The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Future for Children

By Thornburgh, Richard L. | The Exceptional Parent, March 1991 | Go to article overview

The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Future for Children


Thornburgh, Richard L., The Exceptional Parent


My own personal experience with disability began abruptly on July 1, 1960. I was a young lawyer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, married with a growing family. My wife had driven me to work with our three boys. On the way home, she was involved in an automobile accident that took her life. But I was assured from the hospital that my two boys were safe. Two boys? The terrible shock was that Peter, our youngest, only four months old at the time, had not been immediately pulled from the wreckage. When he was finally freed, there were serious head injuries and brain damage - that kept him in the hospital for six months of delicate operations and constant - and loving - care.

That started me on those 30 years I feel many across America share - through joys and frustrations that come from family members you have learned especially to value and love. I was a single parent for three years, struggling hard to cope and get into the swing of things. Then the Lord, seeing my straits, had mercy on me and sent me Ginny.

We were married, and Ginny Thornburgh has since devoted tireless efforts to the cause of all persons with disabilities, presently heading a program on Religion and Disability for the National Organization on Disability. And we have come together to treasure Peter as an outright gift to our family.

Peter Thornburgh is 30 years old now. While greatly limited, he lives in a group residence, works at a workshop, brings home a paycheck, and pays his taxes. He lives with a degree of independence - not unfamiliar to many readers - which certainly was never anticipated by his mother and father when he was a young man. By one measure, he may have outdone us. He has realized a far greater portion of his own potential - as Ginny has pointed out many times - then perhaps many of us have.

His independence, of course, makes him vulnerable. There are known risks to his semi-free-wheeling status. But the progress this young man has made on his own is the gift of which I spoke. The gift of life and growth and opportunity that is available to all of God's people of this earth.

Today, as Attorney General of the United States, I have the privilege of participating in the dawn of a new era of opportunity for children like my son and all people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed by President Bush on July 26, 1990, gives to individuals with disabilities civil rights protection with respect to discrimination that are parallel to those which are already available to individuals on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. It combines in its own unique formula elements drawn principally from two key civil rights statutes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title V of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The ADA generally employs the framework of Titles II (42 U.S.C. 2000a to 2000a-6) and VII (42 U.S.C. 2000e to 2000e-16) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for coverage and enforcement, and the terms and concepts of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. 794) for what constitutes discrimination.

The fact sheet accompanying this article describes the highlights of the provisions of the ADA. This article will describe some of the background of the legislation and its implications for "exceptional children" and their parents.

The Americans with Disabilities Act grew out of legislation originally developed by the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency that reviews and makes recommendations concerning federal laws, programs, and policies affecting individuals with disabilities. In its 1986 study, "Toward Independence" the National Council on Disability recognized the inadequacy of the existing, limited patchwork of protections for individuals with disabilities, and recommended the enactment of a comprehensive civil rights law requiring equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities throughout American life. …

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