President’s Committee – 50 Years

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 Gls 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.

Drawing and wording of Harry S. Truman Thirty-Third President 1945-1953
Harry S. Truman Thirty-Third President 1945-1953

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 a 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 too 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 workforce.”

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 frame work and focus beyond the government, to the active involvement of business and labor groups as well.

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Truman advised the Secretary of Labor that. You may want to call upon officials and leading citizens outside the Federal Government for all possible assistance with this program. The partnerships and traditions forged at this 1947 meeting of the President’s Committee provided the impetus and momentum for the creation of legislation to guarantee the rights of people with disabilities and institutions which would help translate their abilities into the mainstream economy and in doing so helped foster the rise of the Disability Rights Movement in America.

Drawing and wording of Dwight D. Eisenhower Thirty-Fourth President 1953-1961
Dwight D. Eisenhower Thirty-Fourth President 1953-1961

Thus the story of Harold Russell did not end with his performance in The Best Years of Our Lives. He indeed did face discrimination and ignorance which stopped him from again displaying his acting abilities on the silver screen, only to win the role of his life sixteen years later as chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped which grew out of the National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week. Under his direction and the influence of the GI Generation presidents the President Committee has become much more than a group of officials annually putting together an “awareness week.” Now fifty years after Truman’s memos and its rather modest beginnings, this President’s Committer today is established at the forefront of America’s largest civil rights movement ever.

What is unique about this movement is that it has garnered its support and growth from all sides of the American political spectrum. In the battle over reform programs and civil rights in twentieth century America rarely has a public policy escaped heated partisan political conflict. In most situations, each election and new presidential administration has offered the American public a choice of one group of interests or programs over another. With a change in the President’s party one would often assume that there would be a change in policies as well. 

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 been 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 vic tory over Nazi Germany. His soldiers were his sons and if one of them had trouble finding a job because of a disability incurred under his command, he was going to see to it that a job was found for that veteran.

Drawing and wording of President John F. Kennedy Thirty-Fifth President 1961-1963
President John F. Kennedy Thirty-Fifth President 1961-1963

There is still much work to be done. As former Chairman of the Committee. Jay Spencer, Ph.D., PE, believes, “The ADA has been a major first step toward creating a structure of empowerment for people with disabilities to maximize their potential. But it is not by itself enough. America needs a comprehensive disability policy. Laws, regulations, programs, and services on both the federal and state level need to be revisited to ensure that they are philosophically and programmatically in tune with the spirit and letter of the ADA. Everything should be put on the table…They should all be reworked as needed to develop a coordinated, philosophically consistent national disability policy that empowers people with disabilities a s and puts them in control of their own destiny.”

At the same time it would be a grave error to assume that the President’s Committee only served the veterans of World War II. In its fifty years it has grown to encompass any American with any disability. As stat ed in the President’s Executive Order, “The President’s Committee shall provide advice and information as to the development of maximum employment opportunities for people who are physically disabled, mentally retard ed, and mentally ill. To this end the Committee shall advise the President as to information that can be used by employers, labor unions, and national and international organizations, suggest programs for public education, and suggest methods of enlisting cooperation among organizations and agencies, professional organizations, organized labor, and appropriate international organizations.” In performing this role, the Committee has worked with the post-war presidents in forging a new civil rights movement that culminated in the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This is the future of the Presidential Committee and the disability rights movement. However, this movement is fifty years old and, to understand where it’s going and why it’s here, it’s always a good idea to understand how it came to be. Indirectly, without World War II and Franklin Roosevelt it is unlikely that the Disability Rights Movement would be where it is today.

