When to Hold ‘Em and When to Fold ‘Em

Lessons Learned From Enacting The Americans with Disabilities Act

Patrisha Wright
as told to Jane West

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted in 1990, is considered to be the high water mark of disability legislation by the disability community in the United States. It is often looked to by other countries as a model, both for its progressive far-reaching policies and the political process that occurred to ensure its adoption. This paper examines the political process that surrounded the enactment of the ADA in terms of the human dynamics that enabled the legislation to prevail. We hope that these lessons learned from the ADA will be useful to other countries as they design their own disability rights policies and utilize their systems of government to ensure the full participation of people with disabilities.

In any country with a legislative process, a law can only be enacted with the involvement of multiple parties playing different roles. Every role is critical. There must be people outside of the policy-making process – persons from the grassroots throughout the country who are willing to push the envelope, take direct actions, and even get arrested if necessary. There must be people with direct access to influential government leaders, who can then speak for and negotiate on behalf of the disability community. There must be attorneys connected to the disability community who know how to draft disability laws, understand the legal implications of legislative language, and are willing to work with the grassroots to translate their concerns into legislative language. There must be people inside the policy making system, who are willing to advocate within the legislative process and work “off the record” with the disability community.

Many people take credit for the enactment of the ADA. And there is plenty of credit to go around. All of the parties noted above were critical to the enactment of the law. It is simply not possible for a small group of people to succeed in enacting a law as far-reaching and significant as the ADA. So when you hear hundreds of Americans claim credit for enacting the ADA, rest assured that the credit is well-deserved and there is plenty to go around!

1. Empower and Activate the Grassroots

Most oppressed groups of people believe that they are powerless. The notion that they could effectively influence government or change public policy is a foreign concept and one not easily believed. One of the great hallmarks of the passage of the ADA is that the grassroots came to “own” the legislation. They were mobilized and activated to vociferously fight for the legislation and tell their stories of why the legislation was needed. People came to Washington from all over the country to communicate with their representatives and press for passage of the law.

One key activity that generated grassroots participation was the writing of diaries of discrimination. Organizations and leaders of the disability community asked people with disabilities across the country to write diaries of their personal encounters with discrimination. Major Owens, a member of the House of Representatives and a disability ally, appointed Justin Dart, often considered the national leader of the disability rights movement, to head a Task Force. Under the auspices of this Task Force, Justin went to every state in the nation and held town hall meetings. People throughout the states came and presented testimony concerning the discrimination they were facing. They also held local “diary parties” in their communities where they would come together to support each other in writing about their experiences with discrimination.

Not only were these diaries presented to Members of Congress and the Committees that had jurisdiction over the ADA, they were submitted as part of the official record of information used by Congress during legislative deliberations. Every Member of Congress heard directly from his or her constituents about the discrimination the latter experienced in their district. The diaries educated Members of Congress about the nature and the breadth of the problem. They provided documentation on the need for a law like the ADA. Furthermore, they galvanized people with disabilities to take action to end their status as second class citizens.[1]

2. Build a Coalition of Disability Organizations

Coalitions are messy. The differing missions and motivations of organizations that represent people with disabilities challenged the development of a cohesive coalition. In the United States, the blind lobby and the lobby of war veterans historically have been the most effective in securing provisions in legislation. For example, in our Social Security legislation blind individuals are singled out from those with other disabilities and treated more generously. Disabled veterans receive more generous pensions than people with disabilities on Social Security, are entitled to additional supports, and can keep their government provided health insurance indefinitely, whether they are employed or not.

Groups representing people with disabilities in Washington have tended to pursue services, research and benefits that are specific to the needs of their particular group. In other words, groups representing people with developmental disabilities sought services for towards people with developmental disabilities, etc. Lobbyists often viewed their jobs as increasing funding for the particular service providers that they represented. While there had been some activity around the enactment of disability rights laws, this was not the focus of the disability agenda prior to the ADA.

