Bob Dole championed ‘lives of greater dignity’ for Americans with disabilities
TOPEKA — In 1969, during his maiden speech on the Senate floor, Bob Dole focused his remarks on the rights and opportunities of individuals with disabilities, a subject with which he was intimately familiar.
Dole’s passion for disability rights stemmed from his service as a soldier in World War II, where he was rendered unable to use his right arm and lost feeling in his left after an injury he suffered in Italy. The Kansas political icon, who died Sunday at age 98, was known for holding a pen in his right hand as a treatment for his injury.
His experiences with the societal perception of his disability inspired a life and political career spent pursuing equal opportunities for Americans with disabilities. Dole’s efforts to secure passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act guaranteed rights and improved the day-to-day lives of individuals with disabilities.
It also demonstrated his ability to work across the aisle to enact landmark legislation.
“In the Senate, though we often disagreed, he never hesitated to work with me or other Democrats when it mattered most,” said President Joe Biden in a statement Sunday. “He and Ted Kennedy came together to turn Bob’s lifelong cause into the Americans with Disabilities Act — granting tens of millions of Americans lives of greater dignity.
“On the Social Security Commission, he led a bipartisan effort with Pat Moynihan to ensure that every American could grow old with their basic dignity intact. When he managed the bill to create a federal holiday in the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. — a bill that many in his own caucus opposed — I will never forget what he said to our colleagues: ‘No first-class democracy can treat people like second-class citizens.’ ”
Biden ordered flags lowered to half-staff to honor of Dole, who represented Kansas for decades in Washington, D.C., and was the GOP nomination for president in 1996.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Monday that Dole will lie in state Thursday in the U.S. Capitol rotunda with a formal arrival and departure ceremony to be held the same day. Because of COVID-19, the ceremony will be open to guests only.
Pelosi and Schumer highlighted his work to support veterans and military families, and especially his impact and inspiration he provided to millions of Americans living with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act ensured that employers, as well as local and state government facilities and services, could no longer discriminate against individuals with disabilities. It also provided for reasonable accommodations from privately owned entities serving the public and from television, telephone and internet services.
“He, as a person with a disability, knowing his own potential and the desire to be an independent and fully participatory individual and in the economy and in our society — that’s what he wanted this legislation to do,” said Audrey Coleman, director of The Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. “That was the kind of work that he put into building in the area of disability rights.”
During his first U.S. Senate term, Dole supported the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and its key provision, Section 504, which served as a precursor to the ADA. Dole also authored the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, which stated airlines could not refuse to serve people or charge a high airfare rate simply because of disabilities.
In 2012, long retired from the Senate, Dole returned to the U.S. Capitol in support of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Although the Senate voted not to ratify the treaty, Dole remained committed to promoting it as a benefit of people with disabilities in other nations, as well as Americans who traveled abroad, particularly disabled veterans.
Off the Senate floor, Dole created the Dole Foundation for the employment of people with disabilities. He also was a key member in the founding of the American Association of People with Disabilities.
“The world as we know it today is more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities because of Sen. Bob Dole,” said Maria Town, president and CEO of AAPD. “Sen. Dole worked to elevate the voices and perspectives of people with disabilities, encouraging greater leadership opportunities for disabled people and sharing his experience of disability with his colleagues to build bipartisan consensus for disability policy issues. His passing represents an enormous loss for AAPD, the disability community at-large, and the nation.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell remembered Dole as a man whose career may appear on the surface to be one of contrast. While he championed Republican ideals, he remained committed to caring for the vulnerable — from veterans to people with disabilities.
“The virtues and the values that led Bob Dole to raise his right hand, enlist in the Army, and fight bravely until he could not raise that hand any longer… were the same virtues and values that compelled him to raise his left hand for a different oath in the Kansas State Capitol a few years later. And then across the Rotunda in the U.S. House. And then here in the Senate,” McConnell said. ““With Bob Dole, what you saw was what you got. And from his comrades in the 10th Mountain Division… to his constituents in Kansas… to the whole Senate and the entire country… what we got was extraordinary.”