The Making of the ADA

Memories from the 10th Anniversary

We are happy to announce the
The Disability Rights Leadership Series
Week One: Justin Dart, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, President George H.W. Bush,
and the trio of Pat Wright, Ralph Neas & John Wodatch

George H.W. Bush

“…Sitting there on the South Lawn and signing the Act itself…was the culmination of a lot of people, Republicans, Democrats, lots of Administration people, and then the whole, broad disability community in the United States, coming together and saying look, we’ve finally done something worth while. We’ve done something honorable and good to help people.”

Edward M. Kennedy

“…Lord, make honor bright. I mean, it’s keeping after things and pursuing them…I think that if we didn’t have the action of the disability community and being so involved, understanding the principle that was involved and so intense about it, we wouldn’t have. But that was really a victory for the community. They were the ones that really changed the attitudes. So we had made the arguments, but they were the ones that really turned the tide.”

Justin Dart

“Here’s this delinquent kid sitting up there next to the President of the United States and…they’re playing the Battle Hymn of the Republic. It’s just like the end of a 1930’s movie, you know? And then it occurred to me that it is not the end…Here are all these millions of people in the United States and half a billion people around the world whose futures will be determined by whether this law is successful or not.”

Pat Wright, Ralph Neas and John Wodatch

“I think it’s important that we address the element of fortune and good luck to have John [Wodatch] in the position he was in, to have other good friends… who had worked with us over the years, usually behind the scenes, whether in the administration or on the Hill, who were just in the right spot at the right time, in trust positions with respect to the White House.”
– Ralph Neas

“I don’t think we could ever again create that coalition…An old friend of mine used to quote Janis Joplin: When you got nothin’ to lose… So when you have nothing, it’s easier to keep that coalition together.”
– Pat Wright

“…We always saw the people from the disability community as this aggressive force that was very organized. You know, if some congressman said something negative in the morning, that afternoon, a disability rights organization from…his district would call.”
– John Wodatch

As the country approaches the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we pause for a moment to take stock of the impact the ADA has had on our lives and our communities over the past quarter century and to recognize both the sung and the unsung heroes who worked tirelessly to make the dream of full civil rights for people with disabilities a legal reality.

In the 1992 article, The History of the Americans with Disabilities Act – A Movement Perspective, DREDF’s Directing Attorney, Arlene Mayerson, wrote,

“The ADA owes its birthright not to any one person, or any few, but to the many thousands of people who make up the disability rights movement – people who have worked for years organizing and attending protests, licking envelopes, sending out alerts, drafting legislation, speaking, testifying, negotiating, lobbying, filing lawsuits, being arrested – doing whatever they could for a cause they believed in. There are far too many people whose commitment and hard work contributed to the passage of this historic piece of disability civil rights legislation to be able to give appropriate credit by name. Without the work of so many – without the disability rights movement – there would be no ADA.”

In an effort to capture the day–to–day memories of some of those who witnessed and influenced this extraordinary historic event, the University of San Francisco and the video production company, Access Video, collaborated with DREDF during 1999 and 2000 to interview some of the people who were central to the law’s passage.

Interviews were conducted with President George H.W. Bush and key members of his Administration, Congressional leaders who championed the proposed legislation including Senator Edward M. Kennedy, members of their staff, and disability rights attorneys and advocates such as Justin Dart, Jr.

Just as no one person, group, or organization can represent the vast diversity that comprises “people with disabilities,” this project could not adequately credit everyone who worked to make the vision of the ADA a reality. The voices preserved in this small collection are few in number. They are the voices of those who were privileged to be in power, or who had access to those in power. We want to share them because they bear witness to how our communities’ landmark civil rights law was fought for in our nation’s capital, in rooms that were reached by literal – not figurative — “halls of power.”

There were, and are, many other stories about people and moments in time that we need to preserve if we are to have a more complete history of the disability civil rights movement, and a deeper understanding of our present and future. As the 15–year gap between filming and release attests, we’re fortunate that technology and social media have made story–telling infinitely more accessible and diverse.

We are pleased to announce that we will post this historic archival material in celebration of the ADA’s 25th anniversary. Some interviews being posted are excerpted from longer videos while other, shorter segments have been only lightly edited. We will roll out the interviews in several releases of groups of three to five over the next six to eight weeks, beginning today with individual interviews with President George H.W. Bush, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and Justin Dart, Jr. A group interview with Ralph Neas, Jr., who led the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, John Wodatch who was with the US Department of Justice, and Pat Wright, then DREDF’s governmental affairs director, is also included in the first release.

Copies of the unedited interview collection reside in the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement (DRILM) collection at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, as well as with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF).

We wish to extend our deep appreciation to the volunteers who donated their time to edit and caption this archival material.