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Drafting and Introduction of the Original ADA Bill - Part 18

1988 ADA Congressional Hearings and End of 100th Congress

Joint Hearing ReportThe apex of ADA activity in the 100th Congress was the convening of two congressional hearings, one in September and one in October. The first hearing convened at 10:00 a.m. on September 27, 1988, in room SH-216 of the Hart Senate Office Building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. It was officially titled, “Americans with Disabilities Act of 1988: Joint Hearing before the Subcommittee on the Handicapped of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, United States Senate, and the Subcommittee on Select Education of the Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives, One Hundredth Congress, second session, on S. 2345.”[1]  The Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources would later summarize the hearing:

On September 27, 1988, a joint hearing was held before the Subcommittee on the Handicapped and the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Select Education on S. 2345, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1988. Among the witnesses testifying were Sandra Parrino, Chairperson National Council on the Handicapped; Admiral James Watkins, Chairperson, President’s Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic; Mary Linden of Morton Grove, Illinois, who lived in an institution; Dan Piper, an 18 year-old with Down Syndrome and Sylvia Piper of Ankeny, Iowa; Jada Calegory, a 12-year-old movie actor with Spina Bifida from Corona Del Mar, California; and Lakisha Griffin from Talladega, Alabama, who attends the Alabama School for the Blind.

Also testifying were Judith Heumann, World Institute on Disability, Berkeley, California; Gregory Hlibok, student-body president of Gallaudet University, Washington, DC; Belinda Mason from Tobinsport, Indiana who has AIDS; and W. Mitchell from   Denver, Colorado, who uses a wheelchair and who was severely burned.

David Saks, on behalf of the Organization for the Use of the Telephone, also provided testimony.[2]

After the introduction of the ADA at the end of April, many disability rights organizations and a variety of other groups, including civil rights advocates, church organizations, and many others, had endorsed and publicized the bill. The National Council on Disability (NCD), the congressional Task Force on Rights and Empowerment of People with Disabilities, the Consortium for People with Developmental Disabilities (CCDD), the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF). and the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), among others, were rallying behind the bill. Thus it was that a teeming crowd of spectators, including many individuals with disabilities, overloaded the meeting room, which seated over 700, for the September 27th joint hearing. Senator Weicker, who was presiding over the hearing, noted the number of people using wheelchairs in the room, and asked them to move toward the front so that more wheelchair-users could get into the room; he jested that “I think we have the entire community right in this hearing room,” a line that brought a burst of applause.[3]  At another point, Weicker interrupted the proceedings to address crowd-size issues; an “overflow room” had been set up in a nearby room for viewing the hearing on closed-circuit TV, and the Senator urged people to rotate between the hearing room and the overflow room so that more people would have a turn to come into the hearing room.[4]

Of the 12 witnesses who testified at the September 27 hearing, two represented federal government agencies: Sandra Parrino, Chairperson of the National Council on Disability; and Admiral James Watkins, Chairperson of the President’s Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic. The remaining ten were individuals with disabilities. In addition, eight members, four from the House – Representatives Tony Coelho, James Jeffords, Matthew Martinez, and Major Owens – and four from the Senate – Senators Harkin, Kennedy, Simon, and Weicker, made statements, although Senator Simon was not present and had asked that his written statement be included, by unanimous consent, in the record of the hearing.

Senator Weicker made a few preliminary remarks prior to submitting his written statement for the record; he mentioned that, in addition to the well-known fact of his having a son with Down syndrome, he had learned in recent weeks that “I have another disabled child, this time a learning disabled child.” He put the ADA in the broader political context of the upcoming Presidential election, saying “it is to the credit of both candidates, both the Governor [Michael Dukakis] and the Vice President [George H.W. Bush], that they support the legislation that is the subject of this hearing.” Apparently feeling unsure of the political parties’ degree of commitment to the legislation, however, he made a ringing plea for stronger support of the ADA bill during the campaign and in the party platforms:

[T]he agenda of the Nation is going to be set in the next several weeks, not after the election is over. If both parties and their candidates can tiptoe off the stage without mentioning the Americans with Disabilities Act and its passage immediately, in the next Congress, … then there will be no Americans with Disabilities Act enacted by the next Congress. If there is silence now, there will be silence later. If there is indifference now there will be indifference later.

This is the moment in the time of all Americans when they set the priorities and the goals of this Nation. Foremost among them should be the fact that for 36 million, and growing in number, Americans, the time has come to end all discrimination, in whatever form.[5]

As it turned out, despite the sponsors’ attempts to portray ADA support by the presidential candidates, the candidates would continue to “tiptoe” around full endorsement of the bill.

