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The Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities
Providing information, education, and training to build knowledge, develop skills, and change attitudes that will lead to increased independence, productivity, self determination, integration and inclusion (IPSII) for people with developmental disabilities and their families.

Moments in Disability History 29

ADA: The Final Push

At the beginning of the George H. W. Bush administration, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became the property of disability lobbyists, including Patrisha Wright of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), and liberal Democratic lawmakers. Democratic Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, working with Wright, rewrote a more conservative version of the ADA of 1988 than the version written by conservative Republicans on the National Council on the Handicapped. They narrowed the scope of the accommodations to be made so that the bill was more palatable to business and therefore more likely to become law.

On May 9, 1989, the ADA was introduced in the Senate as S. 933 by Senators Tom Harkin (IA), Ted Kennedy (MA), and David Durenberger (MN). Former Senator Lowell P. Weicker provided testimony as a parent of a child with a disability.

Patrisha Wright
Patrisha Wright

On the same day, H.R. 2273 was introduced In the House, by Congressman Tony Coelho (CA). Congressman Major Owens (NY) and Silvio Conte (MA) were also original sponsors of H.R. 2273. When Coelho left Congress, Congressman Steny Hoyer (MD) provided Democratic leadership as chief sponsor of the ADA. Hoyer was chair of the Democratic Caucus in the House.

The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee held four hearings on S. 933; the first three hearings focused on different titles in the bill.

On June 21, 1989, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, who has a son with developmental disabilities, outlined the Bush administration's position on the ADA. Bush, as Vice President, endorsed the original version of the ADA and expressed support for the rights of people with disabilities throughout his presidential campaign. However, it wasn't until now that his administration showed support for the ADA. Thornburgh articulated the administration's commitment to sign the bill into law, but also outlined concerns that the administration had. These concerns included the scope of the remedies allowed, the reach of the public accommodations provision, and the potential financial impact on small business.

Attorney General Dick Thornburgh
Attorney General Dick Thornburgh

The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee expected to hold mark-up on S. 933 in mid-July. During the summer, Senate leadership and bill sponsors reached an agreement with Bush administration officials on major provisions. The President supported the legislation only after sponsors agreed to limit remedies for findings of discrimination largely to those available under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In the House, four committees held jurisdiction over the ADA: Education and Labor, Judiciary, Energy and Commerce, and Public Works and Transportation. Each of these Committees expected to hold hearings during the summer, but they were extended throughout September and October. It was hoped that Committee hearings would be completed before the end of October so that the bill could be voted on before the Thanksgiving recess.

In support of the ADA, James S. Brady, former assistant and White House Press Secretary under President Reagan, wrote an editorial that appeared in The New York Times on August 29, 1989.

On September 7, 1989, the Senate voted overwhelmingly (76-8) in favor of S. 933 (Senate Report 101-116). The vote took place after lengthy Senate floor debate that lasted late into the night with more than a dozen amendments added to the bill and several adopted before the Senate took floor action.

James S. Brady
James S. Brady, former assistant and White House Press Secretary

The amendments included the following:

  1. The ADA was made applicable to the activities of Congress (Senator Charles Grassley - IA);
  2. In deciding whether to apply penalties in suits brought by the Attorney General, judges would be required to consider whether a defendant accused of discrimination had acted in good faith (Senator Rudy Boschwitz - MN);
  3. The compliance period for buses to be fully accessible would be extended for one year and the President would be authorized to extend the deadline one additional year, if needed (Senator Ernest Hollings - SC);
  4. If any provision of the act was found unconstitutional by a court of law, that provision would be severed from the Act, without affecting the enforceability of the rest of the Act (Senator Tom Harkin - IA);
  5. Current users of illegal drugs would be excluded from the definition of "disabled" for the purposes of ADA (Harkin);
  6. The term "disabled" would not apply to an individual solely on the basis of "transvestitism" (Senator Jesse Helms - NC);
  7. The term disability would be "more clearly defined" to exclude people with a variety of social behaviors and/or conditions including: homosexuality, pedophilia, compulsive gambling, gender identity disorders, kleptomania, pyromania, and "current psychoactive substance induced organic mental disorders, as defined by DSM-III-R, which are not the result of medical treatment (Senator William Armstrong - CO).

An amendment offered by Senator Orrin Hatch (UT) that would have provided up to a $5,000 credit for businesses with 15 or fewer employees and gross receipts of less than $1 million annually was rejected.

C-SPAN captured the September 7, 1989 Senate floor debate on S.933 (and Fiscal Year 1990 Appropriations) and the comments of many:

Speaking on behalf of the ADA is Senator Orrin Hatch (UT) at 01:22:36 and on his amendment at 02:36:06.

Senator Ted Kennedy speaks in support of the ADA on the Senate floor at 01:48:12 in this C-SPAN clip:

Senator Harkin speaks in support of the ADA on the Senate floor in this C-SPAN clip:

On Tuesday, November 14, 1989 the House Education and Labor Committee voted 35 to 0 in favor of a modified substitute ADA. The modifications were negotiated by Congressman Hoyer and Steve Bartlett (TX), the ranking minority member of the Select Education Subcommittee and primarily aimed at clarifying parts of the Senate-passed bill. None of the modifications weakened the bill. Eight amendments aimed at weakening the coverage of the ADA were defeated. Further committee action did not take place until after the holiday recess on January 23, 1990.

On May 17, 1990, the House began consideration of the ADA. Earlier that day, Representative Steve Bartlett (TX) held a viewer call-in.

Portions of the House debate on the ADA (House Resolution 394) and procedural controversy were also captured by C-SPAN:

One controversial amendment, permitting employers to transfer workers with contagious diseases to non-food-handling jobs, was introduced by Representative Jim Chapman (TX) and approved by the House on May 17, 1990.

On May 21, 1990, ramifications on the House bill were discussed in a C-SPAN viewer call-in with Judy Heumann of the National Council on Independent Living and Mary Reed of the National Federation of Independent Business:

Judy Heumann
Judy Heumann

On May 22, 1990, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved H.R. 2273. A number of amendments to weaken various provisions of the bill were introduced during floor debate and defeated by wide margins. The vote on final passage of the bill was 403-20.

On July 11, 1990, the Senate debated a conference report on S. 933 (that included an Omnibus Crime bill). Two controversies arose – how Senate employees should be covered by provisions of the ADA and whether employers should be permitted to transfer persons with AIDS out of food handling jobs. That lively debate with Senator George Mitchell and a resolution was captured by C-SPAN at 05:54:23:

Senator George Mitchell
Senator George Mitchell

On July 12, 1990 Representative Steny Hoyer (MD) spoke forcefully on the House floor against a motion to recommit the ADA. His speech can be viewed at:

Upon passage of the ADA in the Senate on July 13, 1990, Senator Tom Harkin delivered a speech on the Senate floor in ASL. His speech is the first in ASL to be delivered from the Senate floor.

In a fitting memento to his leadership on the ADA and upon his retirement, Senator Tom Harkin closed his farewell address in American Sign Language ASL.


Shapiro, Joseph, P., No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement, (1993), Times Books, Random House, New York and Canada, pgs. 113-118.

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