The British government had faced a similar disabilities dilemma after their soldiers returned from the Crimean War nearly one hundred years before so many Americans with disabilities returned from World War II. It was in Britain that the term “handicapped” was penned. Former Chairman Spencer relates that after the Crimean War, “To aid the severely disabled men, Parliament made it legal for war veterans to beg on the streets: they could keep a ‘cap handy’ to accept donations from passersby.” While the Committee contained this term “handicapped” until the 1980s, it is now, for obvious reasons, no longer used because of its negative connotations. For over a hundred years it had been used as a term of colloquial English. without reference to its true meaning. It was not until the emergence of a full-fledged Disability Rights Movement, in the late 1980s, that the truly offensive nature of the word became widely known and therefore dropped from official use.

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Drawing and wording of Lyndon B. Johnson Thirty-Sixth President 1963-1969
Lyndon B. Johnson Thirty-Sixth President 1963-1969

Just as most Americans have been unaware of the offensive nature of the term “handicapped”. Many were also unaware at the time, and still so today, that one of America’s greatest presidents lived most of his life in a wheelchair. As only the fourth president awarded the honor of a memorial in Washington, DC, Roosevelt has measured up to the likes of Washington. Jefferson and Lincoln. One notable exception-his monument bears no likeness of the way in which he spent his life nor does the public record of his presidency. Out of over 35.000 photographs we have of Roosevelt, only two show him obviously occupying a wheelchair. Whether he was hiding his disability, or these photos were merely a reflection of what was deemed socially desirable at the time, we may never know.

What we do know is Roosevelt’s presidency, and the man himself, had a powerful impact on the presidents who would follow him and on their attitudes toward the Committee for the Employment of People with Disabilities. The presidents who occupied the oval office, the first fully modified accessible federal office, after Roosevelt, never thought in the terms that he was “handicapped” or disabled. Instead, his monument and his legacy are testaments to his abilities. If Roosevelt had the ability to pull America out of the Great Depression and through World War II. Then the returning veterans with disabilities had little to prove that they couldn’t fulfill roles in the state or in the economy. These sentiments bore strongly on the three letters Truman sent out in August of 1947. It was as much in the spirit of a wounded veteran as it was in regards to a child stricken with polio who had gone on to become President of the United States that the President’s Committee got its start.

One reason the Committee has survived and thrived was because it worked. There was a sharp rise in the job placements of people with disabilities. Some 13,400 people were placed in the first twenty days after the inaugural National Employ the Handicapped Week, which was a 34 percent increase over what had occurred during the same period a year before. However, the appeal of the veteran with disabilities was never one of sympathy for someone with a disadvantage, or simply of patriotism. The basic facts of efficiency, low absenteeism. productivity, and good safety records were stressed. The record was backed up by a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey which showed workers with disabilities were just as good on the job as their co-workers. without disabilities. In fact, oftentimes people with disabilities had better records than workers without them. The Committee sought to communicate this reality by any means available. Through the mass media, in essay and art contests and public meetings. The President always played a large role within the committee meetings in order to increase the public scrutiny of the event. As President Truman told the committee in 1948, “I want to say to you that just because Congress has set aside one week only as Physically Handicapped Week, that is just 1/52nd of the time. The thing must go on 52 weeks in a year for the purpose of bringing home to the country as a whole what you are doing. I want you to do the job as you have always done it and do it a little better, do it for 52 weeks, then 52 weeks more.”

Drawing and wording of Richard M. Nixon Thirty-Seventh President 1969-1974
Richard M. Nixon Thirty-Seventh President 1969-1974

The Committee had not only committed itself to working throughout the year, but also throughout the country. The real action envisioned by the President’s Committee was to take place within mirror state and local committees. It was on the local level that the Committee hoped unemployed people with disabilities would be matched up with employers in need. However in the early years these plans were often beyond the means available. In July of 1949, the financial dilemma was resolved. Public Law 162 was passed, “authorizing an appropriation for the work of the President’s Committee on National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week, not to exceed the sum of $75.000,”

Thus, when Eisenhower entered office, the President’s Committee was already firmly institutionalized. Even so, Eisenhower had already held the Committee in highest regard as a service to the men he had led during the war. With a change in administrations also came a change in Committee Chairmanship. The first Chair, Admiral Ross Melntire, the personal physician of FDR, decided to actively pursue a political career and did not wish to drag the Committee with him into the political arena. General Melvin Mass, the Vice Chairman was chosen to replace Mcintire and continue the work.