Senator Weicker’s written statement was not long, tracing the origins of the bill to the National Council on Disability and recounting his and Senator Harkins’s introduction of the bill in the Senate. He noted that the bill had “strong, bipartisan backing in both houses of Congress, including 25 cosponsors in the Senate and 114 in the House,” that had “been endorsed by more than 50 national organization representing people with a wide variety of disabilities,” and that it was “supported by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, an umbrella group of 185 organizations active in the area of civil rights.”[6]  He finished with the following oratorical flourish: “It took the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent statues to make plain this nation’s opposition to racism, sexism and discrimination based on a person’s age. It will take the Americans with Disabilities Act to set the record straight as to where we stand on discrimination based on disability.”[7]

Representative Major Owens

Representative Major Owens, the second congressional member to speak, began on a similar note to that on which Senator Weicker had ended; a veteran civil rights activist (who had chaired the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) in the 1960s), Owens declared: “For some of us, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1988 represents the next giant step in the American civil rights movement.” He touted the ADA as “grant[ing] full rights to Americans with Disabilities and mov[ing] our great Nation from a respectable position of official compassion for those with impairments to a more laudable position of empowering disabled Americans.”[8]  Representative Owens added some historical perspective: “This legislation grows out a vast movement for disability rights and empowerment, a movement made highly visible this spring when the students and faculty of Gallaudet University successfully campaigned for the installation of the first ever deaf president, and more deaf board of directors of the University.” He noted that a student leader of the Gallaudet campaign would be testifying at the hearing. Returning to his theme of parallels with the Civil Rights Movement, Owens observed that a Gallaudet faculty member had described the Deaf President Now uprising at Gallaudet as “our Selma,” and added that just as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was “the legislative outgrowth of the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, AL, the Americans with Disabilities Act is part of a journey toward full empowerment for Americans with Disabilities.[9]

Owens described his role, as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Select Education, in creating the Task Force on Rights and Empowerment of Americans with Disabilities, and reported accomplishments of the Task Force:

It has convened forums or public meetings of disabled consumers, rehabilitation professional, parents, advocates, and government officials in 44 states. Since May 23 of this year, over 500 people have been present at the forums and 10,000 people have attended the public meetings. Many of them have presented publicly aspects of the discrimination they have faced on the basis of disability.[10]

He closed his remarks with a pitch for independence and self-determination: “Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1988 will greatly help in the empowerment of disabled Americans. With the power and authority of their government fully behind them, combined with their own energies, Americans with disabilities can become the masters of their own fates.”[11]

Senator Harkin’s opening remarks began with him welcoming the attendees. He called the six other members of Congress who were present “the vanguard in Congress of those who care about and fight for Americans with disabilities.” Like Senator Weicker and Representative Owens, he drew a contrast between prior civil rights laws and existing laws affecting people with disabilities:

[T]oday under our nation’s civil rights laws, an employer can no longer say to a prospective employee, “I will not hire you because of the color of your skin, or because you are a woman, or because you are Jewish.” If they did, a person could march over to the courthouse, file a lawsuit, win, and collect damages and attorney’s fees.

Yet, to this day, nothing prevents an employer, or an owner of a hotel or restaurant from excluding Americans with disabilities. The courthouse door is still closed to Americans with disabilities.[12]

He said that the introduction of the ADA was “the first step in opening up the courthouse door to Americans with disabilities.”[13]

Senator Harkin stated his expectation “that this legislation will become the law of the land”; he cautioned, however that “the road to enactment will be filled with potholes and roadblocks. But if we stick together as a community, and we work with the groups representing employers and the hotel, restaurant, communications, and transportation industries, I believe we can succeed.”[14]  He finished by calling the ADA “good legislation, important legislation, needed legislation, and it is the right thing to do. Almost a quarter century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is long overdue.”

Representative Coelho began his opening remarks by asserting that “there are approximately 36 million, some people say 43 million, Americans with disabilities that basically do not have their basis civil rights.”[15]  Coelho opted to devote his remarks to something of a personal “discrimination diary”; he explained that “[a]s one with a hidden disability, as one who openly discusses my epilepsy, I know what discrimination is. I am not going to go into detail of what is in this bill, because that has already been discussed and will be discussed more.” He started having seizures in his mid-teens after being involved in a pickup truck crash on his parents’ farm. As he described it, “for 5 years, as I had my seizures on a regular basis, I did not know what they were. I went to every doctor that you could think of. I also went to three witch doctors because I was supposedly possessed by the devil.”[16]

