Bob Dole Interview with Chet Cooper

In a speech to commemorate Franklin D. Roosevelt on the 50th anniversary of his death, Senator Robert Dole spoke before the U.S. Senate. Dole called Roosevelt a “disability hero.” Dole, as a champion of the ADA himself, was a fitting speaker to describe FDR as not only the first elected leader in history with a disability but one who sought changes in legislation and social attitudes towards persons with disabilities. At a time when it was not popular to have these views, FDR sought to promote independent living for people with disabilities and furtherance of their abilities in terms of quality of life and economic needs.

Bob Dole with background images of his career

Dole was one of the advocates of the passage of the ADA and continues today to support progress in protecting and empowering persons with disabilities through the ADA legislation. As a person with a disability, Dole has firsthand knowledge of prejudices and lack of opportunities that persons with disabilities may encounter in day-to-day life. ABILITY Magazine was fortunate to be able to interview Bob Dole recently at the Business Leadership Network Summit sponsored by the President’s Committee on Employment of Persons with Disabilities, in Denver, Colorado and later that week in Washington DC.

Before the interview, however, let’s refresh our memories on the passage of the ADA with quotes from “Equality of Opportunity: The Making of the Americans with Disabilities Act” by Jonathan M. Young:

“Future historians will come to view the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 as one of the most formative pieces of American social policy legislation in the 20th century. Its enactment codified into law important principles that would henceforth govern the relationship between society and its citizens with disabilities. The ADA is universal. It champions human rights themes by declaring that people with disabilities are an integral part of society and, as such, should not be segregated, isolated, or subjected to the effects of discrimination. The ADA is also distinctively American. It embraces several archetypal American themes such as self-determination, self-reliance, and individual achievement. The ADA is about enabling people with disabilities to take charge of their lives and join the American mainstream. It seeks to do so by fostering employment opportunities, facilitating access to public transportation and public accommodations, and ensuring the use of our nation’s communication systems.”

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“Because the ADA seeks to build a society ‘which encourages and supports the efforts of each individual to live a productive life,’ it promotes the success of our entire nation. The ADA is important for what it says about our national commitments to each citizen. In a long tradition of promoting civil rights, the ADA upholds the principal that each individual has the potential, and deserves the right to participate in, and contribute to, society.”

Former Senator Robert Dole had these words to say:

“This historic civil rights legislation seeks to end the unjustified segregation and exclusion of persons with disabilities from the mainstream of American life……… The ADA is fair and balanced legislation that carefully blends the rights of people with disabilities…with the legitimate needs of the American business community.”

Robert Joseph Dole was born on July 22, 1923 in Russell, Kansas, a small plains town. He grew up with his mother and father, two sisters and a brother in a small frame house. His father ran a cream-and-egg stand and his mother sold sewing machines. During the Depression, the Dole family pulled together in the most difficult of financial times. The Doles moved into the basement of their home and rented out the rest of the house. As Elizabeth Dole recounts of her husband, while the Doles “were poor, perhaps, in material things, they were rich in values – values like honesty, decency, respect; values like personal responsibility, hard work, love of God, love of family, and patriotism.” (Elizabeth Dole, “Speech to the 1996 Republican National Convention”.) When a boy, Bob worked at the local Russell drug store, Dawson’s Drugs, as a soda jerk where he learned the power of having a good joke at hand for just the right customer, as well as learning to serve a diverse public. Dole also worked as a newspaper boy. As a young man, Dole enjoyed and excelled in athletic endeavors including football, basketball and track.

In 1942, at the age of 19, Bob Dole joined the Army to fight in World War II. He became a second lieutenant in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, and in the spring of 1943, found himself in the hills of Italy fighting the Nazi Germans. Under a heavy shelling attack, Dole saw the Army radioman go down. He crawled out of his foxhole to try to rescue the wounded soldier, but was instead hit by gunfire himself. After the battle, the medics thought Dole would die, however Dole did survive with a shattered right shoulder, fractured vertebrae in his neck and spine, paralysis from the neck down, metal shrapnel throughout his body and a damaged kidney. The doctors did not think that Dole would ever walk again. Dole was decorated twice. He received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with Oakleaf Cluster. Dole then received extensive rehabilitation and nine surgeries. Four years later, Dole had achieved a significant recovery. The story is that to this day, Dole still has the cigar box with receipts of donations of the monies collected for his hospital bills by Dawson’s Drug Store and the people of Russell, Kansas. He keeps this as a reminder of their generosity and love.

Dole has been known for having a kind of good, quick, dry humor that is said to be expressly a Kansan way of wit. When Dole was in rehabilitation for his war injuries the nursing staff would sometimes wheel him from ward to ward to cheer up the other soldiers.

Pre-war, Bob Dole had thought he might pursue a career as a physician or as an athlete. With his war injuries, Dole knew that he would need to seek other options. He set out to study law and in 1952 earned his law degree from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.

