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Public Papers - 1993 - January

Remarks at a Disability Community Tribute to the President


Thank you all for this honor. You talk about a sea of friendly faces. I'll get in trouble for singling some out and leaving out others, but certainly Evan Kemp and Justin, Justin Dart; Dick and Ginny Thornburgh here; Pat Wright; Judi Chamberlin; Tom McKeithan; Doro, my daughter; King Jordan, Dr. I. King; and of course, Senator Bob Dole and other Members of Congress here. I think of my receiving this, and I think of all Bob has done over the years. I pale by comparison, my efforts. I see Steny Hoyer over here, who's committed and has worked very hard as a Member of Congress; Tony Coelho, the same thing, as a leader in the Congress; Norm Mineta here with us today; had a lovely letter from Tom Harkin -- I can't remember ever agreeing with Tom Harkin on anything other than this, and he points that out to me in the letter. [Laughter] I think it bespeaks the breadth of the interest in the Americans with Disabilities Act, and I appreciate it very much. Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't single out Boyden Gray, who was working very hard. And she and Pat going steady for a while as even she admitted. You talk about the odd couple, that's it. But nevertheless -- [laughter].

But I make this point because this cause or this legislation really moved across all barriers. Whether it's liberal or conservative or Democrat or Republican, it was wonderful the way the people in this room and people all across this country came together to do something good.

And so I am very grateful to be over here. Doro is right; Barbara wanted to be here. And I wish she were here, because the more she packs boxes over there, the more irritable she gets. [Laughter] But serious -- no, Bar, if you're listening -- [laughter]. I know her.

But the irony is that so many people here today, because of their dedication and, yes, their hard work that led to the passage of the ADA, deserve to receive this honor. I really feel this way. Some of you have been fighting for that act for year after year after year. And on the eve of my departure from the Office of Presidency, I am just delighted to have this opportunity to meet again with those who shared in one of its finest moments, this country's finest moments: the proposal, the passage, and the signing of the most comprehensive civil rights bill in the history of this country and indeed the history of the world, the Americans with Disabilities Act.

ADA runs deep in the vein of the American tradition, and that is, a belief in equal opportunity -- we heard it over here from Ms. Chamberlin -- devotion to individual rights, the ethic really of inclusion. Resisting the extremes of either negligence or patronization, the act reflects a conservative way of helping people, one that helps others help themselves.

At the beginning of this century, one African American bishop described his aspiration for civil rights saying, we ask not that others bear our burdens, but don't obstruct our pathway, and we'll throw them off, throw off those burdens as we run. In the same spirit, the 43 millions with disabilities have asked, to paraphrase President Kennedy, not that their country can do for them but only that they be allowed to do for themselves, and thereby their country. I believe that the economic challenges of the next century cannot, simply cannot, be met without the energy and the intelligence of, the industry of every citizen. ADA broadens our economic mainstream so that all Americans can share in the responsibilities and rewards of hard work worth doing.

A few critics -- Bob knows this well from his leadership role in the Congress -- have complained about the costs of ADA, as if some rights were simply too expensive. But when you add together Federal, State, local, and private funds, it's been costing almost 0 billion annually to support our disabled in artificial isolation. And this legislation takes an economic inefficiency and reinvents it then as opportunity and enterprise.

Indeed, I believe that the costs of forgotten citizens is greater than any that can be factored into some Government budget. And when we neglect the rights of some, we simply degrade the rights of all. The quest for civil rights is not a zero sum game, as if there were only so many rights to go around. Our founders thought of rights not as privileges granted by man but as self-evident truths ordained by God.

But just as our Constitution pledges equality under law, so we must strive for legal equality, one that broadens opportunity, increases access, and gives each citizen a fair shot at the American dream. And the beautiful thing is this legislation does just that, not by setting up new institutions but by tearing down old walls. And you see, I believe that in the end it will take more than better regulations and bigger bureaucracies to make this land the land of opportunity for all.

Government can certainly make good laws; it can't make men good. It can ban unfair acts; it can't banish unkind thoughts. And so it's up to us to reach out to those Americans disabled by ignorance or handicapped by prejudice and teach them a better way. Each American shares a responsibility for a kinder, gentler America, to follow the example that so many of you in this room have led with your lives.

I'm not sure I know exactly what I'll be doing a few months from now, but I want to say this: I want to stay involved. I want to help. I'll be a private citizen, not sitting at the head table, out of the Government limelight, but I want to help. I want to stay involved in this kind of important work.

I'm not sure how historians will record the fact that the first George Bush Medal was given to George Bush. [Laughter] There seems something a little contradictory perhaps on that. But you've made me very happy. And I admire you. I respect you. I love you, and I wish you all well.

Thank you, and may God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 2:20 p.m. at the Capital Hilton. In his remarks, he referred to Evan Kemp, Chairman, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Justin Dart, Chairman, President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities; former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and his wife, Ginny; Patrisha Wright, government affairs director, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Inc.; Judi Chamberlin, coordinating committee member, National Association of Psychiatric Survivors; Thomas McKeithan II, Benjamin Banneker High School student; and Dr. I. King Jordan, president, Gallaudet University.

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