After graduating from high school, he decided that he wanted to become a Catholic priest and applied to enter a seminary, which required a pre-entry physical exam. The result of the physical was a diagnosis of epilepsy, after which, as he told it, although he was still the same person he had been before, “the world around me changed.” At the time, the church did not permit people with epilepsy to be priests so the seminary would not admit him. He told of other immediate negative impacts of his diagnosis: “My driver’s license was taken away, my insurance was taken away. Every job application has the word epilepsy on it and I marked it, because I was not going to lie. I could not get a job.”[17]  His parents rejected him because of his epilepsy. He went into a dramatic downward spiral: “I became suicidal and drunk by noon. … I had not changed as a person [but] the world around me had changed. The light had been turned off, the light of opportunity, the light of hope.”[18]  He told how it was the comedian Bob Hope who helped him get his life back on track, and ultimately suggested that Coelho should go into politics. Toward the end of his remarks at the hearing, Representative Coelho declared: “I am a major advocate of this bill because I want to make sure that other young people, as they’re looking for hope, as they believe that the system should work for them, have that hope, have that opportunity.”

The next member of Congress to speak, Senator Edward Kennedy, made succinct comments, both orally and in writing, but his remarks were among the most significant, not just because he was the chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, nor because of his iconic status as “the last lion of the Senate,” but rather because of his unbridled optimism and enthusiasm about the likelihood of the ADA bill being enacted. In his brief opening statement, Senator Kennedy said three times that the legislation “will become law,” elaborating as follows:

This legislation will become law. It will become law not because of the people up here, although all of us want it to become law, but because of you all across this Nation, in the small towns and communities, in the plants and factories all across this Nation, that are basically challenging our country to ensure that we are basically going to have an even playing field and we are going to eliminate the barriers that keep people out, so that people can become a real part of the American dream.[19]

More concretely, Kennedy expressly promised Senators Harkin and Weicker that “this will be the first order of business when the next Congress meets….”

In his written statement, Senator Kennedy declared that the ADA is “the essential next step in our ongoing effort to guarantee that the 36 million physically and mentally challenged citizens of our nation enjoy the same fundamental rights as all other Americans,” and added, “We recognize that enactment of a law does not necessarily end discrimination in our society, but it is often the indispensable means of advancing toward that goal.”[20]  After observing that the ADA would “halt discrimination against individuals suffering from AIDS or who are infected with the AIDS virus,” he ended with a pledge: “The Americans with Disabilities Act deserves our high priority in Congress, and I intend to do all I can as chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee to expedite its enactment.”[21]

Representative James Jeffords’s statement at the hearing began with the observation that “individuals with disabilities have been denied for so long, services, jobs, housing, transportation, hotel rooms, a means to communicate, access to government officials, voting polls, and yes, even restrooms. Such denials have been sustained, systematic and yes, tolerated. No more.”[22]  To achieve the ultimate goal of eliminating all forms of discrimination, he called upon members of Congress to “work together to make the ADA a fact, not a gesture; reflected in practice, not promises; and grounded in commitment, not hope.” He concluded with a commitment and prediction that “the ADA will be enacted.”[23]

Representative Matthew Martinez, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Employment Opportunities, focused principally on protecting people with disabilities from employment discrimination, and heralding the ADA as “a giant step in providing that protection.”[24] He expanded beyond the focus on employment by observing: “Society and our Nation could benefit greatly from the integration of these individuals, not only into the work force but society as a whole. The ADA will give disabled Americans the right to have a full and productive life, a right which, in today’s society, is often denied them.”

Senator Paul Simon was not able to be present at the hearing, but asked for, and was granted, consent to have a written statement included in the hearing record. In his statement, the Senator observed that experience demonstrates that civil rights legislation does not automatically end unfair and unequal treatment of group historically left out of the mainstream. “But,” he declared, “we have also seen the enormous difference that comprehensive civil rights laws have made …,” adding, “We need the Americans with Disabilities Act to complete the civil rights agenda in this country….”[25]  He too ended on a note of optimism: “I sense we are ready to take the final steps to bring about full equality for Americans with disabilities – and we will be a far richer nation when we do.”

After the statements by the members of Congress were completed, the first witness, NCD Chairperson Sandra Parrino gave a broad summary of the ADA, its development by the Council, and the vital importance of enacting it, echoing themes of independence, productivity, elimination of barriers, and fiscal responsibility previously enunciated in NCD’s Toward Independence and On the Threshold of Independence reports. She also sought to place the ADA proposal in the hallowed civil rights tradition by invoking the words of Dr. King: “Martin Luther King had a dream. We have a vision. Dr. King dreamed of an America ‘where a person is judged not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.’ ADA’s vision is of an America where persons are judged by their abilities and not on the basis of their disabilities.”[26]  She closed her remarks as follows:

I wish to relay a message from 36 million Americans with Disabilities. For decades, we have retained a faith in the reformability and adaptability of our government. For decades we have been told to have patience, but patience is not an inexhaustible commodity. People with disabilities have waited long enough. America has waited long enough. The Americans with Disabilities Act must be enacted now.