In addition, there is potential tension between those representing people with disabilities and those representing service providers to people with disabilities. What may be good for a service provider, e.g. ease in administrative functioning, may yield a detrimental result for the intended beneficiary of the services, e.g. a lack of individualized programming. The lobbyists in Washington DC tend to be dominated by service providers rather than people with disabilities themselves.

So how does one build a coalition out of so many groups with differing goals? One of the first prerequisites is the empowerment of the grassroots community. Since the provider community serves the grassroots, they are likely to listen to strong messages from their constituents. Provider groups are critical to the effort since they generally have greater financial resources than people with disabilities and can support the cost of organizing a coalition. Further, the provider community was well organized in Washington, DC as the Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD). CCD is made up of almost 100 organizations that provide services and support to people with disabilities.

Another vital component involves recognizing the reality of discrimination, which operates across the board no matter what type of disability is at issue. People who are blind, deaf, mentally impaired, physically impaired, learning disabled, and emotionally impaired have all experienced discrimination. Unlike the different types of services that people with different disabilities may seek or require, discrimination itself is a commonality. It is an experience that unites people with many different types of disabilities.

3. Build Coalitions with Broader Human Rights Groups

It would not have been possible to get the ADA enacted without the active support of other groups and coalitions concerned with civil rights. The Civil Rights Leadership Coalition (LCCR) is a well-established Washington based coalition of 180 groups that is concerned about civil rights in relation to race, religion and gender. Many race-specific groups belong to this coalition, as well as women’s groups, Union groups, religious groups, and groups representing the gay and lesbian community.

These well-established organizations, with their long history of civil rights activism, were brought into the disability fold. They were educated about how disability is another area in which individual civil rights needed protection. They were further reminded that their constituents – be they women, older people, racial minorities or religious minorities – also comprised people with disabilities. If they were not protecting the rights of people with disabilities, they were failing their own constituents as well.

These organizations were able to reach out to those Members of Congress who had been their champions previously and bring them on board behind the ADA. Various Congressional groups such as the Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus and the Women’s Caucus became involved. When they threw their strength and power behind the ADA the campaign advanced to a much bigger playing field.

4. Establish the Rules of Engagement

Organizations that banded together to promote the ADA met regularly as a coalition during the two and a half years of Congressional consideration of the bills. One of the first orders of business was to advance and agree on principles that the coalition would use in working on the ADA. This crucial step enabled the coalition to stay on track and maintain a clear final destination while staying flexible, since there are many ways to meet the terms of a principle. Without principles, people can attach themselves to a particular means of achieving a policy goal, and thus unnecessarily engender significant opposition. If a coalition unites around principles, it can keep numerous options open and negotiable as long as the principle is not violated. Principles also can be used to measure different proposals as they are put foreword, and more people can participate by developing various options for arriving at the same goal.

As a group, we agreed to the following inviolate principles:

A) One for all and all for one.

Many groups of people with particular disabilities were often targeted for elimination from coverage under the ADA. For instance, amendments were proposed that would have excluded people with mental illness and people with HIV/AIDS. We were convinced that if single groups were picked off for exclusion, those opposing the bill would succeed in dividing the community and weakening its advocacy efforts. Consequently, people with developmental disabilities were just as committed to ensuring the inclusion of people with HIV/AIDS as to their own constituency.

Those who opposed the ADA wanted the coalition to believe that they would support the bill once a particular group was not included. This is a seductive argument when a bill is moving slowly and faces a lot of obstacles; there is a strong temptation to eliminate a single group for the sake of saving the bill as a whole. While the coalition’s commitment to this primary principle was tested many times, we held tight in the end and no group was excluded from coverage.

B) Do not give up on a policy position; rather extend the time line for implementation of the policy.

Frequently our opponents would argue that particular provisions were too burdensome or too onerous and should be weakened. In one case, they asserted that it would be prohibitively expensive to make all buses accessible. It would bankrupt the nation’s bus system and drive some companies out of business, thereby causing many citizens to lose their jobs. Our response to this sort of argument was to offer a phase-in period during which bus fleets could steadily work towards becoming entirely accessible in accordance with established timelines. For example, working buses did not have to be retrofitted with lifts; instead, whenever a bus company bought a new bus, it had to be equipped with a lift.

