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Kansan Bob Dole Still Fighting For Disability Rights

Bryan Thompson

For Americans who have disabilities, passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 remains a milestone.

Kansas Republican Senator Bob Dole led critical negotiations to ensure passage of the act.

As Dole continues his tour of Kansas, thanking people for the support over the years, Bryan Thompson asks the now 90-year-old statesman to rank the ADA among his accomplishments in the Senate.

“I’d say in the top five, because it opened doors and opportunities for disabled people—people in wheelchairs, and disabilities of all kinds," Dole says. "And since then, it’s been amended to be a little more inclusive.”

Dole’s connection to people with disabilities was born of personal experience. He lost the use of his right arm after being wounded in Italy during World War II. His first major floor speech in the U.S. Senate—on the 24th anniversary of his injuries—focused on the challenges faced by Americans with disabilities. And every year, on or about the anniversary of that speech, Senator Dole took to the Senate floor to revisit that topic. He says getting the votes to pass the ADA was a long and difficult process.

“I worked with Ted Kennedy on getting it done," he says. "Those were the days we worked across the aisle. Most good things that last are bipartisan. But, yeah, it took awhile.”

For all the struggles in passing it, Dole thinks it’s unlikely that the Americans with Disabilities Act might be rolled back or repealed… “No. I don’t think so. I think, if anything, there may be things that people want to add to it.”

Still, even Bob Dole doesn’t always get his way on disability issues.

An international treaty on disability rights, called the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, was signed by President Obama in 2009.

The treaty urges all countries to adopt the kinds of rights and protections the ADA provides to Americans with disabilities. But five years later, the Senate still hasn’t ratified the treaty.

In 2012, Dole took to the Senate floor in a wheelchair, after being released from a hospital, to urge Senators to vote for ratification.

Despite his pleas, Senators voted it down—including Kansas Republicans Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran.

“They were overcome by phone calls against it from the home schoolers," Dole says.

Opponents prevented the ratification from being voted on again last fall.

“One of the problems is sovereignty," he says. "That’s what the home schoolers are worried about, somehow the U.N. would have some influence on their children, you know, way out in center field somewhere. There’s no way that could happen, but to make certain they’re working on some additional language.”

It’s not in Bob Dole’s nature to give up. He spent four years battling through nine surgeries, and extensive rehabilitation after being wounded in battle. He intends to keep working for ratification of the treaty.

“And that’s something I’m working on with the White House," he says. "It’s a non-partisan thing, and I think when it’s non-partisan if you can help, you ought to help. And when it’s all complete, I’ll take it to Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, and try to get their support.”

Ratification requires 67 votes—a two-thirds majority. As Senate Majority Leader, Dole was good at counting votes. He says there are 65 senators ready to support the treaty. As to when that might happen?

“Well, we’re supposed to vote July 21st—the day before my birthday," he says. "So that’d be a good birthday present.”

A good present, and a testament to the perseverance of a Kansan who fought hard to overcome his own disabilities, and to win civil rights for all people with disabilities.