The vision of equality for 36 million Americans with disabilities now rests with you.[27]

At the end of her remarks, several of the members of Congress praised Mrs. Parrino for the work of the Council and for her statement.

Admiral James Watkins, former Chairperson of the President’s Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic spoke in support of the ADA, in testimony that was nearly syllogistic in its logic. First, he attested to the pervasive serious discrimination facing people with HIV infection: “At virtually every commission hearing, witnesses testified to discrimination’s occurrence and its serious repercussions for both the individual who experiences it and for this nation’s effort to control the epidemic. Many witnesses indicated that addressing discrimination is the first critical step in the Nation’s response to the epidemic.”[28]  He stated that “individuals infected with HIV face two fights: the fight against the virus and the fight against discrimination.”[29]  He stressed that HIV discrimination was impairing the ability to limit the spread of the epidemic, because “[a]s long as discrimination occurs, and no strong national policy with rapid and effective remedies against discrimination is established, individuals with HIV will be reluctant to come forward for testing, counseling, and care,” due to fear that a positive HIV antibody test would cause them to lose their jobs or housing or be denied needed medical treatment and support services.[30]  Having shown that people with HIV infection very much needed protection against discrimination, Admiral Watkins endorsed the ADA as the right vehicle for prohibiting such discrimination. He contended that lawmakers should “make clear that discrimination against those disabled for whatever reasons will not be tolerated. This is the guts of your act,” and declared that he and the HIV commission believed that the ADA “is the type of comprehensive, disability antidiscrimination legislation which should then serve as a model for all federal legislation in this area.”[31]  He made a strong point that “even if the HIV epidemic had never occurred … I would support the Americans with Disabilities Act so that all of our citizens with disabling condition be guaranteed fair treatment in workplace, schools, and housing.”[32]

After Mrs. Parrino and Admiral Watkins completed their testimony, two panels of individuals with disabilities were next. The members of the first panel were Mary Linden, a 58-year-old woman who had cerebral palsy after her birth, was unable to walk after botched leg surgeries before she was three, and had been in segregated institutions and schools for much of her life; Jade Calegory, a 12-year-old movie actor with Spina Bifida; Dan Piper, a 17-year-old man with Down Syndrome who was accompanied by his mother, Sylvia Piper; and Lakisha Griffin, a seventh grader at the Alabama School for the Blind in Talladega, Alabama.

The second panel was comprised of Judy Heumann of the World Institute on Disability, a disability rights pioneer and wheelchair-user; Gregory Hlibok, student-body president of Gallaudet University, Washington, DC, who had been one of the leaders of the Deaf President Now protests; Belinda Mason from Tobinsport, Indiana, a leading AIDS activist; and W. Mitchell from Denver, Colorado, a paraplegic wheelchair user who also had suffered severe burns.

The members of these two panels were quite an impressive and accomplished lot, containing many who were prominent disability activists when they testified, and others on their way to that status in the future. Mary Ella Linden had spent most of her life battling ardently against mistreatment, segregation, and barriers in her quest to get a college degree and a paying job. Jade Calegory, a 12-year-old movie actor and wheelchair racer with Spina Bifida, was one of the lead actors in Mac and Me, a science fiction comedy film that was in theaters at the time of his congressional testimony; though the movie did not do well at the box office, Jade received accolades for his acting. His testimony focused heavily on architectural and transportation barriers and the importance of accessibility. Dan Piper and his mother Sylvia testified about his successes once he entered a quality integrated special education program, and his parents’ worries about what he would do after he was finished with his schooling and his parents were eventually no longer alive; would there be employment and independent living opportunities for him? Senator Harkin stated that he used Dan as a success-story example when he spoke at events around the country about the importance of early intervention programs. Lakisha Griffin, a seventh grader at the Alabama School for the Blind in Talladega, Alabama, had no schooling until 1986 when she was twelve years old. She told how she blossomed once she started school, making friends, learning braille, and becoming an honor roll student. She told of her ambition to become a teacher, and added:

“I do not need sympathy. I do not need prejudice. I do need a fair chance to get a job and live independently. Discrimination against blind and other disabled people must be eliminated …. Please pass the Americans with Disabilities Act now so that I and other young people can look forward to a fair chance tomorrow.”[33]

Judy Heumann of the World Institute on Disability, who began the second panel, had nearly two decades’ experience being a disability rights powerhouse by the time she testified. In April, 1970, after she was denied a teaching license by the New York City Board of Education on the ground “that, being confined to a wheelchair as a result of poliomyelitis, she was physically and medically unsuited for teaching,” she had filed a class action lawsuit, in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York, after which the school board reversed itself and granted her a teaching license. That same year, Judy and several friends founded Disabled in Action (DIA), an organization dedicated to using political protest to further civil rights for people with disabilities.

