Why I'm Grateful to Bush 41

07/17/2015 12:47 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2016

In 1985, I was pinned between a guardrail and a moving station wagon. My left leg was crushed. The immediate pain was immense. But the longer-term daily problems were even worse as I went from an athletic college student to a temporary wheelchair user.

I might as well have been in prison. Driving was impossible. It was before the Americans with Disabilities Act, landmark civil rights legislation. I could not get out of my apartment, into bathrooms, or into the buildings on my college campus without someone lifting me. It was humiliating. Getting myself clean -- because there was no such thing as an accessible shower where I lived -- took immense effort. I basically relied on friends to bring me food and class assignments for months.

Today, thanks to ADA, wheelchair users can take showers, use the toilet and enter buildings just like anyone else. When it comes to personal dignity and independence, these are not small things. People who use mobility devices can go to school, shopping, cultural events and gain jobs and independence.

Because of ADA, people with hearing or vision differences are able to access computers and telecommunications devices. It's the difference between being a part of our community and being in prison. There are many, many people including Justin Dart, Bobby Silverstein, Lex Frieden and many others to thank for the ADA. However, chief amongst them is President George H.W. Bush.

Today many people think that "disability issues" are the domain of Democrats. But that was not the case back in 1990 when ADA was passed, and should not be that way now.

President George H.W. Bush (Bush 41) cares deeply about disability issues. Pre-ADA, as Vice President, he met with disability leaders. According to the outstanding new book Enabling Acts by Lennard J. Davis, Bush spoke of his personal experiences with disability with his brother Prescot, who was born with the use of only one eye; his uncle John Walker, who had polio, his daughter, who died in infancy of leukemia; his son Neil, who was severely dyslexic; and his son Marvin, who had had a colostomy as a result of ulcerative colitis just a few months earlier at the age of 21. At the time, Bush 41 did not personally have any disabilities. But he took what he learned from experiences of loved ones around him for good. He was a champion for, and the signer of, the ADA.

Every disability leader is grateful to Bush 41 for the ADA. What many don't know, however, is the many other ways he championed the cause of people with disabilities. For example, when Gallaudet, a university for people who are deaf, refused to install leaders with hearing impairments, Bush 41 personally interceded. He wrote a letter to the board of trustees urging them to "set an example... appoint a president who is not only highly qualified, but who is also deaf." The battle was pivotal for the entire disability community. When 2500 Gallaudet students and allies marched to Capitol Hill it inspired disability leaders around the world. The result was that I. King Jordan, a deaf candidate for the job, was selected to lead the college. Phil Bravin, also Deaf, was named chairperson of the board of trustees. 41 had been a part of the revolution.

When George H.W. Bush ran for President he also actively campaigned for the votes of people with disabilities. Unlike Governor Mitt Romney, who never mentioned people with disabilities the entire time when he ran for president and lost, Bush 41 listed "disability" into the list of identities that make up the national idea of diversity. He actively reached out to voters with disabilities and their loved ones. He put qualified leaders including Madeleine Will, in positions to help people with disabilities.

Bush 43 never took disability issues to be his own. However, similarly, Governor Jeb Bush put people with disabilities in his very first campaign video for the 2016 presidential campaign. He is not the only Republican candidate reaching out to voters with disabilities. For the first time in a long time, Republicans are fighting to earn the votes of the 56 million Americans with disabilities.

For Jeb Bush, it's a personal commitment. His sister Dorothy is also a regular at disability events. They are following in their father's footsteps. Back in 1990, upon signing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), then President George H.W. Bush said, "we will not excuse, we will not tolerate discrimination in America."

Today George H.W. Bush is in the hospital after an accident. My prayers are with him and his family. Due to health issues, Bush 41 has been a wheelchair user himself for some time now. Because of the ADA law that he signed, he has been able to get in and out of buildings as a wheelchair user. I hope that soon he will be able to exit the hospital in good health.

And me? Within 18 months after my accident, I was able to run. My knee had setbacks since, and so periodically I have surgery again. I am "temporarily able bodied". So are all of us, as you never know what an accident or illness may bring. Thanks to laws President George H.W. Bush made, if I should wind up as a wheelchair user again, I will still be able to live an active and full life.