Bush’s least-dis­cussed but long­est-last­ing le­gacy: ADA

The Mercury News Weekend - - OTHER VIEWS - By Ge­orge Skel­ton Los An­ge­les Times Ge­orge Skel­ton is a Los An­ge­les Times colum­nist. © 2018, Chicago Tri­bune. Dis­trib­uted by Tri­bune Con­tent Agency.

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.

PE­TER TOBIA PHILADEL­PHIA IN­QUIRER

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.

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