Former Attorney General Thornburgh Reflects on the
Americans with Disabilities Act's Tenth Anniversary

By Melanie R. Margolis

The year 2000 marks the tenth year since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by President George Bush. It is an ideal time to assess the progress achieved since the ADA's passage and to determine what work remains ahead. On February 24, 2000, former Governor of Pennsylvania Dick Thornburgh, who served as U.S. Attorney General under President Bush, reflected on the ADA at the Health Law & Policy Institute's Gardere Wynne Sewell & Riggs Lecture in Houston, Texas. Governor Thornburgh has been a strong proponent of the rights of individuals with disabilities throughout his career.

Governor Thornburgh called July 26, 1990, the day the ADA was signed into law, one of the proudest moments in his life. The laws in existence prior to the ADA left individuals with disabilities in isolation in a society brimming with attitudinal, architectural, and communication barriers. The promise of the ADA was that it would lead to fuller, more productive lives for the 54 million Americans with physical, mental, and sensory disabilities by bringing them into the mainstream in all aspects of society.

Governor Thornburgh noted that we see tangible progress in each new ramp that makes another place accessible, but fundamental change does not occur overnight. As he pointed out, many Americans view discrimination as stemming from a person's disability rather than from barriers society has erected. Americans must comprehend that it is wrong to exclude someone from opportunities simply because of a disability.

The ADA has been criticized wrongly as requiring businesses to remove all barriers immediately. In truth, the ADA provides flexibility for businesses and others to comply without undue burden on their operations. Governor Thornburgh expressed disappointment at the number of businesses that expend enormous resources on trying to avoid the ADA instead of using those resources to comply.

Cases contesting the coverage of the ADA have made it to the U.S. Supreme Court recently and have yielded mixed results. The Supreme Court decided a number of ADA cases last year. The coverage of the ADA was narrowed in cases in which the individual's impairment was correctable with medication or eyeglasses. On the other hand, in Olmstead v. L.C., the Court held that under appropriate circumstances, the ADA requires states to move mentally retarded individuals out of institutions and into community settings.

Unfortunately, even in cases with favorable outcomes to the ADA, Governor Thornburgh stated that the Court's opinions have not been particularly strong in supporting the ADA. Governor Thornburgh expressed as his biggest fear decisions yet to come from the Supreme Court, and this fear is justified.

The Court has already decided in an age discrimination case that states cannot be sued under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act in federal court because Congress did not have the power to lift the states' 11th Amendment sovereign immunity. If the Court applies similar reasoning in the ADA context in Allsbrook v. Arkansas, a case currently pending before the Court, it would become virtually impossible to enforce the ADA against the states. Such a decision would be a tremendous setback.

Governor Thornburgh urged individuals with disabilities to work toward a greater voice in the political process. Only a small percentage of persons with disabilities vote, and a third are not even registered to vote.

Governor Thornburgh mentioned the need for access to the Internet. Because the Internet was not in use as it is today at the time the ADA passed, the Internet was not specifically addressed. The Internet is a community which must be made accessible to persons with disabilities. If it is not made accessible now, individuals with disabilities will be left out once again.

Governor Thornburgh ended his lecture by sharing his moving personal story about the events that sparked his interest in the rights of individuals with disabilities. In 1960, one of his sons, Peter, was injured in an automobile accident at the age of 4 months. Peter suffered serious brain damage and was left mentally retarded. At that time, no effective advocacy networks for persons with disabilities even existed, and the ADA was still 30 years away. After years of hard work credited by Governor Thornburgh to his wife Jenny, Peter, now 40 years old, lives with independence in an assisted living apartment and works full time as a volunteer at a food bank.

The ADA is in place, but Americans must take the next step. They must, in Governor Thornburgh's inspiring words, open their hearts and minds and change their attitudes toward persons with disabilities.

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