In 1974, she was a legislative assistant to the chairperson of the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare (the predecessor of the committee she was testifying before in 1988) and was involved in legislative proposals that would culminate in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. She served as Deputy Director of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, CA, from 1975 to 1982; in April and May of 1977, she was a key leader and spokesperson for an historic sit-in at the San Francisco office of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) to convince Secretary Joseph Califano to issue Section 504 regulations. In her testimony on the ADA proposal, Judy described a number of examples (“only a few examples of discrimination I have faced in my 40-year life”), and implored Congress to enact the ADA, which she termed “monumental legislation”: “Discrimination is intolerable. The U.S. Congress is to be commended for its introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act. … As elected representatives, you must act without delay to end these reprehensible acts of discrimination. To do any less would be immoral.”[34]  Visit this page for more information about Judy’s background.

The next panelist to testify was Gregory Hlibok, student-body president of Gallaudet University, and one of the leaders of the Deaf President Now protests. Speaking via American Sign Language, he described various ways in which he and deaf people whom he knew had been subjected to discrimination, leading him to conclude that “discrimination appears on a daily basis in our lives. We face that all the time, every day.” He declared that “we want our civil rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act would give us the legal tools to fight discrimination. … [I]t is time to remove communication barriers and provide reasonable accommodation.” He closed by proclaiming that “[w]e can no longer wait. Civil rights must happen now.”[35]  Hlibok would go on to earn a law degree from the Hofstra University School of Law (where he was the first deaf law student), and ran the Disability Rights Office at the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) from 2010 to 2016. He is Chief Legal Officer for ZVRS, a video relay service provider, and is a member of the Gallaudet University Board of Trustees.

Belinda Mason had a harrowing tale to tell. In early 1987, just a little over of a year before she testified at the joint hearing, she suffered serious complications with the birth of her second child, including cardiac arrest, a stroke, and massive hemorrhaging. Though she survived, it turned out that one unit of a blood transfusion administered to her was HIV positive; in March 1987 her blood tested positive for antibodies to the HIV virus. She said that with her diagnosis of HIV positivity, “I became subject to irrational and unjustified discrimination.” She told how, even before her HIV infection became public, the “rumor mill” in her small town made sure that “everyone in town already knew about it.” She recounted how that set off aggressive ostracism and hostile acts toward her, including the closing of the town’s community pool for a week after she entered it to sit in the shallow end and watch her daughter swim; and her next door neighbor who carried around a petition to every neighbor on the block demanding that she move away. She had become a board member of the National Association of People with AIDS, and related dire stories of other people with AIDS and the discrimination they encountered. She observed that “[w]hen we look in the mirror that AIDS and HIV holds up to our society, we can see how scared we are of each other, of death and even of life. We can see how little tolerance, let alone compassion, that we often show.” She noted that “[y]ou cannot legislate good manners,” but added that “you can legislate recourse for some forms of discrimination. By legislating that protection, perhaps you may also help to promote reason and foster more decent treatment. The truth is that sometimes legislation precedes and enhances humanity.” She concluded her remarks as follows: “I urge you to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act as quickly as possible. It will make a real and incredible difference in the lives of millions of people ….”[36]

Mason was reportedly the first person with HIV ever to testify before Congress.[37]  In 1989, President George H.W. Bush appointed her to the President's Committee on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic, as its only AIDS-infected member. She became nationally known as an AIDS activist, and was an outspoken critic of the President, accusing him of treating AIDS as a moral issue instead of a public health issue. Ms. Mason passed away of AIDS-related pneumonia in September, 1991.

The final witness on the second panel of people with disabilities was W. Mitchell, a wheelchair- user who had also suffered severe burns, and was the former mayor of Crested Butte, Colorado. He suffered burns over 65% of his body from a motorcycle crash in 1971, an accident that resulted in an insurance settlement that, as he told the members of Congress, enabled him to “start a very successful business.”[38]  In 1975, he crashed on takeoff a plane he was piloting, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. He contrasted his situation dealing with his disabilities with that of other persons who did not have an education and access to financial resources as he did: “I had wealth and I had income and I had opportunities available to me. But what about all of those who were not blessed with the good fortune that I have had in my life? What happens to all of those who do not have the luxury of a vehicle or an airplane or a business or means of support?” He closed with a quotation from Albert Schweizer: “We do not live in the world all alone. Our brothers are here too.”[39]

Additional testimony was supplied for the record by David Saks, director of the Organization for the Use of the Telephone (OUT), in a written statement on the importance of hearing-aid-compatible telephones.[40]

...we will pass this bill. It will become law.

