MANCHESTER — Advocates for New Hampshire’s disabled population expressed their gratitude Monday for the legacy of former President George H.W. Bush.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, landmark legislation passed during his presidency in 1990, transformed the world for countless Americans by expanding access and opportunities for the disabled and protecting them from discrimination.
“This was a great moment in progress for people with disabilities,” said Larry Gammon, president of Easterseals New Hampshire. “Although we had begun coming a long way by 1990, the passage of the act just really ensured that people with disabilities were guaranteed equal access to society.”
Gammon and other advocates agreed there is still much to be done, but are glad to see credit and recognition given to Bush, who died Friday at age 94.
Gammon recalled meeting Bush a handful of times during New Hampshire campaign events, saying he was caught off-guard when the former President “talked to me just like a regular guy,” quick with his signature light-hearted quips but always committed and determined to help others.
In addition to getting the ADA through Congress and signing it into law, Bush also increased awareness about disabilities and reshaped the way people with disabilities are viewed, Gammon said.
“We just generally didn’t recognize that just because somebody was different, they had many talents,” Gammon said. “It’s done a lot. It hasn’t changed the world, but it’s changed the world enough that we can keep changing it.”
Stephanie Patrick, executive director of the Disabilities Rights Center NH in Concord, said so many changes have happened in the 28 years since the law passed that they are sometimes overlooked.
“Bush’s contributions to the disability community cannot be understated,” she said. “The ADA is the fundamental civil rights legislation for people with disabilities. It grants people with disabilities access to public buildings, employment, transportation and all the things that people without disabilities, like people who can walk up steps, read a printed menu in a restaurant, hear a speaker at an event, take for granted.”
Plenty of other ADA-related changes can be seen from town to town, where “curb cuts” have opened up sidewalks to wheelchairs, and audible pedestrian crossing signals and textured road surfaces help the visually impaired get across the street safely.
Patrick also noted the greater accessibility created by Concord’s Main Street renovation and community services for people with mental illness.
“It wasn’t easy to get it passed and find something that was palatable to a bipartisan group of legislators and the lobbyists for all the different causes and groups involved in federal legislation, but they managed to come together and work it out and I think we’re all better for it,” she said.
Andrew Hountenville, an associate professor of economics and research director at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire, said some of the ADA’s effects are only now starting to show, including better research initiatives and data.
“People have been looking long and hard for many years, but there isn’t a lot of data on the population of people with disabilities,” Hountenville said.
That could be changing by studying what he called the “ADA generation” — people who have lived with disabilities since the law passed — seeing what has helped them and what obstacles still stand in the way.
“People are looking to see how that generation does,” Hountenville said. “It took years for the ADA to develop. It’s getting to that point where we will have enough data to look at that ADA generation.”
The ADA has opened opportunities and access for many disabled people to work, which Hountenville said allows them to live independently without the need for assistance programs. However, unemployment among the disabled remains a huge problem, he said.
Gammon said he saw Bush a few summers ago at Barnacle Billy’s in Ogunquit, Maine, when the former President arrived in his boat and was carried in a wheelchair by members of the Secret Service.
Seeing Bush in a wheelchair or on a motor scooter was common in his later years. He sat in a wheelchair during Dartmouth College’s commencement in 2011, receiving an honorary degree and praise from comedian Conan O’Brien, the featured speaker.
O’Brien recalled the event in a Tweet on Monday, getting the year wrong but the message clear.
“Spent a day with President George H.W. Bush at Dartmouth College in 2010. He could not have been kinder and he was absolutely lovely to my parents. It was an honor I’ll always remember.”