Bush’s least-discussed but longest-lasting legacy: ADA
Badly wounded Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic remembers vividly the awkward, dehumanizing times before President George H.W. Bush signed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act.
Parking was far away. He had to use kitchen entrances at restaurants and relieve himself where dogs did because human facilities couldn’t handle his wheelchair.
The 1989 Academy Awardwinning movie “Born on the Fourth of July” was based on Kovic’s best-selling autobiography about being a Marine sergeant shot up in Vietnam on the eve of the 1968 Tet offensive, returning home paralyzed from the chest down and ultimately becoming an anti-war leader.
He was played by Tom Cruise, who was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe. Kovic and director Oliver Stone shared a Golden Globe for best screenplay. Stone won an Oscar for direction.
Kovic, 72, lives in Redondo Beach, where he continues to write and protest wars.
He strongly protested Bush’s 1990-91 Gulf War.
“War is horrible,” he told me. “There are times when we have to step forward” and fight. But the U.S. fights too often, he said. “I don’t want to see young men come home like me.”
“I didn’t always agree with President Bush,” Kovic says, “but I admired him because he risked his life in World War II, and I admired his compassion, his sensitivity for the disabled.
“He brought Democrats and Republicans together to pass bipartisan legislation that was much more important than people realize. It shattered barriers and opened up opportunities for the disabled community that never before existed.”
That act improved the lives of an estimated 55 million people with disabilities, in ways that may not be fully comprehended by those who aren’t burdened every day with physical or mental challenges.
The ADA required handicapped parking places, ramps and curb cuts to accommodate wheelchairs and scooters. Public facilities, including buses, were made reasonably accessible. Job discrimination was outlawed.
Before then, Kovic says, “handicap parking was very rare.”
He drives a van with hand controls and a ramp to roll his chair out of the vehicle’s side. So he must park by an empty space.
“I’d have to drive way, way far back in a parking lot and wheel myself maybe a quarter mile,” he says.
“Going to a restaurant, I’d go into a back alley — I can still smell it today — and go through the kitchen past the cooks, because the front door had steps. Then I’d have to find a table to get into with a wheelchair. …
“I couldn’t use the bathroom. I’d go back through the kitchen and down the alley, maybe find some grass. Join the puppy dogs out there.”
Bush’s signing of the ADA wasn’t something many would expect from a Republican president. Powerful business interests opposed it as a financial burden. And today, handicapped parking is routinely abused by physically fit people who illegally use their grandma’s placard. There also have been nuisance suits by unscrupulous lawyers trying to cash in on minor violations.
But Kovic says a positive change has been people’s attitudes.
“People relate to me differently,” he says. “They seem to be more compassionate. There’s a whole sense of dignity and acceptance and belonging. ... We were non-people for decades, for centuries. This was a bright new day. There seemed to be something miraculous about the legislation.”
For my money, the ADA was Bush’s most long-lasting, life-changing act. And it’s usually mentioned only in passing.
Vietnam veteran and author Ron Kovic thanks the crowd after his speech as tens of thousands gathered on the Mall in Washington, D.C., to protest the Iraq War in 2003.