These changes in leadership and administrations did not harm the cause and the Committee, which continued to aid Americans with disabilities. New programs were initiated; new funding became available: new emphasis on private sector programs opened up partnerships with the National Easter Seal Society (then the National Society For Crippled Children and Adults), and the Goodwill Industries, with organizations concerned with persons with visual impairments, hard of hearing. multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, paraplegia, as well as others.

The Eisenhower Administration also had a new military conflict to face, in Korea, which brought home even more veterans with disabilities. In the expansion of the GI Bill during this conflict, Congress passed Public Law 16 to provide a special program for educational, rehabilitative and other benefits for soldiers with disabilities. A common concern for returning veterans with disabilities, taking advantage of the new educational opportunities provided by this bill, was the accessibility of university campuses. Flights of stairs, narrow doorways, tight cubicles for restrooms, raised curbs made it either extremely difficult or impossible for a student with a disability to attend classes. Design problems on one occasion forced a winner of the Committee’s Handicapped American of the Year Award to be carried up a flights of stairs to enter the auditorium and up to the stage.

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Drawing and wording of Gerald R. Ford Thirty-Eighth President 1974-1977
Gerald R. Ford Thirty-Eighth President 1974-1977

The Committee joined forces with disability groups. and architects to design general specifications to make buildings accessible. After four years of research and deliberation, their guidelines became the approved standard of the American National Standards Institute. At the grassroots, a national attack on architectural barriers had begun Governor’s committees formed partnerships with state Easter Seal societies, with chapters of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, with vocational rehabilitation agencies, civic groups and others, to provide the educational, technical and operating information to architects, designers and builders which they needed to resolve the problems of community barriers, By 1963, the South Carolina state legislature passed the first architectural barriers legislation, and within ten years. every other state did the same. The US House and Senate provided a similar national standard in 1968, for all buildings financed in whole or part by the federal government.

It was during this period of architectural design change that the President’s Committee first proposed the universal international symbol for disabilities that we now recognize today on bathroom doors, parking places and building entrances. The first 200,000 signs were a gift to the President’s Committee by the 3-M Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, While the most widely accessible symbol today, the largest public campaign for disability awareness at the time had begun in 1960 with the issue of a commemorative “Employ the Handicapped” stamp by the US Postal Service. These steps, along with the visibility of the Committee and its con tests, helped raise the profile of people with disabilities at a crucial juncture in American politics.

President Kennedy took office in 1961 and America’s version of Camelot was born. Many assumed Kennedy had lived a model childhood as one of America’s wealthiest and favorite sons. Kennedy had in fact lived with several disabilities his entire life. A sickly child, he was in and out of hospitals with an undetermined blood disorder which we now know today was a rare affliction called Addison’s disease. A recent biography by Richard Reeves notes that if Kennedy had not been assassinated it would have been unlikely that he would have lived much longer past a second term in office. His body and spine were riddled in pain from war injuries incurred as a captain of a PT boat crushed by a Japanese destroyer in the South Pacific. He managed only with the aid of multiple daily doses of medications and painkillers.

As significant as his own health problems were, it was Kennedy’s childhood memories. of his sister’s mental disabilities that played the largest role in his concerns for people with disabilities. By Executive Order in 1962. Kennedy deleted the word “Physically” from the title of the President Committee. He noted, “Today we are changing the name of this Committee because we do want to emphasize the great importance of hiring people who may have suffered some degree of difficulty mentally. The US Civil Service followed up on the decree by establishing new hiring procedures for persons with mental retardation. With these new efforts and fifteen years of existence and progress, the Committee had overseen the placement of over 4 million workers with disabilities by state job services.