The ADA contains many similar kinds of timelines for implementing full compliance with its standards. These timelines are the result of our willingness to negotiate on the timing, but not the ultimate achievement, of our policy goals.

C) Always consider the policy issue from the point of view of a person with a disability who is intended to be protected by this law.

Whenever an issue would come up for debate, we would ask ourselves “What would the effect be on the individual with a disability?” This was our measuring stick. We were not primarily concerned with administrative expediency, cost or the burden on the covered entity. While these things matter, they were not our key consideration.

5. Identify a Trusted and Respected Disability Leader

Members of Congress and leaders in the White House and the executive agencies need one person they can communicate with who speaks for the entire coalition. They need to know that there is one person they can call and negotiate with, and at the end of the negotiation, the agreement will hold. This person is the link between all of the stakeholders involved, and must therefore be acknowledged by the various interested parties as their leader.

Policy makers do not have the time to interact separately with many individuals over the multitude of issues that can come up during the course of enacting a law. They need to have the disability community speak with a united voice, and not several voices. If the community cannot resolve its differences of opinion internally, policy makers will be reluctant to get involved. They will not want to take sides in what will be seen as an internal debate, or be made to appear as a supporter of one faction’s position over another. They must be able to assert confidently that “the disability community’s position is X”, so that they can deal with the larger forces opposing the enactment of the law.

The leader must be a person with great political savvy and awareness as well as entrée at the highest levels of government. This person must understand the broadest political contexts of the legislative process, as the bill may ground to a halt in the middle of negotiations over a matter that is not really even relevant to the bill. The coalition leader needs to be able to manage such entanglements while maintaining balance and cooperation within the community.

The leader for the disability community on the ADA was Pat Wright of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF).

6. Identify and Cultivate Champions in Government

The National Council on Disability (NCD), a small independent organization that is part of the executive branch of government, originally drafted the Americans with Disabilities Act and sent it to the Congress and the President for consideration. Bob Burgdorf, an attorney at the Council, drafted the original legislation. President Reagan, a conservative Republican, first appointed the members of the NCD.

When the original bill went to the Congress, members of the NCD and the disability community pursued Senator Lowell Weicker, a liberal Republican from Connecticut, to introduce the bill. Sen. Weicker was chosen because he was a senior Member of Congress, a Member of the Majority party in the Senate, the Congress’s foremost advocate for people with disabilities, and the father of a child with mental retardation. In the House of Representatives, Tony Coelho, the House Whip (a high level leadership position) and a Democrat from California, was targeted to be the lead sponsor of the bill. Rep. Coelho was chosen because he was a senior member of the House, a member of the Majority party in the House, a recognized disability advocate, and a person with a disability (epilepsy) himself, who had extensive and profound personal experience with disability discrimination.

These two Members of Congress introduced the original bills in April 1988 and championed them before their colleagues. They spent many hours with the disability community discussing the bill and strategically planning its passage. They were the heroes and the allies of the community – individuals who immediately understood the need for the bill because of their own personal experiences and convictions. They did not have to be motivated to consider the bill urgent or educated about what disability discrimination was. This was a critical factor in our choice, for if a champion does not consider the legislation a personal priority, it is likely to become just one more item on a very long list that needs attention.

A few months after the legislation was introduced and the first hearing was held, the United States held elections for the Congress and for the President. Things began to change dramatically. In the Senate, Sen. Weicker was defeated. Some months later, in the House, Rep. Coelho resigned. The disability community had to find new champions.