Through encouragement of the community where he lived, Bob Dole’s first role as a public servant was to run for the state legislature. He won. Later he went on to serve as county attorney, and U.S. Congressman. In 1968, Dole ran for the U.S. Senate and won. In 1971, Dole served as the Chairman of the Republican National Committee. In 1976, President Gerald Ford asked Senator Dole to be his Vice Presidential running mate. About this time, Elizabeth Dole and Bob Dole were married. Elizabeth Dole had served as Secretary of Transportation for President Reagan and Secretary of Labor for President Bush.

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In 1980 and 1988, Dole ran unsuccessfully for President – against Ronald Reagan and against George Bush. In 1984, Dole was elected the Senate Majority Leader. In 1996, Dole was given the Republican presidential nominee, however was defeated by President Bill Clinton. More recently, Elizabeth Dole has withdrawn from seeking the Republican nomination for President.

The Dole Foundation for Employment of People with Disabilities, established by Bob Dole, provided grant funds to non-profit organizations conducting innovative or best practices employment programs in people with disabilities. One such recipient was Easter Seals Colorado, which developed a system to enable people with disabilities to gather and share information regarding accommodations at the workplace to assist in the pursuit of gainful and meaningful employment. Called the DAWN Project, it is a web-based job accommodation mentoring system for persons with disabilities.


Chet Cooper: You had mentioned in your book that physical limitations teach perseverance and humility?

Bob Dole: Yes. Patience too.

CC: Did you have a specific change in outlook in experiencing your own disability from the war? Did you see a difference in the way people treated you?

BD: No question about it. In our whole town, there were maybe 1 or 2 wheelchairs, usually with older people. You never really noticed people with disabilities. But then when you had one, you were suddenly in a different world. Right? You understand? Experiencing a disability yourself, you could almost walk around with a blindfold and pick out the other people with disabilities. There is something about a sense you develop. Some people shy away from the subject of disabilities. They are embarrassed. They don’t know how to deal with somebody in a wheelchair. Having a disability changes your whole life, not just your attitude. Prior to my injury I was a pretty good athlete, but afterwards I learned to apply myself more and made good grades for a change.

CC: So, you think if you hadn’t had the injury you would have gone into more of an athletic career. Do you ever think about what if things had been different?

Bob Dole in Uniform United States Army
Bob Dole in the United States Army
Bob Dole recovering from injuries inWW11
Bob Dole recovering from injuries in WWII

BD: Yeah. I thought, I would have gone back to my little hometown, and maybe I would have gone to college with the G.I. bill of rights. But with my disability, I knew I had to do something special.

CC: As we all know attitudinal barriers are the greatest barriers for people with disabilities. Other than events like this at the Business Leadership Network Summit, what would it take to educate the population about persons with disabilities?

BD: There is a group that just started called AAPD – American Associations of Persons with Disabilities, kind of like the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons). There is an attitudinal barrier out there that is quite a hurdle. Particularly with some employers who’ve never dealt with anybody with a disability. I don’t think they’re mean-spirited but they sort of consider, well, maybe they’re second class, maybe they really can’t do it, maybe they’re not up to it, maybe they don’t have the drive, the stamina, maybe they’re gonna be absent a lot. These are all myths, of course.

CC: So you think it all boils down to attitudes in employers?

BD: The attitudes are changing with employers. Take corporations like Marriott and Pizza Hut. They’ve made an effort to hire persons with disabilities. I think it is something like 40% of their employees have some mental disability, but these individuals have proven to be good workers.

CC: Marriott and Pizza Hut have dispelled the myth of inability in the potential employee with a disability?

BD: Yes. So with some employers you have to go through this myth list with them and show them that persons with disabilities can be valuable employees. Such as hiring a person with a disability is not going to raise your Worker’s Comp insurance, you don’t have to treat these people differently, their safety record is just as good, their absentee record is just as good, their work product is just as good. Particularly if the labor market stays tight, you know as I said there are still 60 some percent, and these are the severely disabled, unemployed.

CC: What about the issue of workplace accommodations for persons with disabilities. How do you convince a potential employer that this is reasonable?

BD: Obviously there are some disabilities where they’re gonna have to make some accommodations in the workplace, but did you know the average cost of a workplace accommodation is less than 500 dollars?

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CC: So there are some good signs out there regarding employment in persons with disabilities?

BD: There are a lot of good signs, but still we thought when the ADA, the American with Disabilities Act, was passed, which will be ten years ago next year, that suddenly employment would go up and unemployment would go down. I’m afraid to say that unemployment has gone down only a couple percentage points, maybe 4-5 percent.

CC: Is more legislation the key?

