Bob Dole Was a ‘Linchpin’ in Passing the Americans With Disabilities Act

As a senator with a disability, Mr. Dole, who died this week, used his bipartisan influence to support a landmark law that held deep personal significance.,


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John D. Kemp, who was born without arms or legs, will never forget the day Senator Bob Dole ushered him into a room full of small-business owners who were alarmed about the potential costs of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Up until that day in early 1990, Mr. Kemp had been lobbying Mr. Dole, the Kansas Republican who lived with a disability himself, about what advocates wanted to see in the final draft of the legislation, which aimed to create civil rights protections and access to employment, transportation and public spaces for those with disabilities.

On the other side of the issue were businesses, many of which were concerned about the costs of providing accommodations for disabled people and the possibilities of lawsuits if they did not comply.

“He was saying, ‘I want you to hear what I hear, and afterward, I want you to tell me what you think and tell me if there’s room for negotiation,'” recalled Mr. Kemp, co-founder of the American Association of People With Disabilities.

This type of personal legislative give-and-take was a hallmark of the senator’s career and allowed Mr. Dole, who died on Sunday at the age of 98, to play a crucial role in convincing lawmakers to pass the landmark disabilities law, a moment he considered one of his greatest legislative achievements.

His role in its passage deeply reflected his own personal experience with disabilities, his gift for getting people to come to a consensus from opposing sides and a different moment in American politics.

Mr. Dole’s life was forever changed during World War II, when he was hit by a piece of flying shrapnel that blew apart his right shoulder and arm and broke several vertebrae in his neck and spine. His injuries were so severe that he lost the use of his right hand and limited the use of his left hand, making it difficult for him to do everyday activities like cutting up his food or buttoning his shirt.


Mr. Dole was wounded by shrapnel while serving in Italy in World War II. He lost the use of his right hand, making everyday activities difficult.Credit…US Army, via Associated Press

This experience made the Americans With Disabilities Act personal for him, and from its inception, he supported its goals. But Mr. Dole was also a conservative who cared deeply about the costs of the bill and its effects on businesses.

“Raising the question of cost does not mean I support discrimination against people with disabilities,” he remarked in one committee hearing, where he argued that it was necessary to consider the bill’s costs and what could be done to mitigate them.

At the time the A.D.A. was introduced, Mr. Dole was being pressured by other Republican senators to draft his own competing disability bill, according to Maureen West, the legislative assistant who advised him on disability issues. In testimony around that time, Mr. Dole said he supported the concept of the bill, but he expressed concern that it would create unreasonable burdens for businesses and “cause a flood of unnecessary litigation.”

But after hearing from dozens of people with disabilities, Mr. Dole, then the Senate minority leader, decided to support the A.D.A.

“It just made him rethink the importance and the momentum that there was behind this bill at that time,” Ms. West said. “I walked out with him, he was pretty quiet, and he said, ‘We gotta make this bill happen.'”

Without Mr. Dole, several advocates said, it was possible the A.D.A. never would have passed. Or that, at the least, passage would have been significantly harder.

“Dole was our linchpin to the Republicans,” said former Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa and one of the lawmakers who introduced the A.D.A. He explained that Mr. Dole often told him of any problems Republicans had with the bill and helped legislators modify the bill to address those concerns. He also helped sell businesses on the bill by framing it as an investment they could make to gain a new customer base.

Mr. Dole’s involvement led to key provisions in the bill, Mr. Harkin said, such as the requirement that accommodations needed to be “reasonable,” ensuring that complying with the A.D.A. would not bankrupt a company, and tax credits that helped small businesses pay for the costs of putting accommodations into place.

With these types of changes, the bill passed the Senate in September 1989 with 76 votes and eventually became law in July 1990.


On the day the A.D.A. was signed into law, President George H.W. Bush specifically thanked Mr. Dole for his work on the bill.Credit…Robert and Elizabeth Dole Archive and Special Collections, Dole Institute of Politics

Because of his injuries, Mr. Dole instinctively understood the issues faced by other disabled individuals, according to Tony Coelho, the former House Democratic whip from California who was the primary author of the A.D.A.

He really recognized the discrimination against people with disabilities,” Mr. Coelho said. “The stigma in regards to having a disability was something that he experienced and I experienced and all of us with a disability experience.”

Sometimes Mr. Dole grew frustrated by how little members of Congress seemed to understand the needs of people with disabilities, Mr. Coelho said. But, though he never hid his own physical issues, Mr. Dole seldom talked about them, Mr. Coelho said, and never used them as a tool to get other lawmakers’ support on the A.D.A.

On the day the legislation was signed into law, President George H.W. Bush specifically thanked Mr. Dole for his work on the bill, asking him to stand up while hundreds of people with disabilities applauded.

“He had the biggest grin on his face,” Mr. Kemp recalled. “It was just magic.”

According to Mr. Kemp, the senator had met many people who had languished on the sideline because of their disabilities and hoped that this law could help them obtain jobs.

But, decades later, the unemployment rate for those with disabilities remained high, an outcome that deeply disappointed Mr. Dole, who left the Senate in 1996 before losing a presidential race. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 17.9 percent of adults with a disability were employed in 2020, compared with 61.8 percent of those without one.

According to Mr. Kemp, this was one issue Mr. Dole would call “unfinished business,” along with his mission of getting Congress to ratify a United Nations treaty that would provide greater protections for disabled people all over the world.


Mr. Dole discussing driving devices under development for people with disabilities.Credit…Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

He heavily lobbied for the treaty, called the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, in 2012 and felt that he had the votes. On the day of the vote he spoke on the floor of the Senate, then watched as lawmakers who had worked with him on the A.D.A., such as Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, rejected the bill.

After the vote, Mr. Dole stayed by the door of the Senate, where he knew that each senator would need to walk by him.

“He just looked at every one of them and said, ‘You know you didn’t do this right,'” Mr. Kemp recalled. Those who voted against the treaty argued that it could infringe on American sovereignty, but some had changed their votes at the last minute, leading Mr. Dole to feel that he was betrayed.

“He was embarrassed that day,” Mr. Coelho recalled. “That was really crushing.”

Mr. Dole tried again unsuccessfully two years later to get the treaty ratified, saying, “This is not a Republican or a Democrat treaty.”

For many, the treaty’s failure was a sign of just how polarized the country was becoming. Even Mr. Dole, on an issue he cared deeply about, could not get both sides to agree anymore.

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