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Toward Independence and the Vision of an ADA - Part 16

A Last Minute Obstacle and a Horrible Twist of Fate

Another bit of negative excitement occurred about a week before Toward Independence was due to be released and after 10,000 copies of the report had been already printed and were ready for distribution. I was not privy to this incident when it happened, but Lex described it later. He said that he got a phone call from Bob Sweet, the Deputy Executive Secretary of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House. Although we had sidestepped the official A-19 process for review of documents within the Administration, Lex and the Council officers had done some informal circulation, and a copy had reached Sweet’s desk. As Lex reported it, Sweet said that the White House could not support the report and he threatened to block it.[1] He told Lex that "[t]his report is so liberal, Ted Kennedy wouldn't produce it."[2] Lex somehow managed to talk to a more senior official at the White House – Dr. William L. Roper, Special Assistant to the President for Health Policy, and a well-respected physician and public health expert – and convinced him that the core principle of Toward Independence was that all Americans should be allowed to participate fully in society. Roper’s suggested solution to resistance within the Administration was simple – that the Council should not affix the Great Seal of the United States or the Presidential Seal to the report. This was a very easy condition to fulfill, since the report had been prepared and printed without any intention of attaching the Great Seal or the Presidential Seal. In an ironic twist, the Letter of Transmittal included near the front of Toward Independence contains the seal of the National Council, which like the seals of most other federal agencies, is a close facsimile of the Great Seal of the United States.

Justin had another perspective on how this crisis was averted.[3] He recalled getting a call from Lex who gave him an account of his conversation with Sweet, about which Lex was very upset. Justin’s recollection was that Lex not only told him about Sweet’s “too liberal for Kennedy” gibe, but described some other strong comments that Sweet apparently had made, including “What in the world are you people thinking about up there? The President is not going to touch this with a ten-foot pole,” and ending with “You’ve got to fix this.”[4] Justin’s reaction upon hearing this was: “So here is Bob Burgdorf’s prediction coming true.” When Justin asked what could be done, Lex suggested maybe someone, perhaps Justin, could meet with William Bradford Reynolds, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and a close advisor to President Reagan; Reynolds reportedly had made informal statements indicating he was supportive of some type of disability rights initiative. Justin turned to Gordon Mansfield, at the time associate executive director of Government Relations for the Paralyzed Veteran of America and a friend of Reynolds, to set up a meeting at Reynolds’s office. Madeleine Will, the Assistant Secretary of Education for Special Education and Rehabilitation and mother of a son with Down syndrome, joined Reynolds, Mansfield, and Dart at the meeting. According to Justin, after telling Reynolds about the negative reaction coming from the White House, Justin made the following appeal to him:

Bradford, all we are asking for is that the promises of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights be kept for people with disabilities. And I don’t think that President Reagan wants to go down in history as the being the President that opposed keeping the promises of the Declaration of Independence to 35 million people with disabilities. And Bradford, they say we go farther than Ted Kennedy. Wouldn’t we be embarrassed if we didn’t? Because he has not proposed full civil rights for people with disabilities.[5]

When I heard about Justin’s pitch to Reynolds, I thought it crafty for him to have used one-upping Senator Kennedy as a rationale for the Administration to back the Council’s approach in Toward Independence.

As Justin later described, his plea seemed to have the desired effect, because Reynolds responded: “Justin, I agree with you. Not only is the President not going to oppose this, he is going to support your proposal, and you are going to get it in writing. And I am going to call the White House when you leave here.”[6] He proved true to his word and President Reagan signed a letter to Chairperson Parrino, dated January 29, 1986, in which he congratulated the Council on the completion of Toward Independence and declared:

I agree with the goals implicit in Toward Independence – equal opportunity and full social participation for all Americans, and I am pleased to see that your report sets forth a comprehensive agenda for progress toward these goals. My Administration will study your report and cooperate with the Council, with the Congress, and with disabled Americans and their supporters to refine and develop these proposals.

While certainly not a blanket endorsement of the recommendations in the report, which given the timing and circumstances it could hardly have been, the letter was a friendly tip of the Presidential hat toward the report and the general direction it espoused. And it certainly meant that the White House was not going to block or denounce Toward Independence. The letter was issued too late to be included in the printed report, so it would be added in as a one-page insert as the copies of the report were disseminated (and may have gotten more attention in that format).

With delivery of the report to the President and congressional leaders scheduled for January 30, and the public release scheduled for January 31, the Council planned a pre-issuance press briefing on January 28, the afternoon before the formal Council meeting would begin. Andi worked with other members of the staff and with personnel from the Hannaford Company, a public relations firm the Council had engaged, to prepare press releases and a “Fact Sheet” describing the Council, the report, and its recommendations. Such documents along with copies of Toward Independence that would be shared with reporters at the press event on an “embargoed” basis, meaning that journalists could obtain an advance copy of the report only if they promised not to publish anything prior to the official release, were ready to go at the scheduled time for the briefing. Notices to the press had been sent out, and we were expecting a healthy turnout. Poignant and shocking intervening events decreed otherwise, however.

At 11:38 on the morning of January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. All seven crewmembers were killed. Television footage showed the shuttle emitting a plume of smoke, breaking apart, and disappearing from view – disturbing images that were aired over and over. News outlets were covering the story from all angles and seeking, like most Americans, to understand how and why this tragic accident had occurred. At such a moment in history, journalists could hardly be expected to pay attention to a press briefing on a report being issued by the National Council on Disability.

Continue on to Prelude to Drafting the Original ADA Bill: Part 1

[1] National Council on Disability, Equality of Opportunity: The Making of the Americans with Disabilities Act, p. 57 & n.35 (1997), quoting Frieden interview, December 28, 1997.

[2] Id.

[3] The basic facts and quotations recounted here are based on statements of Justin Dart derived from oral history interviews featured in Fred Pelka, What We Have Done: An Oral History of the Disability Rights Movement, pp. 432-433 (University of Mass. Press, 2012). The meeting with William Bradford Reynolds and its outcome are also mentioned in Thomas Burke, Lawyers, Lawsuits, and Legal Rights: The Battle over Litigation in American Society, p. 78 & n.70 (University of California Press, 2002).

[4] Fred Pelka, What We Have Done: An Oral History of the Disability Rights Movement, p. 432 (University of Mass. Press, 2012).

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at pp. 432-433.