While employment remained the main focus of the Committee, its commitments to and success with universal design measures expanded. Kennedy himself made it clear that. “We must remember that standards remain nothing more than words and phrases, unless they are translated into action. To serve the purpose for which they were created, they must be adopted. They must be put into use in designing new public buildings and remodeling old. The acceptance and adoption of these standards now become the business of citizens and government authorities everywhere. I am sure they will rise to the challenge”

Drawing and wording of Jimmy Carter Thirty-Ninth President 1977-1981
Jimmy Carter Thirty-Ninth President 1977-1981

In November of 1963, the Committee was faced with the loss of both Kennedy and its Chairman, General Maas. Newly inaugurated President Johnson tapped the star of The Best Years of Our Lives, Harold Russell, to become the new Chairman of the Committee. Johnson himself was no stranger to the problems of disabilities as he had himself lived with a serious heart condition since the early 1950s. His administration would go on to face two related issues that were intertwined with the role of the Committee and people with disabilities. The first was the escalation of the Vietnam War and its returning veterans with disabilities. By 1968 there would be more amputees from this conflict than the combined totals of the Korean War and World War II combined. The second issue concerned the commitments of Johnson’s Great Society, the most ambitious government welfare program to date, which sought to conquer unemployment, poverty, hunger and disease.

It was during these tumultuous years that the Disability Rights Movement began, alongside the other movements for civil rights. Looking back, the 1987 Committee meeting noted that this was the time when the age of militancy and activism emptied the back bedrooms Wheelchairs stopped traffic on city streets: crutches pointed the way to circumvent City Hall: people who were blind led their sighted friends down the main streets of America protesting the injustices that made them merely half-citizens at most. In Washington there were candle-light vigils, pickets at the White House, marches to the Capitol, sit-ins in Government Buildings and demonstrations at the Annual Meetings of the President’s Committee.”

Legislators and courts had been working haphazardly in defining and redefining the rights and entitlements of American minorities since the early 1950s. Members of the President’s Committee did not let the opportunity pass and through their leadership, with other major dis ability and veterans organizations, the focus of the movement went beyond problems of accessibility and employment to the issues of civil rights, consumer rights and discrimination in relation to people with disabilities.

The enormous tasks and problems President John son had committed himself to eventually led to his own demise. As Vietnam and programmatic failures engulfed his administration, he decided not to run for the presidency in 1968. Few years in the history of American politics would see again the bitter partisan conflicts that this election year entailed once Johnson bowed out. In the end Richard Nixon was elected president and many began to wonder whether this rather conservative ideology of a president would dismantle the gains that had been made in programs for the public welfare, civil rights and full employment.

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As it turned out, the President’s Committee had little need to worry. Nixon had been involved actively with the Committee as Eisenhower’s Vice-President and had then remarked that “I do appear as part of my responsibilities at numerous meetings in Washington…[but] there is none in which I am more proud to participate in than this…The size of the problem and its complexity only make the work more worth the while.” One of President Nixon’s first policy statements concerned the affirmation and promise that all Federal departments and agencies would remove all barriers to employment not only for those with physical but also those who have had a mental illness and people with mental retardation as well. Going even beyond these domestic concerns, Nixon sought to take the program international by showing other countries the economic benefits of employing every member of one’s society to their full ability. His administration and the Committee sought to make the Federal Government the model employer of people with disabilities. 

Drawing and wording of Ronald Reagan Fortieth President 1981-1989
Ronald Reagan Fortieth President 1981-1989

Nixon’s 1971 proclamation to the Committee foreshadowed what was yet to come. He said, “For nearly a quarter century now, business, government, and the public have worked together as partners in this Committee to open a newly self-reliant and fulfilling way of life for many thousands of handicapped men and women, to unlock for the rest of us the benefits of the unique contribution each. handicapped person has to make. Through such efforts, American society is learning that no handicap is insurmountable when a man has an unlimited view of himself and an ounce of help from his fellows.”

