Monday, July 27, 2015

The ADA turns 25

Today (July 26 in the USA) is the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), one of the laws I lobbied Congress on when I was a grassroots LGBT activist. It was—and is—a good law, and one of the biggest domestic achievements of the presidential administration of the first George Bush.

The ADA expanded civil rights protections to people with mental and physical disabilities listed in regulations by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and it mandated reasonable accommodation of people with disabilities, while preventing discrimination against them. It mandated injunctive relief for successful lawsuits, just like with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This means that the situation is made right and the plaintiff may receive court costs and attorneys’ fees, but no financial damages are awarded. Some states, however, do award financial damages to plaintiffs, but that’s not part of the ADA itself

It was opposed by religious groups, including religious schools who argued that it placed an unusual burden on them to comply, and also by the national Association of Evangelicals who argued it abridged their “religious freedom”. Both were accustomed to being exempted from most civil rights laws, and didn’t like the change.

Conservative business lobbyists also opposed it. Of course.

When he signed the bill into law, President George H.W. Bush addressed critics of the ADA head on:
“I know there may have been concerns that the ADA may be too vague or too costly, or may lead endlessly to litigation. But I want to reassure you right now that my administration and the United States Congress have carefully crafted this Act. We've all been determined to ensure that it gives flexibility, particularly in terms of the timetable of implementation; and we've been committed to containing the costs that may be incurred.... Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”
I was involved in the lobbying because the ADA outlawed discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS, and that was something that obviously impacted on the community our group represented. Both US Senators from Illinois at the time, Democrats Alan Dixon and Paul Simon, were co-sponsors of the ADA and voted against the inevitable anti-LGBT amendments. At that time, co-sponsorship of bills we wanted didn’t necessarily mean that members of Congress would vote against anti-LGBT amendments, so this was significant.

Several members of Illinois’ delegation in the US House of Representatives, including one Republican, co-sponsored the bill, including Dick Durbin, a Democrat who is now the senior US Senator from Illinois. I wrote letters in support of the ADA to the entire Illinois Congressional delegation on behalf of the group I was with.

When the bill became law, it created the ironic situation in which a gay man with HIV was protected from discrimination, but a gay man who was in an identical situation but did not have HIV could be discriminated against in most of the USA. That situation still exists, a quarter century later.

The ADA was a bill I always expected would pass. I spent more resources on other legislation that faced a harder road (like the Hate Crime Statistics Act) and in particular on preventing anti-LGBT amendments from being adopted always moved by Republicans in Congress, like the creepy bigot, William Dennemeyer, and the vicious and vile Jesse Helms.

But precisely because the ADA’s passage was expected, it was a bright spot in what was still an otherwise pretty dark time. The viciousness of the mostly Republican rightwing in the US Congress was breathtaking—all the more so since I was pretty sure that most of them were merely pandering as a way of winning votes and campaign contributions. Opportunistic politicians like that are still in Congress and state legislatures, but many (probably the majority) of the most bigoted among them are actually true believers in the promotion of anti-LGBT animus as a legitimate policy position.

On the other hand, we now have far more staunch defenders and allies than we did back then, even including a handful of Republicans. That was unimaginable in 1990.

Much has changed over the past 25 years, and we’ve definitely moved forward. The Second George Bush even signed a bill that actually strengthened the ADA. The ADA was a bright spot at the time, and continues to be one to this day. That’s definitely worth celebrating.

The photo above was taken on July 26, 1990, as President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on the South Lawn of the White House. With him were (from left to right, sitting) Evan Kemp, Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Justin Dart, Chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities; and (left to right, standing) Rev. Harold Wilke and Swift Parrino, Chairperson, National Council on Disability. (Image from the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library. SOURCE).

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