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50 years of The President's Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities

by Mark Gray
The 1947 Academy Award winning film, The Best Years of Our Lives, depicts the homecoming of three World War II veterans who were forced to pick up the streams of their interrupted youths after gaining a new perspective on life. The horrors of war and the thrill of victory over the greatest evil humankind had ever faced instilled a quiet self assured confidence in the veterans who would try to change their nation with the same courage and ideals that they had changed the world with. As historians William Strauss and Neil Howe put it, "Many [veterans] would never again know such responsibility, excitement, or triumph. Emerging as world conquerors, they laid claim to a heroism that, later in life, would blossom into a sense of entitlement." This sense of entitlement and commitment to "doing the right thing" led to the great emergence of the American welfare state, the extension of civil rights and the protection of human rights the world over.

Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower all played great roles as the elder statesmen and patriarchs to these young men. Their values and courage during the great conflict were not lost on the generation of GIs who would go on to become presidents; Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush. Each of these presidents did not and could not forget their generation or those men who had missed out on the "best years of their lives" to fight selflessly for their country, democracy and the human rights of all.

For one of the main characters in the 1947 film, The Best Years of Our Lives, the project was more than just a movie. It wasn’t because it won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He would never get a role in film again. The Best Years of Our Lives, wasn’t just another acting job for Harold Russell because it was his story and the story of hundreds of thousands of other veterans who had lost a part of themselves to the great conflict. Never before had America faced the prospects of hundreds of thousands of young soldiers returning from the war with disabilities. The miracles of modern medicine had saved soldiers who would have died from their injuries in past conflicts. These men needed something to do when they returned. They had fought to save the world from a horror to horrible to imagine and now any job they could get at home seemed to pale in comparison. For many they could not be so selective. Any job would do.

The problem was that American business had never faced the reality of how to employ people with disabilities on such a large scale — and it wasn’t as if they weren’t needed. The supply of workers nowhere met the demand of a nation trying to rebuild a world torn by war with the Marshall Plan. Congress took action in 1945 by passing legislation which created the observance of National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week which

resolved that, "There is now, and shall ever be for some time to come, a positive necessity for utilizing every available ounce of manpower in America....[And] the Physically Handicapped are among the most important problems in our national economy , as, if a means is provided to make such people self-supporting wholly or in part, the entire Nation will be the beneficiary" However, rather than an actual functional institution the intent of the week was, as the then President of the American Federation of the Physically Handicapped Paul Strachan, believed, "an effort to direct the attention of the Nation, and especially employers, to the true worth of the handicapped as valuable members of the Nation’s work force."

This framework changed in 1947, the same year in which Harold Russell won his Oscar for his portrayal of a young veteran with a disability, when President Truman wrote three identical letters to the Secretary of Labor, the Administration of Veterans’ Affairs, and the Federal Security Administrator, which advised these bodies to alter the tradition of National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week by extending the framework and focus beyond the government...

 

The President’s Committee for Employment of People With Disabilities, and later the Americans with Disabilities Act developed differently. It has been endorsed and invigorated by the likes of John F. Kennedy as well as Richard Nixon, by Lyndon Johnson as well as Ronald Reagan. Why? Because these public officials were not immune from the realities of disabilities. Each of the presidents from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Bill Clinton have either had disabilities themselves or have been associated with family, friends or co-workers who were affected by a disability and these associations have had a profound effect on how they chose to govern. More importantly, each of these presidents (except Clinton) came of age during the GI Generation which so earnestly sought to set the world right and who never forgot how their compatriots had spent "the best years of their lives." Thus, as the President’s Committee for the Employment of People with Disabilities moved from an informal meeting of state officials and business interests working to ease the transition of World War II veterans with disabilities to an institutional apparatus to secure and establish the civil rights for people with disabilities, each president had personal experiences which led them to support the emerging Disability Rights Movement.

While the Committee and the Americans with Disabilities Act did face opposition from some conservatives who spoke of its potential "threat" to the economy, it is notable that this opposition was never reflected in the opinions or actions of the post-war presidents or their administrations. For example, one of the most conservative presidents in American history, Dwight Eisenhower, remarked at the 1953 meeting of the Committee, "There are many commissions and committees that carry with them the title of President’s Committee or Commission. There is none that engages the interests of my heart, or for which I am prouder than this one." Eisenhower felt a special kinship with the men he had led on the battlefield which swept across Europe in victory over Nazi Germany. His soldiers were his sons and if one of them had trouble finding a job because...

 

At the same time, the President’s Committee was beginning to go through a restructuring, renaming (losing the term Handicapped) and streamlining as many other government programs were subject to under the influence of the Reagan Administration. Even so the Committee was able to take advantage of the booming economy and the previous enactment of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act to boost the numbers of people with disabilities placed in new jobs. However the work was far from complete because the 1973 Act was centered around Federal employers and businesses who did contract work with the government. This excluded most employers from the threat of any action being taken if they discriminated against a person with a disability. The ADA set out to change this loophole.

The story of the ADA is one marked by the same bipartisanship that has actively influenced the President’s Committee for the last fifty years. It is yet another example of how so many people’s lives, including those in government, are touched by disabilities. House Majority whip, Tony Coelho (D), played an instrumental role along with Senators Tom Harkin (D), Bob Dole (R), Orrin Hatch (R) and Edward Kennedy (D) in drafting and guiding the legislation through Congress. Tony Coehlo’s life long experience with epilepsy helped inspire and frame the drafting of the legislation. Tom Harkin spoke for the bill in sign language on the floor of the Senate in honor of his deaf brother. Orrin Hatch was brought to tears speaking in support of the bill in memory of his brother-in-law who had battled polio all of his life. Bob Dole drew upon his experience as a veteran with disabilities and Edward Kennedy spoke of his mentally retarded sister and his amputee son in support of the bill. Despite grumbling from business opposition in relation to increased costs of implementation the bill passed with over 90 percent approval from both Houses of Congress and was signed into law at the largest ceremony ever held on the White House lawn in 1990, by President Bush who said he was "delighted" to sign it because it "will serve as a declaration of independence for millions of people with disabilities in this country."