Before his resignation, Rep. Coelho asked Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland, to take the lead in promoting the ADA. Rep. Hoyer’s wife had a disability and he fully understood the experience of disability discrimination. Rep. Hoyer gladly took the reins and promoted the bill with great passion. In the Senate, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) took the lead. Sen. Harkin chaired the Subcommittee on Disability Policy, as Sen. Weicker had when the Republicans had held the majority. Sen. Harkin was quite knowledgeable about disability issues since he had the experience of growing up with a brother who was deaf, and had witnessed the discrimination regularly encountered by his brother. Sen. Edward Kennedy chaired the full Committee on Education and Labor, of which the Disability Policy Subcommittee was a part. Sen. Kennedy was a natural champion given his long history of civil rights advocacy, his high visibility and seniority in politics, and his personal experience with disability; Sen. Kennedy’s son lost a leg to cancer and his sister has mental retardation.

Once again, the disability community had champions who understood disability discrimination and held the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act as a personal priority.

In November 1988, George Bush won the presidency. During the campaign, disability activists had secured his promise that he would support the enactment of a disability rights law if elected President. In January of 1989, President-elect Bush said that he would support an act similar to the proposed Americans with Disabilities Act. Several of the key figures appointed by President Bush to his Administration were from the disability community, including Evan Kemp as Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. His Attorney General, Dick Thornburg, was a parent of a child with a disability and early on declared his support for the bill. President Bush’s Legal Counsel, C. Boyden Gray, also became a great ally of the disability community over time.

The disability community cultivated champions in both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as in both the legislative and executive branch. Our strategy was to seek out people who either had disabilities themselves or had family members with disabilities, or who otherwise possessed close personal experiences with disability. This approach was motivated by the fact that a personal experience with disability almost always brings with it the understanding that people with disabilities are not and should not be second class citizens. No one wants a member of their family or a close friend to be treated in a less than equal manner.

With a Republican President committed to signing a disability rights law, the Democratic Congress was in essence, being challenged to pass the bill. They certainly did not want to look more conservative than the Republican Administration.

7. Organize, Strategize and Act

We knew that it would be a massive task to get the law enacted. Such an effort was unprecedented in the disability area. The most similar effort was the campaign for the enactment of the civil rights law of 1964, a law that represents a watershed in our nation’s commitment to ensuring equal rights under law. So we knew this required all of our collective resources and determination. It was time to mobilize our forces.

The coalition met regularly, usually once a week early on Monday mornings. Anywhere from 80-100 people would attend. We met at the same place and at the same time. The group would review the status of the bill, examine problems that were on the horizon, and develop strategies to keep the bill moving forward. The coalition organized itself to carry out an effective strategy for ensuring enactment of the ADA.

A. The Legal Team

The coalition developed a team of lawyers to draft legislation and review the proposals that were put forward. This team was headed by Arlene Mayerson, directing attorney of DREDF, and Chai Feldblum, counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. Arlene came with over 15 years of disability and civil rights experience, including participation in all of the Supreme Court cases in which existing disability rights laws had been challenged. Chai’s area of expertise was HIV/AIDS discrimination, a very active area of law at the time. Other attorneys on the team included Bonnie Milstein of the Bazelon Center, whose expertise was in mental illness; Jim Weisman of Paralyzed Veterans of America, whose expertise was in transportation; Sy Dubow and Karen Peltz-Strauss of the National Center for Law and the Deaf, whose expertise was in deafness issues; Tim Cook, attorney for ADAPT, (a national grassroots disability organization devoted to activism); and Bob Burgdorf, counsel to the National Council on Disability, who had drafted the original law. The legal team also had access to various experts around the country who they could tap for advice on different issues as they arose. For example, how much does it cost to make a bus accessible? They were able to get accurate and timely information so they could respond quickly to the many challenges that continually needed to be met.

B. The Lobbying Teams

Liz Savage, then of the Epilepsy Foundation of America, led the lobbying effort. Our lobbying forces were divided into teams, each with a team captain. The team captains were representatives from different segments of the disability community, e.g. the Veterans, deaf groups, mental illness groups, etc. Team captains met with their teams every morning. The teams were made up of people from the grassroots all over the country, as well as those from within the Washington, DC area. In the morning meetings they would receive briefings from Liz Savage and others about the issues of the day, the kind of information and data that they needed to collect, and how to report back what they learned.

