organizations when it comes to hiring and advancement of employees with disability, as well as the servicing of clients with disability, taking an inclusive design approach to developing and distributing products and services to enable better access.

In Canada, 41 per cent of persons with disabilities between the ages of 15–64 (both visible and invisible) are unemployed—and the percentage in other countries can be similar or higher. Important services, such as transportation and buildings, remain inaccessible for too many in this country. And this number will only grow as our country grapples with an aging population.

There are more than six million Canadians who identify as having a disability. This segment controls more than $55.4 billion in disposable income, $311 billion if we include their friends and family, according to Rich Donovan, a leading voice on the potential impact this relatively untapped segment of the population can have on our economy.

Certainly the proposed Accessible Canada Act will help remove some of the barriers and give important rights that Canadians with disabilities have waited on for so long. Corporate Canada must take a bigger leap and refocus efforts to enable persons with disabilities to make a direct impact on our nation’s future. If anything, it makes sense that a workforce should reflect the palette of Canada’s diverse population.

I realize that simply sharing my story cannot solve all issues faced by persons with disabilities. But I think it is incredibly important that we all speak up for inclusion and have more conversations about inclusion so that every individual has opportunities and access to the resources to reach their full potential.
I thought this was a great comment, one that is eloquently written and I urge all the leaders reading this blog to share it with their counterparts here and abroad.

We need to go beyond the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Accessible Canada Act and organizations need to actively target people with disabilities and hire them at all levels. It's not just the right to do from a moral and ethical perspective, it's the right thing to for the economy and it's the wise thing for businesses looking to increase profits.

But I also think Canada's large pensions and other large public and private organizations can emulate  RBC REACH, their Employee Resource Group for Persons with Disabilities.

It's all fine and dandy to state you don't discriminate against people with disabilities, but how about putting some teeth into it and start actively targeting them for hiring? Then and only then can you genuinely state you're practicing diversity and inclusion at your organization.

What else? This week on LinkedIn, I saw a comment, Really - Always Leave Office on Time (click on image):

I couldn't resist to comment:
I really wanted to give it a thumbs down. It starts off fine and quickly degenerates and becomes judgmental. When I worked at PSP and BDC, I was definitely not the first one there in the morning but always the last one to leave. Reason? Very easy. My disease (multiple sclerosis) was starting to impact my mobility, so I needed a lift in the morning from my father and at night. Since he often finished at 6:30 or 7 p.m., I waited and realized that work became MORE productive when everyone left the office and I can sit and focus instead of being called into useless meetings. I can also tell you Gordon Fyfe, PSP’s former CEO, was the last one to leave the office every night and sometimes would swing by and ask me if I wanted a lift home (we lived close to each other). All this to say, work-life balance is important but don’t ASSUME things, you don’t know what people are going through in life and why they’re staying late. Some people love coming in at 6 or 7 a.m., good for them, others like leaving late, it’s what works for them. We aren’t all the same, respect diversity.
Everyone at your office has something. It could be diabetes, cancer, heart disease or it could be an autoimmune disorder like Lupus, MS, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Crohn's Disease, something where symptoms are or aren't always visible. It could be depression or another mental illness.

The point I was trying to make is don't assume things, be more emotionally intelligent and realize we all go at a different pace.

Below, a brief clip on the making of the ADA. And former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who served during former President George H.W. Bush's term, delivered a tribute to his friend and praised him for his courage, principle and honour.

Lastly, President George W. Bush delivered the eulogy for his father, George H.W. Bush, on Wednesday and spoke about how they were raised, his loyalty to friends and his last phone call with him.

That was a beautiful eulogy, very moving tribute to a great father, husband, grandfather and president who did his part in making it "a kinder, gentler nation."