Nixon and Congress provided much more than an “ounce” of help by passing the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973. While Nixon was facing impeachment for the crimes surrounding Watergate, the Committee and the Disability Rights Movement was securing an institutionalized presence within the federal government and the benefit of inclusion into affirmative action policies. From this point forward the President’s Committee’s work no longer centered around persuasion alone. Discrimination of people with disabilities was now illegal and any of the more than 3 million firms doing contract work for the Federal Government were now required to actively recruit and employ people with disabilities. Now more than ever the role of the Committee was focused on providing assistance to businesses for compliance with the new federal statutes instead of just convincing them to hire people with disabilities out of the goodness of their hearts.

The most valuable service the Committee came to provide in these efforts, which is still a centerpiece of the Committee today, is the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) database at West Virginia University, which was designed to assist employers with qualified people with disabilities, and solutions for their employment. With the expansion of employment and a semblance of guaranteed civil rights as a minority, the Disability Rights Movement began to gain steam. President Ford addressed the 1974 meeting with the observation that, “We are leaving an older day in which good-hearted people gave careful thought to what they think is best for handicapped people. We are coming to a newer day in which handicapped people are expressing themselves, are making their voices heard, [and] are arriving at their own decisions.” 

However, just as the Committee began to make real gains in its most important role of employment, the plight of economic recession and massive changes in business organization began to occur during the Carter Administration. President Carter and his wife, Rosalyn have always been deeply committed to the welfare of people with disabilities. As president and still today. Carter oversees multiple national and international programs to help people with disabilities. While president, he and the First Lady recommitted the nation to erasing the negative stereotypes and stigmas related to disabilities. However these were difficult times as both interest rates and unemployment reached post-war highs. The gains made in the late sixties and early seventies seemed to be dwindling away. A victim of the poor economy and the situation of American hostages in Iran, Carter left office before he could complete much of the work he had envisioned. However today at the Carter Center in Atlanta, he and Rosalyn are continuing their commitments through numerous programs assisting people in need throughout the world.

While the transition from Johnson to Nixon seemed dramatic, the differences between the policies and ideologies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were even more extreme by comparison. Yet as in the past the Committee did not suffer. In fact under Reagan and later George Bush the complete emergence of the Disability Rights Movement and its codification within the Americans with Disabilities Act are unmatched by any of the previous work of other presidential administrations.

Drawing and wording of George Bush Forty-First President 1989-1993
George Bush Forty-First President 1989-1993

Richard Douglas, a member and the Executive Director of the Committee during much of this time remarks. “The President’s Committee underwent a revolution in its approach in the late 1980s with development of a format of independence; it began to draft the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with the publication of a document entitled “Toward Independence”, in 1986…. The document served as a blueprint for empowerment and civil rights for persons with disabilities. “Toward Independence” created particular excitement within the disability community because it was published during a conservative administration, and it included a letter of support signed by President Reagan.”

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 Coelho’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 vet eran 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.” 

Becoming effective in 1992, the ADA made it illegal for an employer to discriminate against a qualified applicant with a disability. “A qualified employee or applicant with a disability is an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job in question. An employer is required to make an accommodation to the known disability of a qualified applicant or employee it would not impose undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.” While much of it is still under interpretation and there is still more to be done, the Disability Rights Movement and the President’s Committee came a long way to get to this point. 

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President Bush looked back on his work with the Committee and the ADA and had this to say, “This cause [and] this legislation really moved across all barriers. Whether it’s lib eral or conservative or Democrat or Republican, it was wonderful the way the people all across this country came together to do something good….I am just delighted to [have] shared in one of this country’s finest moments: the proposal, the passage, and the signing of the most comprehensive civil rights bill in the history of this country and indeed the history of the world….A few critics have complained about the costs of ADA as if some rights were too expensive. But when you add together Federal, State, local and private funds, it’s been costing almost $200 billion annually to support our disabled in artificial isolation. And this legislation takes an economic inefficiency and reinvents it as opportunity and enterprise. Indeed I believe the costs of forgotten citizens is greater than any that can be factored into some government budget.”