At the end of the hearing, the presiding members allowed a few brief comments by people in the audience, and Representative Owens and Senator Harkin made some closing comments of their own. Among them, Representative Owens thanked the witnesses and then commented: “We learned a great deal from you today. I hope that you understand that, just as Senator Kennedy said, we will pass this bill. It will become law. But I hope you will remember also the caution of Congressman Coelho, that it is not going to be easy.”[41]  Senator Harkin spoke more extensively to the same point, grounded in a realistic appraisal of the ADA bill’s locus in the legislative process: “This bill is not going anywhere this year. The Congress, the 100th Congress, is about to adjourn. But we enter the 101st Congress next year and the bill we be reintroduced right away.” Harkin offered his analysis of the ADA legislation in the historical context of a rosy understanding of prior civil rights advances:

It is going to be a tough battle. I am convinced we can do it. The history of the United States has been a constant evolution of opening more doors, of breaking down barriers, of extending basic human rights to more and more people. … [I]t has been a constant progress towards expanding our concept of basic human rights. But with each one of these hurdles we had to cross, it took a lot of effort, a lot of time. I am hopeful it will not take that time for this bill. We have laid the groundwork. We have made the initial steps. Now we just need to take that final step of breaking down the final barriers in our country of discrimination.[42]

Organized and presided over by Representative Major Owens, the unusual step of a field hearing by the Subcommittee on Select Education of the House Committee on Education and Labor, was convened at the Lafayette Hotel in Boston, MA, on October 24, 1988. While there had been 10 witnesses at the joint hearing in September, there would be 83 at the Boston hearing, plus others who submitted only written testimony. To permit the maximum number of people to testify, the subcommittee met continuously from 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and accelerated the proceedings so that most witnesses had only a few minutes in which to testify.

Representative Owens called the hearing to order and welcomed attendees to what he termed “a great celebration” of the ADA bill, honoring:

  • “the fact that a thorough and far-reaching piece of legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate”;
  •  “the fact that there is widespread agreement and consensus on this bill”;
  • “strong bipartisan support in both houses”; and
  • “the fact that both of the candidates running for President have endorsed this legislation.”[43]

He observed that “[o]ur task today, and in the months ahead, is to guarantee that none of this monumental support is eroded,” and elaborated:

Our hearing today is an important step toward assuring that the final legislation will be as great as the present bill. If there is a clear understanding of the great empowerment movement behind this effort, Congress will act to produce a bill which is not shackled by weakening amendments, damaging compromises or gross distortions. We need your testimony in order to preserve the Americans with Disabilities Act as it is written. We all have good reason to believe that a bill will pass. But when the process is completed, we want to celebrate a final product as good as the proposal we have initiated.[44]

He added that “[t]he crown jewel for the disability rights movement in the legislative arena … will be the enactment by the Federal Government of the Americans with Disabilities Act. … Not until all Americans with disabilities enjoy the full measure of civil rights protections will they truly be full citizens of the United States of America.”[45]

Two House members, both from Massachusetts, joined Major Owens at the hearing. In his opening remarks, Owens explained that Representative Chet Atkins had agreed to a temporary appointment to the Subcommittee to make the hearing “100 percent official” by having in attendance a member from the state where the hearing was taking place. Atkins made a brief statement, thanking Owens, the Subcommittee, and Massachusetts officials and others who had assisted in making the hearing a reality; he also made some general remarks about eliminating discrimination on the basis of disability, and described the ADA as “an important step for the Federal Government in recognizing and leveling the barriers to opportunity” for people with disabilities.[46]  As Atkins was completing his comments, another Massachusetts Representative, Joe Moakley joined the proceedings and said that he was just going to sit for a little while and hear some of the testimony.

The first witness to testify was Justin Dart, and he made brief remarks, thanking (in routine Justin fashion) Owens, Atkins, and Moakley; ADA sponsors; planners and coordinators of the hearing; other attendees, and a variety of other people. The main objective of Justin’s appearance at the hearing was to “submit for the record an executive summary of the Task Force Findings and Recommendations” as of the hearing date.[47]