The teams developed a rapid response system that allowed them to identify an issue, develop a strategy, and carry it out in 24 hours. For example, if a Member of Congress raised a concern about a particular issue, the lobbying team would coordinate a response. They would have the legal team put together a one-page statement on the issue and distribute it to Members of Congress. They would have the grassroots contact Members of Congress on the issue. They would gather information about how Members were responding to the grassroots and to lobbyists in Washington, and then further refine our efforts. These teams operated as “lean clean fighting machines”. They became so efficient that they had answers to questions before the Members even realized they wanted to ask the questions.

The lobbying teams also had the job of educating Members of Congress about disability discrimination. Team members spent a lot of time researching Members to determine if they had family members or friends with disabilities. Sometimes the community engaged the family member or friend to help in educating the member.

C. The Press

Most civil rights movements include use of the press (electronic and print) as an integral part of their legislative strategy. This was not the case with the ADA. At the beginning of the process, the bill received a lot of unfavorable one-sided attention from the press. A Member would raise a concern about the bill and the press would write an entire story based on a single negative impression, i.e., how the proposed legislation would cost too much or was going to be too onerous for businesses. Other Members of Congress would read these articles and their concerns would also grow.

The disability community’s response to this negative spiral was to call for a press blackout. We were able to secure an agreement among everyone we were negotiating with to not talk to the press. Every party simply would tell the press that we were “in negotiations” and could not discuss the bill. Of course, Members and organizations who were not party to the negotiations would make comments to the press. Nevertheless, we effectively stopped the press from getting verification of what was occurring in the development of the bill, since no one who was in on the negotiating would comment. This strategy was effective at containing the negative stories from the press. It also allowed us to put our own spin on relevant issues and release information according to timing that was beneficial to us.

D. Direct Actions: A Necessary Part of Strategy

Any successful strategy must involve those willing to engage in direct action. We recruited the activist arm of the disability community, led by ADAPT, to work with us during the course of the bill’s consideration by carrying out strategic, targeted direct actions that involved members of the community in demonstrations and rallies. Members of Congress must be made to see their own constituents and answer to them. It is harder for Members to say “no” to people with disabilities from their own districts than it is to say “no” to a Washington lobbyist in a suit.

When we needed to make a point to Congress or the White House, we called on ADAPT to help. When negotiations bogged down, we asked ADAPT to organize a direct action such as picketing at the White House. We tried to organize the timing of direct actions to coincide with key legislative moments. For instance, we went so far as to hold up Congressional consideration of the transportation part of the bill until ADAPT could organize their troops to get to the capital. We were concerned about losing the transportation section of the bill so we wanted a strong show of force for Congress during its consideration of the relevant provisions. We called the press to ensure coverage of ADAPT events.

Approximately 400 or so disabled people would typically participate in an ADAPT event. One direct action consisted of participants holding a sit-in in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, some chaining themselves to the building and refusing to leave, to demand that Members of Congress move the bill forward. They crawled up the steps of the Capitol building, many leaving their wheelchairs at ground level to make the journey. The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), another organization run by people with disabilities, organized a march on the White House to demand the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. People came to Washington by the trainloads for these events, flooding the Halls of Congress and the streets around the White House.

These activities galvanized the community and served to build a tremendous sense of common identity and support for the bill. Considered as a whole, these shows of force in Washington by people with disabilities from around the country demonstrated to Members of Congress that this was a bill that people cared about and would raise discussion on back in their own districts. The direct actions heightened the visibility and public profile of the legislation and created pressure on Congress to act.

8. Target Messages for Different Audiences

Messages have to be targeted to specific audiences, taking into consideration the different perspectives and mission of the group/person you are trying to reach. Members of Congress have very different perspectives and motivations from either grassroots advocates or business owners. Too often people think that one slogan works for everyone. But it does not. A message that would empower the grassroots could be a message that would scare a business owner.

