In 1984, President Ronald Reagan appointed Lex Frieden to serve in his administration as director of the newly created National Council on the Handicapped, now called the National Council on Disability. In 1986, Frieden and the council proposed the Americans with Disabilities Act, and in 1988, the draft legislation they produced was introduced into Congress. The legislation passed and was signed by President George H. W. Bush on July 26, 1990. As President Bush later said of Frieden, “He was right there with me when as President I was privileged to sign the ADA into law.”
Today, Frieden is director of the Independent Living Research Utilization (ILRU) program at TIRR Memorial Hermann. He is also professor of biomedical informatics and professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, and an adjunct professor in the department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Baylor College of Medicine. As a prelude to the 25th anniversary of the ADA, he and President Bush reflected on the magnitude of change brought about by the passage of the act and work that remains to be done.
Lex Frieden: President Bush, in July 2015 we’ll celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many activities are planned around the country, including debate contests for high school and college students about whether the ADA has achieved its objectives. If you were choosing sides in the debate, would you argue that the ADA has or has not achieved its objectives?
President Bush: Our goal in negotiating the ADA and then making it the law of the land was to knock down basic obstacles to fuller participation in American society by all of our citizens, including the tens of millions of Americans with a disability. In my view, the ADA clearly achieved that.
Lex Frieden: At a 50th anniversary celebration of the Civil Rights Act held this year in Austin, you were acknowledged among the few presidents who have had a lasting impact on America by enacting sweeping civil rights legislation. By advocating for and enacting the ADA, you helped change the lives of 56 million Americans with disabilities. What would you say to these people about full participation in the community?
President Bush: I would tell them we need them. We need them playing their vital role in America. We simply cannot achieve our full potential as a nation without the talents, contributions and service of every citizen. It's just that simple.
Lex Frieden: You were the first president to appoint a person with a disability to head a federal agency – Evan Kemp at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Was that action intended to set an example in the hope that others would follow?
President Bush: I appointed Evan to the EEOC first and foremost because I thought he was the best-qualified person to lead that important agency. He was respected. He was knowledgeable. If that particular appointment also yielded a positive byproduct in terms of symbolism, so much the better.
Lex Frieden: It’s been said that full participation in the community means more than a return to doing what we loved to do before the illness or injury. It’s being able to do anything we choose to do, no matter how wild and crazy it is – without barriers. As a man who uses a wheelchair and last June celebrated his 90th birthday with a parachute jump, would you comment on that?
President Bush: The paramount reason we are all blessed to live in this great country lies in the many liberties we have to pursue happiness as we see fit. That freedom, in turn, unleashes the creativity and the industry of over 300 million people as they chase their dreams and pursue lives of purpose and meaning and adventure. In my case, that happens to include the occasional parachute jump.
Lex Frieden: Does it surprise you to know that after 25 years, we still hear about incidents in which people with disabilities are prevented from doing things simply because they have a disability?
President Bush: It surprises me, and it saddens me. It also serves as a reminder that while the ADA accomplished a great deal, much work remains.
Lex Frieden: Will you do anything special to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ADA next July?
President Bush: I have promised Barbara Pierce Bush that there will be no more parachute jumps at least for a few years, so instead I think I will say a prayer of thanks for all who helped make the ADA a reality – and those who continue to uphold the ideals at the heart of it.
Lex Frieden: Is there anything you’d like to say to young people with disabilities to inspire them to work hard and be full participants in society?
President Bush: I would urge them, as I would urge any American citizen, to pursue their dreams with all their talents and energy – while also remembering the importance of helping others. We have a lot of big challenges in America today, and we need every citizen rolling up their sleeves, pitching in, and helping to make this an even greater country in which to live.
Lex Frieden: What would you say to the parents of children with disabilities? How would you advise them to counsel their youngsters on achieving their goals despite their disabilities?
President Bush: I wouldn't presume to give unsolicited advice. Every family is different. Every family has its own challenges. But I hope every child in America would have the encouragement they need to live life to its fullest while also remembering the importance of helping others.
Lex Frieden: According to the data, the unemployment rate among people with disabilities is nearly as high today as it was when you signed the ADA. Do you have any thoughts about how we can improve this statistic?
President Bush: My understanding has been that employers of the disabled have been very pleased with the loyalty and high level of performance of people with disabilities. Maybe there is some way to make that experience better known.
Lex Frieden: As a person who uses a wheelchair, have you discovered areas in which there’s still work to do to ensure full accessibility for all?
President Bush: When I signed the ADA, of course, I could not foresee that I would one day have the need to avail myself of its provisions. That said, I have found the wheelchair ramps, the cut curbs and other enhancements most helpful in terms of getting around. That I have not encountered any "accessibility" issues is not to suggest they don't exist. It probably stems from the fact that I reached the tender age of 90, which I recently concluded beats the alternative!
Lex Frieden: Mr. President, I want to thank you, on behalf of more than 50 million people with disabilities in the United States and on behalf of our families and friends, for your foresight, your initiative and your leadership. The ADA was to us like the Emancipation Proclamation. It was our Bill of Rights. When you signed the ADA, you validated our citizenship and you assured our right to equal opportunity. Because of the ADA, we can be full participants in our communities and we can be part of the social and economic mainstream. We wish you and your family all the best, and we look forward to celebrating with you the 25th anniversary of the ADA on July 26, 2015. As always, it is a privilege for me to know you, and to have the opportunity to gain from your insights. Thank you.