A strong undercurrent of the Boston hearing was Massachusetts politics; the next four witnesses were all Massachusetts state officials: Philip Johnston of the Executive Office of Human Services; Elmer Bartels, the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission; Barbara Jean Wood, the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing; and Mary McCarthy, the Commissioner of the Department of Mental Retardation. Each of the four made remarks supportive of the ADA, and highlighted accomplishments of the State and their agencies. Perhaps the most noteworthy element of their testimony was the reading and submission for the record by Mr. Johnston of a statement by Governor and Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis that came tantalizingly close to an outright endorsement of the ADA. It began with, “The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1988 is a major step forward in protecting the rights of people with disabilities.” And, perhaps even stronger, it declared: “The Americans with Disabilities Act will provide a legal standard against which all our efforts can be judged. As President, I will work with the Congress to enact it, and I will commit my administration to developing policies and programs that reflect its principles.”[48]  A statement disseminated by the Dukakis/Bentsen campaign was even more indefinite; Dukakis stated: “The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1988 is a major step in insuring that the civil rights of Americans with disabilities are fully protected. I support the principles of this legislation and will work with Congress to achieve enactment of a law which insures full participation and equal opportunity for all citizens who have disabilities.” Couldn’t he have said, “I fully endorse the ADA, and will work tirelessly during the campaign and after until it is enacted?”

After the Massachusetts contingent, Eric Griffin, Vice President of External Affairs of the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) brought to the Subcommittee what he described as “over 1,000 expressions from individuals with disabilities in the form of petitions and disability and discrimination diaries which attest to the everyday experience and the profound nature and breadth of the discrimination that people with disabilities face throughout their lives.” Of the 1,000 submissions Mr. Griffin submitted, seven samples were included in the Subcommittee hearing report.[49]

Most of the remainder of the hearing was devoted to testimony and written statements from some 77 witnesses who wanted to tell Congress their stories of the ways in which they had suffered serious and unjust discrimination because of their disabilities; such testimony filled up 200 pages of the hearing record.[50]  Some of the flavor of the participants’ narratives can be derived from 11 skeletal synopses presented in the NCD report Equality of Opportunity.[51]

In his final remark as he adjourned the hearing, Major Owens declared: “We very much appreciate your faith in the whole process of government. We pledge ourselves to do everything possible to deliver, to make sure this bill is passed as it is.”[52]

The hearings in September and October did not exactly match the dimensions for the hearing Bobby Silverstein had envisioned back in June, when he spoke of 10 to 12 “stars” witnesses, with 250 to 300 people in attendance. But they did meet the basic objectives and some of the parameters he had set out. The first hearing was a joint hearing; the hearings gave people on the Hill the chance to hear witnesses who supported the bill explain why it was necessary, bolstered by testimony and documents on types of disabilities and the forms and magnitude of discrimination that people were encountering. It featured successful people with disabilities talking about the challenges they had faced, and people who told of egregious discrimination they had experienced and the damage it had done in their lives. The stories told by the witnesses and the documentation they submitted, as recorded in the hearing reports, provided a cache of detailed data on the reality of disability discrimination – fodder for committee reports and other parts of a good legislative history. The hearings garnered a reasonable amount of press coverage and other publicity, and lit a fire under people with disabilities and their organizations to learn more about the ADA bill and take action to support it. The two hearings served as an encouraging climax to activities promoting the ADA in the 100th Congress.

It being an election year, the 100th Congress ended on October 22, 1988. Shortly before the Congress adjourned, the Senate joined the House in passing legislation to change the name of the National Council on the Handicapped to the National Council on Disability; the bill was signed into law on November 7.[53]

cover page of Implications for Federal Policy of the 1986 Harris Survey of Americans with DisabilitiesAfter Congress adjourned, I had a bit of time to finish up a project that I had initiated some time before, to do a systematic analysis of the results of the 1986 Harris Poll of Americans with Disabilities, whose preliminary findings had influenced the Council and its Toward Independence report. So I finished drafting a 71-page document, titled Implications for Federal Policy of the 1986 Harris Survey of Americans with Disabilities,[54]  that was approved and issued by the Council on November 1. In the Introduction to the report, I described its purpose and development as the Council having “examined the detailed results of the ICD/Harris study, and … explored the federal policy implications of the survey findings. This report presents the Council’s findings and observations.”

The report identified 31 “major federal policy implications” of the Harris Survey.[55]  These stretched across a broad range of policy areas, including, among others, the usefulness of the screening process used by the Harris organization in obtaining data about individuals with disabilities; the need for more, and more complete Census and other federal agency demographic studies of Americans with disabilities; the need for more data about nonurban, female, and elderly people with disabilities; documentation of people with disabilities as an emerging political constituency; drastic levels of unemployment among those with disabilities; the need for making quality personal assistance services more available; documentation that government benefits appear to be going to appropriate classes of beneficiaries with disabilities; and the need for improved health insurance coverage.

Quite a number of the policy implications I identified related to some degree to the ADA bill.

