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413 23 The Americans with Disabilities Act— “The Machinery of Change” The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 remains, as of this writing, the high-water mark of the American disability rights movement.1 Never before, and not since, has such a broad coalition of disability groups and activists united around a single issue. The goal was to pass a federal civil rights act to extend basic protections against discrimination, and thus ensure equality of access to employment and the public arena, to all Americans with disabilities. It might have sounded a simple-enough goal, but writing a bill that would do all this while garnering the support necessary to pass both houses of Congress, with their Democratic majorities, and the signature of a Republican president was a test of both the movement’s savvy and its political clout. Atfirstglance,the1980swouldnotappeartohave been a hospitable moment for such an effort. If the Carter administration had to be pressured into signing the 504 regulations, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 promised, and soon delivered, even worse times for proponents of expanding the federal role in protecting civil rights. Indeed, one of the new administration’s first moves was an attempt (under the direction of Vice President George H. W. Bush) to gut the very same enforcing regulations of Section 504 that the movement had fought so hard to enact in 1977. There was, however, a silver lining to what seemed to be a very dark political cloud. This attempt to revisit 504 galvanized the activist network so recently organized across the country by the 504 trainings and the ACCD, demonstrating to the Reagan administration, especially to the vice president and his staff, that there was, in fact, a constituency that could be readily mobilized by disability rights leaders. Faced with a deluge of letters, phone calls, and demonstrations , the vice president relented, and Section 504 was declared off-limits as the administration “de-regulated” other aspects of the federal government’s presence in American life. During this same period, a ruling by the Supreme Court, which impacted not only disability rights but also limited the scope of the Civil Rights Act 414 chapter 23 of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (protecting women’s rights), and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, brought together for the first time representatives of all these constituencies, resulting in passage, over the president’s veto, of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987. The ad hoc coalition formed to pass the CRRA introduced African American and women’s rights leaders to the idea that disability was a civil rights issue, and fostered relationships between these leaders and the principal activists in the still fledging , but now growing, national disability rights movement. All this would be crucial to the passage of the ADA three years later. Thrown into this mix was a new federal agency, the National Council on the Handicapped (eventually renamed the National Council on Disability). Created by Congress in 1978, the NCH was made an independent federal agency in 1984, and its fifteen-member panel, appointed by the president, was charged with reviewing and evaluating federal policies related to disability. The NCH, chaired by parent activist Sandra Swift Parrino and vice-chaired by Justin Dart, would produce two documents: Toward Independence (1986), which explicitly laid out the need for federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities, and On the Threshold of Independence (January 1988), which offered a detailed section-by-section summary of exactly what such an act should contain. A complete draft of the bill, titled the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1988, was introduced into Congress by Senator Lowell Weicker (R-CT) and Congressman Tony Coelho (D-CA) in April that year. Patrisha Wright “The golden age of disability legislation.” Patrisha A. Wright is often referred to as “the general” who led the campaign to pass the ADA. Wright herself eschews such labels: “I’m not into top-down hierarchies,” she says. She traces her roots as a disability rights activist to the 1977 HEW occupation in San Francisco, where she acted as a personal care assistant to Judy Heumann, then traveled with Heumann to Washington to participate in the demonstrations there. “It’s funny how DREDF is seen sometimes as this ‘insider’ lobbyist organization, when really we were a bunch of Berkeley hippies coming to Washington to shake things up.” Born in 1949 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Wright earned her master’s degree the...


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