Drawing and wording of William J. Clinton Forty-Second President 1993
William J. Clinton Forty-Second President 1993

While President Clinton isn’t a member of that GI generation, he has been no less supportive of the cause or the Committee. He in fact was not even new to the Committee in 1993, after having worked with it at the state level as Governor of Arkansas since the early 1980s. More importantly, it was under his watch that ADA took effect and under his Administration that it is being tested and expanded. He recently spent time in a wheelchair himself after a serious knee injury and spoke of the enlightening nature that this experience brought to him. He has promised that he would require that the Roosevelt Monument in Washington, DC include the addition of a representation of the former president with his disability.

President Clinton reflected on his work with the Committee and ADA as such, “We don’t have a person to waste, and that is why we rededicate ourselves to an America where every man, woman, and child can reach the fullest of their God-given potential. Like every civil rights law in our history, the Americans with Disabilities Act is just that. It’s about potential; it is not a handout. It stands for what is best in our heritage, empowering Americans to build better lives for themselves….We must move from exclusion to inclusion, from dependence to independence, from paternalism to empowerment….It remains a tragedy today that two-thirds of the people with disabilities are unemployed.”

Clinton’s greatest regret and failure of his tenure was the defeat of health. care reform. He believes this is a necessity for the Disability Rights Movement and the work of the Committee to go forward. He states, “They originally had health care reform in the Act (ADA), and it had to be dropped, because they knew that this bill would be delayed for years if it had to deal with the difficult and complicated and politically explosive issue of health care reform….. But I tell you…now is the time to act and go forward and to finish the work that was done…. There is more to do. First we must preserve the guarantee of Medicaid coverage for people with disabilities. The second thing we have to do is to strengthen the health security of people with disabilities.”

The future of these measures and the Committee’s work is being actively debuted in Washington right now as agreements on balancing the budget are made and ADA is interpreted and modified further. The present chair of the Committee, Tony Coelho believes “We’d be in some fix if we didn’t have

many of the programs we have in place today. Without them. America would be a poorer place and a weaker country….I remember back when it (ADA) was being debated in Congress. There were serious concerns in the business community about the costs of implementation… All of those fears proved unfounded. Not a single company has gone broke because of ADA. None of the other worries have materialized either. Not one employer has been forced to hire even one unqualified employee. In fact most big American companies have welcomed ADA whole-heart edly. In a recent book titled, Reasonable Accommodation, by a former Committee Chair. Jay Spechler, many of America’s largest corporations detail their policies and commitments to employing people with disabilities.

A spokesperson for AT&T summarizes the intent and policies of many corporations by stating. “AT&T does not hire people with disabilities because it is a nice thing to do, nor does the company have specific jobs for people with disabilities. AT&T hires and retains qualified people with skills and expertise to move the corporation ahead; if these individuals happen to have disabilities, AT&T makes the appropriate reasonable accommodations if possible. It is in fact possible that some individuals with disabilities possess skills and knowledge not as likely to be found in the non-disabled population.”

It may have taken fifty years and significant legislation to accomplish the tasks initially proposed back in 1947 but it has worked when companies like AT&T have policies like this. The President’s Committee has come a long way since its creation to plan and coordinate a week designed to help employ disabled veterans from World War II. Its growth and success has been directly related to the steady and consistent support of presidents from both parties.

These presidents governed with the notion that, if we were going to send young men overseas to do a job for us, then there was going to be a job waiting for them when they got home. Thus, the Committee has gone from focusing on providing a job for veterans who had already spent “the best years of their lives” to guaranteeing every man, woman and child with a disability today and in the future that they may have an entire productive and self-fulfilling “best” life, free of discrimination and obstacles. The President’s Committee For the Employment of People with Disabilities has made the past fifty years the “best years” in many people’s lives, and we honor them and wish them the best in continuing this role in the future.

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