The Convergence of Disability Law and Policy: Core Concepts, Ethical Communities, and the Notion of Dignity
Interview with Rud Turnbull
Produced by Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities
Background About the ADA
Rud Turnbull: So let me talk with you a little bit about the work that I have done. I'll start first with the Americans with Disabilities Act. I was working as a Kennedy Foundation Public Policy Fellow in 1987, 1988 in Washington, D.C. My assignment was to work with the Select Subcommittee on Disability. It was the known then as the Subcommittee on the Handicapped.
The chairperson was Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa. He had picked up an initiative started several years before '87 by Senator Lowell Weicker, a Republican from Connecticut, and the effort was to create a civil rights act for persons with disabilities. A comprehensive civil rights act such as protecting African American and other minority citizens and another one protecting women. It's interesting that both Weicker and Harkin were people I called passionate insiders. Senator Weicker had a son with a disability. Senator Harkin had a brother who had a disability.
So here were these two passionate insiders with a great deal of influence asking Bobby Silverstein, the chairperson of that committee, and then asking me to do some work. And the work I did was essentially around research on employment discrimination. I can't say that it was as thorough as I wanted it to be, but it laid out the issues about pre-employment inquiries, post-employment reasonable accommodations, protection in the job, movement forward in the job, protection from discrimination in being released from a job. Those were the general areas.
That was in 1987 and 1988. The President, George Herbert Walker Bush, signed ADA in 1990. It was an interesting story there. Why did he favor the bill so much? It was that he had an uncle who himself had a disability, and young George Herbert Walker Bush used to carry his uncle, George Herbert Walker, over the threshold of their home in Greenwich, Connecticut.
So here you have then three This was a lesson that I learned, a lesson I want to leave with you, three passionate insiders, Senator Weicker, Senator Harkin, and President Bush. The president signed the bill in 1990. Five years later, in 1995, I was on vacation in Mexico and I had a message at my hotel. Telephone a Casa de Blanca, Washington D.C. area code 202 whatever. I didn't know what Casa de Blanca meant. I kind of stopped and thought for a second and said, "Good Lord, it means White House!"
Well, what had happened is that President Clinton decided to have a fifth anniversary celebration of the signing of ADA, and he invited my wife Ann and me to participate on a panel of about 10 representatives of the developmental disabilities and other communities. It was interesting. When I had a chance to speak with the President, with Attorney General Janet Reno, and with Treasury Secretary [Robert] Rubin, this is what I said. And this is really what motivated a lot of my work, not just around ADA but everything.
I said this, "When my son Jay Turnbull was born at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he obviously had a disability – megacephaly. The doctor said institutionalize him. I did for a while .and we brought Jay back home. He was discriminated in school. He was discriminated in work. And finally we found a way to get him through school and to get him to work. Now Mr. President, Attorney General Reno, and Secretary Rubin, Jay Turnbull is paying your salary because he is working full time as a clerical aide at the University of Kansas," whereupon Bill Clinton, always one for something explosive, says, "Yes!" And it was kind of interesting why in the world would I have been involved in an ADA celebration representing the community of persons with intellectual disabilities.