Honoring Accessibility

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News October 2015

A champion of the disability and veterans’ community, former Sen. Bob Dole receives PVA’s inaugural Gordon H. Mansfield Congressional Leadership Award.

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For some people, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is nothing more than curb cuts, handicapped parking spots or roll-in shower stalls. But few people realize the bill was passed in support of civil rights legislation.

Nearly three decades before the ADA came into existence, a young Republican senator from Kansas by the name of Bob Dole was using his new position in the Senate to bring national awareness to the struggles faced by Americans with disabilities. In fact, during Dole’s first speech in the Senate in 1969 he proposed federal aid for people with disabilities.

Since that time, the U.S. Army veteran, who received injuries in World War II leaving his right arm and hand paralyzed, has served as chairman of the Republican National Committee, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, ran for president and has been a national leader on behalf of veterans, the disadvantaged and disabled.

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To honor Dole’s years of work for people with disabilities and to help celebrate this year’s 25th anniversary of the ADA, Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) presented him with the inaugural Gordon H. Mansfield Congressional Leadership Award July 28 at its national office in Washington, D.C.

“Senator Dole is one of the disability and veterans’ community’s greatest champions, and we are privileged to honor him tonight,” said PVA National President Al Kovach Jr. “He has devoted his entire life to advancing the cause of people with disabilities, as well as advocating for the men and women who have served and sacrificed for this nation.”

Precious Medal

An unprecedented number of dignitaries and political leaders at the ceremony reflected the importance of the award and the man receiving it.

Among those on hand were Dole’s wife and former North Carolina senator, Elizabeth, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, House Democratic Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald.

However, it was a special person not in attendance that helped shed a personal light on Dole’s influence. During a private meeting with Kovach and McCain before the ceremony, Dole shared the story of one of his hometown’s youngest constituents, 8-year-old Gracie Gilpin.

Gilpin won a gold medal with her Emporia (Kan.) Sparkle basketball team this summer at the Sunflower State Games in Kansas. She sent Dole a card for his 92nd birthday in July along with her highly-coveted medal and an endearing note.

The Paralyzed Veterans of America honored former Sen. Bob Dole with an award July 28 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Back row, left to right: Connie Morella, Nancy Pelosi, Linda Mansfield, Elizabeth Dole, Robert McDonald, Carl Blake. Front row, left to right: Dole, Al Kovach Jr., Sherman Gillums Jr.

“I wanted to give you my gold medal I won at the Sunflower State Games. I know you have lots of medals, but I wanted you to have this one. It is special to me, I hope you like it. Happy birthday!” Gilpin wrote.

Dole does have many medals, but says this one is by far the most special. He’s carried it with him everywhere since receiving it, and often invites other leaders to pose for photos wearing Gilpin’s medal. Dole intends on returning it to the youngster along with photos of its journey around Washington, D.C.

Happy To Be With PVA

Another important person who couldn’t be at the award presentation but provided a powerful testament on the impact of the ADA is the man who signed it into law 25 years ago, former President George H. W. Bush.

Not able to attend the ceremony because of a broken bone in his neck, Bush dispatched a personal letter to Dole that McCain read to guests. Bush congratulated Dole on his latest achievement and praised his unremitting work. He also noted Dole and organizations such as PVA helped make the ADA happen.

“To all of you, I just want to say your triumph is that your bill will now be law, and that this day belongs to you,” Bush wrote. “On behalf of our nation, thank you very, very much.”

After receiving the award, Dole also pointed out how it took many people to make the ADA become law and especially praised PVA for the important part it played.

“[Elizabeth and I have] had the opportunity to celebrate with different groups and I’m happy to be here with PVA who certainly helped bring forth the passage of the ADA,” Dole says.

A Lot Of Work

Dole was instrumental in securing passage of the ADA in 1990 and many of the disability rights laws that came before it.

Considered one of the most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation passed, the ADA was signed into law by Bush on July 26, 1990, at the White House. The law prohibits discrimination and guarantees people with disabilities have equal opportunities to participate in mainstream American life.

“There was a lot of work done by both Democrats and Republicans,” Dole says. “It was a bipartisan effort and took quite awhile to work out compromises, but once we got it put together it passed both the Senate and the House with an overwhelming vote.”

A lot of work was also done by PVA, which provided input into the drafting of the ADA and advocated for its passage. PVA continues to be a trailblazer for disability rights and access with numerous programs and efforts on behalf of everyone with disabilities.

Some of the many projects PVA has been involved with include making the Washington, D.C., metro system more accessible, consulting on the accessibility of professional sports facilities such as the Minnesota Vikings’ new U.S. Bank Stadium and helping make self-service gas stations easier to use.

The “Abilities Act”

Despite all the efforts of people such as Dole and organizations like PVA, Kovach knows there’s still plenty of work to do when it comes to accessibility.

Kovach got a first-hand account of how much still needed to be done on accessibility in 1998 when he and three friends of various disabilities set off on a cross-country push in their wheelchairs from Los Angeles to New York.

“You could see where America got it and where they didn’t get it,” Kovach says. “It was really based on the community. You could tell if you had good, positive thinking-good leadership-type people living in the community. They complied with ADA. Then there were other areas that could care less about ADA.”

And since there’s no “ADA police,” as Kovach calls it, he believes it’s an ongoing educational process of bringing the American mainstream into the fold to better understanding the ADA.

“Accessibility [change] typically starts off with a conversation with the person struggling within the community,” Kovach says. “But during my trek across the country, we were like a rolling ‘awareness program,’ going slowly across the country. Every little town we went to will never be the same.”

Kovach continues his group’s “awareness program” through PVA’s mission to “change lives and build brighter futures.” That’s a mission Dole has always supported and one at the center of the ADA.

“We call it the Americans with Disabilities Act, but I think Bob Dole is the perfect example of [someone] who has a lot of abilities,” says Hoyer. “And I keep telling people that we should change the name of the ADA — to the Americans with Abilities Act — because that was what the act was all about. It was about focusing on what people can do.”


Hero & Advocate

Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) honored former Sen. Bob Dole with the inaugural Gordon H. Mansfield Congressional Leadership Award in July for his tireless work on disability rights.

While Dole’s accomplishments are no secret, those outside PVA may not be as familiar with the achievements of the awards namesake, Gordon H. Mansfield.

Described as a mover and shaker of his day, the former PVA executive director and U.S. Army veteran was a commissioned infantry officer who sustained a spinal-cord injury rescuing a fallen comrade during the Vietnam War in 1968.

Among his many achievements, Mansfield was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and inducted into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame and the U.S. Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame. He went on to serve as acting U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs and as the Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Mansfield died in January 2013. The award in his name was established by the PVA board of directors at this year’s 69th Annual Convention in San Diego.

The award will be presented annually to one current or former member of Congress who exhibits strong leadership and support for PVA’s mission of veterans’ health care and benefits and disability civil rights.



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