Dick Thornburgh was recognized at a March 13 event in Washington, D.C., for his leading role in the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and his lifelong commitment to the civil rights of people with disabilities.

Thornburgh attended the event with his wife, Ginny, herself a longtime disability rights advocate.

Shortly after George H.W. Bush signed the ADA, Thornburgh, then attorney general, had called it “the next great leap forward in the civil rights movement.”

Now he says it must be “protected from current threats to weaken its intent.”

Thornburgh defined the ADA as “truly another emancipation” not only for Americans with disabilities who would directly benefit, “but even more so for the rest of us now free to benefit from the contributions these Americans will make to our economy, our communal life and our individual well-being.”

“I am honored to receive the Leadership Award from the American Association of People with Disabilities in recognition of my role in the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Thornburgh said. “It was a privilege to work with both Republican and Democratic colleagues to help pass this bipartisan legislation, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990.”

Upon learning of the award, former senator Bob Dole said, “Dick and Ginny are outstanding people who understand disabilities and have, for years, been a great help to the disability community.” A sentiment echoed by others.

“As we honor Dick Thornburgh for his critical role in the enactment of the ADA, let’s also remember the key role he played in its implementation,” said former senator Tom Harkin. “As attorney general, Dick Thornburgh directed the Department of Justice in a comprehensive enforcement program and employed the ADA’s power vigorously, helped businesses and state and local governments understand the new law, and provided relief to persons with disabilities while building public support for the ADA.”

State Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr. of Connecticut said, “The ADA would not exist today without the leadership of Dick Thornburgh.”

Thornburgh, whose public career spanned more than 25 years as governor of Pennsylvania, attorney general of the United States under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and under-secretary of the United Nations, came early to the struggle for disability access and inclusion.

In 1960, Thornburgh’s first wife was killed in an automobile accident while driving their three children home after taking him to work.

Their infant son, 4-month-old Peter, was seriously injured with multiple skull fractures and extensive brain injuries that left him with intellectual disability.

When President George H.W. Bush asked Thornburgh to be the point person for his administration in seeking congressional passage of the ADA, Thornburgh jumped at the opportunity.

In an article in The Christian Citizen, he said, “This effort represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to combine my personal and political agendas.”

“Like most reforms,” Thornburgh said, “it’s a process of two steps forward and one step back, but it has made enormous differences in the lives of persons who were previously denied equal access to jobs, education, public services and transportation.”

Today, some in Congress are prepared to take more than one step back when it comes to the ADA.

In February, the House passed legislation that would amend the ADA over objections from disability rights advocates who warned the bill would remove incentives for businesses to comply with the law.

The ADA Education and Reform Act would impose new burdens on plaintiffs before they can file a civil action for an accessibility violation in a public accommodation case.

An individual with a disability who seeks to challenge a public accommodation violation would have to wait up to 180 days before being able to file a civil action with the U.S. Department of Justice Š – a stark departure from the immediate injunctive relief available under the ADA.

Of these latest challenges, Thornburgh said, “Nearly 28 years later, the ADA remains a critically important civil rights law for all Americans with disabilities, which must be protected from current threats to weaken its intent.”

Curtis Ramsey-Lucas is editor of The Christian Citizen, a publication of American Baptist Home Mission Societies, where a version of this article first appeared. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @cramseylucas.

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