BD: Legislation helps, but it is not going to solve the problem. It’s going to take the private sector to recognize and I think they’re recognizing now in this period of short supply of labor….. “You know, these people can do anything, they’re smart.” Some people with disabilities just keep going to college, because they can’t find a job. They’ve got a stack of degrees and are very intelligent people. I think your magazine and others need to just keep getting out the information, getting out the message. I think it’s changing. Attitudes are slow to change. I was surprised that at the Business Leadership Network Summit, I looked over the registration and didn’t see enough employers. I saw a lot of state people and other very good people, but there weren’t enough employers themselves.

CC: What do you think about President Clinton’s work so far around disability issues?

BD: I don’t know what he’s done. I mean I know he has issued statements, but I don’t know anything…I’m not there anymore, I don’t know what he recommended.

CC: What do you think about his new Presidential Task Force?

BD: Task forces are a “dime-a-dozen” but I don’t know of any legislation. I know he has made statements. I know he has written letters. I’m not being critical. I just don’t know what he has done.

CC: What about the President’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities?

BD: I’m not a member, but obviously they’re out there trying to create job opportunities. There is still an unemployment rate of people with serious disabilities of 64%. For example, if you see three wheelchairs, you can bet that two of them don’t have jobs…..put it that way.

CC: Why do you think the attitudes are so slow to change?

BD: For some people, it’s fear. They don’t know how to deal with persons with disabilities. It’s ignorance; they don’t know what having a disability is. They almost cross the street if they see a person coming in a wheelchair or with a white cane. They don’t know how to talk to a person with a disability. What do you say to a blind person? “Good to see you?” because he doesn’t see me – that’s the ignorance. People need to know that you talk to a person with a disability like you talk to anyone else. They’re normal people who’ve got a problem, but that certainly should not interfere with what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives.

CC: Now there are so many different particular groups concerned with persons with disabilities-individualized groups-everybody’s concerned about their own particular disability…

BD: Well, I know! Try to bring them together-its like Democrats and the Republicans, trying to get them into the same room!

CC: How do you accomplish getting them together?

BD: As they mentioned at the conference last night, there are something like 116 different agencies dealing with disabilities in Denver alone! There is a problem. Last night, they gave an example-a bureaucratic mess. An employer finally had to break the rules and he ended up with six good qualified people with disabilities, and ended hiring two of them. As the example illustrated last night, had he gone through the regular channels of the one hundred and whatever it is, he wouldn’t have had any employees at all. Now had the 116 groups in Denver sat down and talked about this…because we have the heart people, the lung people, the kidney people, the amputees and paralyzed veterans with spinal injuries and so on ……..

CC: The AAPD, I think that is their goal to get everyone together and to create a voice of 50 million people with disabilities…

BD: The political force, and the economic power…

CC: It’s getting that movement out there and making some noise.

BD: AAPD has a big thing, “Initiative 2000.” That’s with this half million dollars I got for them yesterday, a grant from Volkswagen. Paul Hearne started working on this in 1995. I think the potential is unlimited. Paul is no longer with us, but he did a lot of work for people with disabilities.

CC: This is an article we did a few years ago on AAPD and Paul Hearne. — (Chet handed Bob Dole ABILITY Magazine circa 1995)

Images of John Kemp, Paul Hearne and Marca BristoJustin Dart, Tony Coelho and Bob Dole
1st picture: John Kemp, Paul Hearne and Marca Bristo: 2nd picture: Justin Dart, Tony Coelho and Bob Dole

BD: Yeah, there’s Paul, there….yeah, Justin Dart, Tony Coehlo. Yeah Tony’s done a lot of good work.

CC: ABILITY was there in the beginning of the AAPD.

(Bob Dole looking at the article on AAPD in ABILITY)

BD: Every member of AAPD should be getting ABILITY Magazine!

CC: Thanks for the endorsement. We’ve been invited to present at the first Governors Workplace Development Summit for Kansas next week to introduce the JobAccess web site. Heather Whitley of the Department of Labor there and Governor Bill Graves are taking the initiative for the state of Kansas to be known as a leader in employment of people with disabilities. I think that the Dole Foundation for the Employment of People with Disabilities would have liked JobAccess. Can you tell us more about the Foundation?

BD: The Dole Foundation was started in 1983, and I think that during the course of the life of the Foundation, we’ve raised 10-12 million dollars. The money has gone into different disability groups trying to mainstream-almost every kind of disability group. It wasn’t a lot of money, but there are not too many foundations that raise money for people with disabilities and of course, I discovered when I left the Senate, that suddenly all these donors that were giving every year, stopped as I couldn’t help them anymore. That says a lot about people. You learn the hard way, perhaps some didn’t continue because suddenly they weren’t as interested as when I was working as the Senate Leader. The Dole Foundation was inspired by a couple of young persons with disabilities in Kansas, a young lady named Carla, and a young fellow named Tim.

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