Not surprisingly, I articulated one implication directly on point: “10. Congress should enact the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1988 to establish a strong and clear requirement of equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities, paralleling civil rights protection afforded other minorities and women.”[56]  The Harris survey also provided evidence of the need for:

  • federal statutory and regulatory requirements that employers make practicable modifications of workplaces and conditions of employment to accommodate the abilities of employees and applicants;
  • Congress to enact a law prohibiting disability discrimination in public accommodations, and ensuring persons with disabilities’ equal right to use public transportation;
  • vigorous enforcement of federal standards regarding architectural accessibility, and expansion of such standards to make them applicable to all buildings within the scope of federal legislative or regulatory authority; and
  • Congress to enact legislation prohibiting denials of various types of insurance to individuals because of their disabilities.

Data derived from the survey provided strong documentation of each of these needs.

I felt satisfaction in examining and mining the results of the ICD/Harris study from a federal disability policy perspective. I felt I was making a useful contribution, and was not aware of any other analyst or agency doing anything similar. For reasons unknown, NCD did not make much effort to publicize the report, and, to my surprise and disappointment, when it eventually set up a website, did not publish the report on it, as it did with all the other reports I have written on its behalf and with its approval.

With the Council’s version of the ADA having been introduced, with the hearings completed and the 100th Congress having concluded, with my Harris Poll report having been approved and issued, and with Lex and Andi having left the National Council, I decided it was time for me to get out of Dodge. I decided to take a position with the National Easter Seals Society to start a new program called Project ACTION (Accessible Community Transportation In Our Nation). Project ACTION is a project of nationwide impact funded by the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation to promote and facilitate collaboration between the transportation industry and the disability community to increase mobility for people with disabilities. My visibility as a disability rights advocate and my involvement with the ADA led Easter Seals to offer me the position, and I made sure to negotiate a mutual understanding that I would be free to continue working on the ADA as it made its way through Congress. I resigned from the National Council on Disability on November 10; my last work day was November 23. But I knew that, regardless of what agency I was working for, there would still be a lot more for me to do on the ADA.


Continue to Part 19: Dancing to Our Music: Impact and Legacy of 1988 ADA Bill


[1] S. Hrg. Rpt. 100-926 (1988). A copy of the report can be found at: http://dolearchivecollections.ku.edu/collections/ada/files/s-leg_752_002_all.pdf

[2] S. Rep. No, 101-116, at 4 (1989).

[3] S. Hrg. Rpt. 100-926 (1988), at p. 57.

[4] National Council on Disability, Equality of Opportunity (1997), at p. 87.

[5] S. Hrg. Rpt. 100-926 (1988), at p. 2.

[6] Id. at p. 3.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at p. 4.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at p. 5.

[12] Id. at p. 8.

[13] Id.

[14] Id. at p. 9.

[15] Id. at p. 11.

[16] Id.

[17] Id. at p. 12.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. at p. 17.

[20] Id. at p. 19.

[21] Id.

[22] Id. at p. 20.

[23] Id.

[24] Id. at p. 21.

[25] Id. at p. 25.

[26] Id. at p. 27.

[27] Id. at p. 28.

[28] Id. at p. 29.

[29] Id. at p. 40.

[30] Id. at p. 40.

[31] Id.

[32] Id. at p. 39.

[33] Id. at p. 70.

[34] Id. at pp. 75-76.

[35] Id. at pp. 78-79.

[36] Id. at pp. 76-78.

[37] National Council on Disability, Equality of Opportunity (1997), at p. 80.

[38] Id. at p. 83.

[39] Id.

[40] Id. at p. 93.

[41] Id. at p. 89.

[42] Id. at pp. 91-92.

[43] Oversight Hearing on H.R. 4498, Americans with Disabilities Act of 1988 Before the Subcommittee on Select Education of the House Committee on Education and Labor, 100th Cong. 2nd Sess. (1988), reprinted in Legislative History of Public Law 101-336, prepared for the House Committee on Education and Labor [Committee Print], serial No. 102-A (December 1990) vol. 2, p. 1026, at p. 1031 (remarks of Rep. Owens).

[44] Id. at pp. 1031-1032.

[45] Id. at p. 1032.

[46] Id. at pp. 1036-1037.

[47] Id. at pp. 1038-1043.

[48] Id. at pp. 1044-1046.

[49] Id. at pp. 1061-1265.

[50] Id. at pp. 1065-1264.

[51] National Council on Disability, Equality of Opportunity (1997), at pp. 89-91.

[52] Id. at p. 1265.

[53] Handicapped Programs Technical Amendment Act of 1988, Pub. L. 100-630, Sec. 205(b) (November 7, 1988).

[54] National Council on Disability, Implications for Federal Policy of the 1986 Harris Survey of Americans with Disabilities (Nov. 1, 1988).

[55] Id. at Executive Summary, pp. vi-ix.

[56] Id. at p. vii.