For the grassroots, the message was empowerment. The message was: “You have the right to be a part of society. Not having this law means that your country is treating you as a second class citizen.”

For the Republican and rather conservative federal Administration, the message was: “People with disabilities want to work so they can be tax generating citizens. When they don’t work, they are dependent on tax dollars for subsidies. This is good economic policy for the country.”

For Congress, the message was one of equality. Congress had already enacted many laws to ensure that no group is treated in a discriminatory manner. A large part of their responsibility as legislators was to ensure that all citizens are treated equally. The message to Congress was: “All citizens should be treated equally. People with disabilities deserve the same protection against discrimination as that given to other protected groups such as women and racial minorities.”

For the business community and those from the private sector who would be responsible for complying with the law, the message was one of calming fears. We argued that for the last 15 years they had been complying with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prevents discrimination on the basis of disability by any company that receives federal funds. No business had ever gone bankrupt or experienced financial difficulties in this time because of the burden of implementing Section 504. Since the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act were essentially the same as those of the Rehabilitation Act, it was unlikely that such business losses would occur under the ADA. The ADA simply extended Section 504 into the private sector, even in the absence of federal funds. We explained that we would protect them from bankruptcy by guaranteeing them “undue burden” protection – a clause that excused businesses from performing any accommodation which became prohibitively expensive for a business to undertake. We assured them that we did not want to close businesses; rather, we wanted to open the doors of opportunity for potential employees with disabilities. Unless this happened, the tax burden placed on businesses would continue to rise because of the expense of paying for Social Security benefits. We informed businesses that the law meant more customers for them. If a supermarket is accessible, customers with disabilities will use it. The economy was weak in the United States at that time, and we argued that the disability community offered an entire untapped market of consumers eager to gain access to all kinds of goods and services. We also told the transportation sector that it was in their interest to ensure accessible transportation as the number of people who are elderly and disabled are increasing, and this growing market would be lost if the industry did not work now to ensure accessibility.

For the broader civil rights groups, we argued that this was the continuing and latest aspect of ensuring civil rights for all. There are people with disabilities who are woman, who are of different ethnicities, and who hold different religious beliefs we argued. Our cause is your cause.

9. Dealing with Opposition

The most significant opposition to the ADA was mounted by the transit industry. Their contention was that the law would cost too much to implement. The disability community had a few working models from various districts that we could use to demonstrate costs and make the point that ensuring the accessibility of fixed-route buses and generic transportation systems would ultimately be less expensive than providing for separate, door-to-door paratransit systems. The lack of extensive cost data was problematic, but we were able to find enough information to make our case.

Specifically, over-the-road coaches – most notably Greyhound – fought hard against the requirement to become accessible. Ten years after the ADA was enacted, they are still fighting the applicable provisions. The only transportation available to many people with disabilities in rural areas is the Greyhound bus. Knowing this and knowing that many minorities live in rural areas, we enlisted race civil rights groups to help us. Many lower-income African Americans would be stuck with no transportation at all if these buses were not made accessible. Greyhound recruited constituents of key Members of Congress to the latter that this provision would put constituents out of business. In the end, we reached a compromise: over-the-road coaches would be covered under the ADA, but subject to a study to be undertaken that would determine the extent of accessibility which would be required of them

A second significant area of opposition was related to health insurance. As drafted by the NCD, the original bill prohibited discrimination in the provision of health insurance. The original Senate sponsor of the bill, Lowell Weicker, was from the state of Connecticut, the insurance capital of the United States. His constituents would have generated tremendous opposition to this bill had the health insurance provision remained part of it. One of his conditions for introducing the bill was that the health insurance provision be dropped. It was too big of an issue and its inclusion would have ensured the defeat of the bill. Although the disability community believed passionately that discrimination in the provision of health insurance was a tremendous obstacle to employment and integration, they knew that Sen. Weicker was correct on the politics of this issue. The inclusion of health insurance would have sunk the entire bill. We therefore accepted the hard assessment that it was better to leave health insurance out in exchange for gaining accessibility in so many other areas.

