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Prelude to Drafting the Original ADA Bill - Part 1

Issuance of Toward Independence; Press Event and Delivery to White House

In the early afternoon of January 28, 1986, as millions of Americans were reeling from the tragic news of the Challenger explosion and the heart-rending loss of the five men and two women onboard (including Christa McAuliffe, a member of the Teacher in Space Project, who was seeking to be the first teacher to go into space), the staff and several members of the National Council on Disability had assembled at the meeting rooms in the Washington Marriott Hotel awaiting the scheduled press pre-release of Toward Independence, the Council’s 1985 report to the President and Congress. We too were jarred and deeply upset about the accident. As the press invitations had long since gone out and some media representatives might be on their way (and there was no such thing as social media to contact them), we decided we had no choice but to go ahead with the event, though we were uncertain how many, if any, members of the press would show up.

Andi had prepared press packets containing a copy of Toward Independence; a news release announcing its issuance; and a “Fact Sheet” describing the Council, the report, and the recommendations in it. Because the press event was occurring in advance of the transmittal of the report to the President and Congress, and its release to the general public on February 1, Andi was directed that the packets were embargoed and should be given only to credentialed members of the press; and then only on condition that they would keep the contents confidential and not publish anything until the Council’s official release of the report. As a few souls started to drift in, Andi was standing by the table on which the packets were stacked, ready to greet journalists as they signed in and identified their media positions. A tall man in a gray business suit walked over to the table and helped himself to one of the packets without signing in. Andi asked him whether he was a journalist and, when he said no, politely informed him that the packets were for journalists only. She heard him respond, in an entitled tone, “I’m Boyd and Gray and I need to get a copy of the report.” Andi shot back, “I don’t care what law firm you’re with – if you’re not a journalist, you’re not getting one.” Ignoring her statement, the man held onto the packet and walked away, over to the other side of the room, where Lex, Justin, and Sandy were clustered. Andi decided there was not much she could do short of trying to grab the packet out of his hands, which did not seem appropriate.

Shortly thereafter, Lex came over to Andi, who had been on the job less than a month, lightly chastised her, and said she should have given the man one of the packets. It turned out that what the gentleman had actually said was “I’m Boyden Gray.” C. Boyden Gray was Legal Counsel for Vice President George Bush and, as such, something of a White House big shot. If the Vice President’s lawyer wanted a copy of the report and had come to our event to fetch it, he would certainly get one. Later, despite the initial faux pas in political protocol, he would come to play a supportive role within the White House at certain critical phases in the consideration of Toward Independence and the ADA.

Sparing a copy for Mr. Gray turned out to pose no problem at all as, not surprisingly, turnout for the event in the immediate aftermath of the Challenger calamity was paltry, consisting mainly of a couple of writers from disability publications. The representatives of the Council who made remarks, including Lex, Justin, and Sandy, spoke to an audience that fit easily into the first two rows of the seating area, and included mostly members, staff, and consultants of the Council.

On the evening of January 28th, President Reagan had been scheduled to give the annual State of the Union address. In light of the Challenger tragedy, he decided to postpone the State of the Union for a week and instead made a national address on the disaster – giving what some commentators hailed as the most compelling speech he ever made. He also canceled all meetings on his schedule for the week. One of the meetings that fell by the wayside was an appointment the Council had made to present Toward Independence personally to the President on the morning of January 30th. When the White House notified the Council of the cancellation, it offered a suggestion that the presenters meet instead with Vice President George H.W. Bush. When contacted directly, the Vice President’s staff said the Council representatives would have 10 minutes and a photo opportunity. Accordingly, Vice President George H.W. Bush and White House adviser Boyden Gray met with Sandy, Justin, Jerry Milbank, and Lex on the morning of January 31st. Unexpectedly, the Vice President showed considerable interest in the Council’s report. The scheduled ten-minute meeting turned into an extended discussion that continued uninterrupted for over an hour. Lex would later gush about the meeting: “We went into the West Wing office of the Vice President and he started talking about the report. He had read the report! He spent an hour and 15 minutes asking questions and talking about his family and how he understood disability issues. He wanted to be an advocate.” [1] Vice President Bush clearly had given thought to the content of the report, and discussed a few issues, including education and equal opportunity laws, in some detail. He did not offer a single criticism of the Council’s recommendations. As the meeting ended, Bush promised that he would forward the report to President Reagan, and said that he wished he could do more, but that there was only so much he could do as vice president.[2] Of course, people associated with the White House including Bob Sweet, William Bradford Reynolds, and Boyden Gray (“Boyd and Gray”) already had copies of Toward Independence, but the personal transmission of the report by the Vice President to the President was encouraging, and turned out serendipitously to be pivotal.

Continue to Part 2: Briefing on Harris Poll of People with Disabilities

[1] Roxanne Furlong, “Lex Frieden: Prepared for Disaster,” New Mobility (Jan. 01, 2006) (quoting Lex Frieden), found at http://www.newmobility.com/2006/01/lex-frieden-prepared-for-disaster/

[2] National Council on Disability, Equality of Opportunity: The Making of the Americans with Disabilities Act, p. 58 & n.36 (1997), quoting Frieden telephone interview, May 18, 1997.