December 5, 2018 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

I’ve been reading and listening to tributes about George H.W. Bush. This week on NPR’s Morning Edition, reporter Joseph Shapiro offered an interesting back story on an experience of the 41st President involving persons with disabilities and their demand for civil rights.

“Let’s go back to the start of the new Reagan-Bush administration, 1981. Ronald Reagan gives his new vice president an assignment. And he says, cut government regulations. And two of the biggest targets are new disability rights laws. One guarantees kids with disabilities for the first time the right to go to school. And the second one is kind of a precursor to the ADA. It’s a law called Section 504. And it bans discrimination against people with disabilities. But unlike the ADA, it just – it only applied to places that took government funding. So largely we’re talking about state and local governments that had to make this promise not to discriminate.

So these were some of the first laws to protect people with disabilities. And George Bush was the head of this commission that was reviewing them with this idea of cutting them back. And people with disabilities and particularly parents of children with disabilities, they were angry at the thought of losing these new protections. They wrote thousands of letters.

And George Bush met some of these people. And he was impressed by them. They weren’t asking for government money. They wanted laws so they could – help them get an education, get jobs to become taxpayers. And he didn’t forget it. And so several years later, when he becomes president and Congress is writing the ADA, he supports it.”

Bush signed the ADA into law on July 26, 1990.

Six months later, I was a new employee at OSHA and working in an office that answered loads of communications from Members of Congress. Nearly all were calling or writing about “burdensome OSHA regulations.”

We had letters about “costly” rules about asbestos, about “unnecessary” rules about emergency response. We were drowning in letters on behalf of dentists who objected to OSHA’s proposal to protect workers from bloodborne pathogens. Most had the same theme: OSHA should stay out of business’s business.

Hearing Joseph Shapiro’s story on NPR reminded me of how complaints about implementing ADA protections got mixed into complaints about OSHA. It seemed that the requirements to make “readily achievable” accommodations for people with disabilities was misunderstood as a new OSHA mandate.

The complaints went like this: “OSHA is out of control. It’s making us us widen our doors” and “We’re a mom-and-pop. It’s making us lower our paper towel dispensers.”

My office would respond “no, it’s not OSHA.” We’d courteously refer the complainers to the Justice Department. It, along with the EEOC, were writing the rules to implement the ADA.

The usual anti-regulation groups were spreading misinformation about the disability rights legislation. The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were making small businesses anxious about the bill. They asserted that the law would force businesses to spend thousands of dollars to reconfigure their shops, restaurants, and hotels. If they didn’t, they’d be sued.

In a letter to the editor published in the Washington Post on September 2, 1989, NFIB president John Sloan, Jr. wrote:

“The bill encourages lawsuits for unlimited damages when a disabled person merely suspects that a business intends to discriminate. No proof of actual discrimination is required.

“And what encouragement does a business have to accommodate the disabled? Incentives to make the workplace more accessible? Incentives to provide more services to the disabled? Incentives to improve facilities so that disabled will have better access? The bill does none of that. Instead, it mandates that businesses that do not accommodate the handicapped will be sued. Period.”

The legislation was moving swiftly through Congress.

“The broadest civil-rights bill in 25 years is moving through Congress. But unlike most other such measures, which have regularly stirred up hornet’s nests of controversy, this one is roaring through largely intact.” (Wall Street Journal, Aug. 15, 1989)

Indeed the bill had overwhelming bi-partisan support. It passed the House on a roll call vote of 377–28 and in the Senate by a vote of 91–6.

This week’s remembrances of President George H.W. Bush often mention the ADA as one of his proudest accomplishments. The law broke barriers for people with disabilities. NPR reporter Joseph Shapiro noted that it changed the American landscape:

“It’s a law that promises access to be included in American life, to go to public places like restaurants, to go to school, to get a job, to live a life like everyone else.”

Although we at OSHA had to say “no, those aren’t new OSHA rules,” we were very familiar with complaints about “burdensome” regulations. And whether rules to prevent work-related injuries or rules to ensure equal access, one person’s “burdensome” changed lives for many, many more.


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