The small business community raised a number of issues. They were afraid that the bill would send them into bankruptcy. They complained that key concepts in the bill, such as the definition of disability, were too undefined and vague; they would have preferred a finite list of disabilities that would be covered under the law. They wanted a provision in the law that would set a clear dollar cap on the amount of money that any business was required to spend on an accommodation. They also sought a specific dollar figure for determining what would constitute an undue burden for a business. The disability community preferred having broad principles, rather than a specific dollar figure, for determining what constitutes an undue burden under the law. The flexibility of having principles in place would mean that a small grocery store would not be held to the same level of expenditure as a large corporation.

There was opposition from multiple other sectors. The motion picture industry was concerned that it would have to caption all films; the entertainment industry did not want interpreters on stage with performers; the religious community stated that they should not be covered by the bill at all, arguing separation of church and state. Increasingly narrow issues were raised. Owners of sports teams were concerned that they would not be able to expel drug users from their teams. Employers didn’t want to be told that they had to hire certain applicants or that they could not fire certain employees. People who were blind did not want to be forced to accept an accommodation. Businesses did not want people with mental illness covered by the bill. Smokers raised the issue of whether or not smoking could be considered a disability.

At the very end of the process, in the closing moments of the bill’s final passage into law, the National Restaurant Association launched a frontal attack that truly tested the primary “one for all and all for one” principle of the disability community. This proved to be the ultimate test for the coalition. The National Restaurant Association contended that the law should not cover people with HIV/AIDS, specifically because restaurant owners should not have to hire people with HIV/AIDS for food handling jobs due to the risk of transmitting the virus to customers via the food that was handled. Of course, this argument was completely unsupported by any scientific evidence to indicate that such an alleged mode of transmission could occur.

The disability community rose to the occasion with flying colors. We took the position that we would let the bill die before allowing one group to be excluded from its coverage. Bob Williams, a leader in the disability rights community who has cerebral palsy summed up the disability community’s feeling about the amendment proposed by the National Restaurant Association: “It ain’t civil and it ain’t right.” The disability community was never really put to the final test of pulling the bill down, as an agreement was worked out finally that turned the amendment into a study that was then accepted as part of the bill.

10. Know When to Hold ‘Em and When to Fold ‘Em

The most important aspect of successfully enacting a piece of legislation is knowing when to compromise and when to hold out for a better deal. As the leader of negotiations for the disability rights community, Pat Wright had to know “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.” Her method for determining this comes partially from art and partially from science. Her remarkable skill at sizing up a given situation comes from years of experience and tremendous political insight.

Pat always did her homework, and this allowed her to rapidly assess the various forces that could arise and how they would align themselves in relation to a controversial issue. She constantly gathered background information that could be used whenever needed. She counted votes. She developed strategies with numerous layers and back-up positions. She had several routes of access to top decision-makers and persons of influence in Congress, the White House, and outside of government. Given her knowledge of both the overall political landscape and the many ongoing agendas that operated within it, she knew how to maneuver the disability community into a winning position.

In the final analysis, the ability to determine when to hold out and when to compromise is the magic of a good negotiator and a good politician. It defies logical description, but when you see it in action, you know you have found it.


Making a law is a messy, complex and time-consuming process that involves many players from many sectors. There is no “one way” or single “recipe” to ensure that a law will reach enactment. However, there is considerable experience that can inform the many efforts to enact disability anti-discrimination laws currently taking place around the world. We hope that the lessons learned in the United States through the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act will be helpful to those in other countries who are seeking policy and legal reform to promote the inclusion and economic independence of people with disabilities.

[1] These diaries also were used during the disability community’s October, 2000 argument before the Supreme Court in the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama and the Alabama Dept. of Youth Services v. Garrett and Ash to confirm the breadth and depth of disability discrimination throughout the United States.