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Robert J. Dole Archive and Special Collections
Celebrating Opportunity for People with Disabilities:
70 Years of Dole Leadership
Through documents from the Dole Archives, we share stories of Bob Dole’s decades-long drive to make our nation a better place for all Americans, as illustrated by the ADA and its core values.


“Under the ADA we are all winners”
-Senator Bob Dole
from Statement on Final Passage of the ADA, dated July 12, 1990

Mention Bob Dole’s name to most people and their thoughts often turn to his World War II service and the combat injuries that almost took his life.

Tested in body and character, Dole found new strengths and aspirations. Although he gave up his dream of becoming a medical doctor, Dole earned a law degree and entered politics in the 1950s.

He devoted much of his political career to fighting for people with disabilities—a large, diverse, and determined group.

Bob Dole set out to change their story, just as he had changed his own to become, as he stated in 1996, “the most optimistic man in America.”

Resilient, flexible—and stubborn, when he needed to be—Bob Dole helped establish and ensure disability rights as a political leader. He continues doing so as a private citizen.

More than any other law, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) represents Dole’s reputation.

Bob Dole and his mother, Bina, 1946

Everyday life as a person with disability challenged and changed Bob Dole (shown here with his mother, Bina, during Dole's recovery period, circa 1946). After being wounded and partially paralyzed, he faced a daunting rehabilitation.

What does the ADA do?

The ADA proclaims disability will be no barrier to individual opportunity and community participation.

The ADA recognizes people with disabilities as full American citizens with the right to respect and dignity in their present and future lives.
Americans With Disabilities Act: Before and With
Before The ADA: You are a qualified job applicant. A prospective employer rejects your application because of your disability.
With The ADA: Employers cannot discriminate against qualified persons with disabilities.

Before The ADA: You can’t be sure your child with disabilities will have the chance to enjoy your local public library or swimming pool.
With The ADA: Facilities and services of local and state governments must be accessible for people with disabilities..

Before The ADA: Your spouse has a visible disability. At a restaurant, you are seated in an inferior, secluded area. You conclude this is because the staff doesn’t want “normal” patrons to see your spouse.
With The ADA: Privately owned entities serving the public must have reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities.

Before The ADA: You have hearing impairments and television broadcasts without closed captioning — including weather advisories and emergency public service announcements - are not accessible to you.
With The ADA: Television, telecommunication, and Internet services must accommodate people with speech, hearing, and visual impairments.

A Vision for Change on the National Stage

Dole speaking at a luncheon for disability leaders, 1969
Dole's First Senate Speech

On April 14, 1969, Bob Dole gave his first speech on the floor of the US Senate. It was 24 years to the day since Dole was wounded in World War II.

Although the date had great personal significance for the senator, he put the concerns of other people first. In his speech, Dole called for public and private-sector commitments to improving the lives of Americans with disabilities.

A Common Goal

Dole’s “no boundaries” definition of people with disabilities helped him connect with diverse organizations and individuals working for disability rights in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In previous eras, most disability rights advocacy came from groups representing those who shared a common condition — for example, people who were blind or people with polio.

The time had come for people with disabilities to affirm their common experience of discrimination, their common history of struggle, and their common goal of independence.

Universal Concerns

Dole’s speech also emphasized the universal relevance of disability concerns for people with and without disabilities. He advocated better communication and cooperation among these groups.

Above all, Dole sought full, participatory lives for people with disabilities.

“We have a basic commitment in our nation to assure every person has adequate opportunity to develop to his fullest capacity . . .
we have only begun to help guarantee that each handicapped person and his family enjoy complete dignity, independence, and security.”
-Senator Bob Dole’s speech on the Senate floor
April 14, 1969

Disability Rights are Civil Rights

KU students demonstrate for civil rights at a sit-in in Strong Hall, 1965.KU students demonstrate for civil rights at a sit-in in Strong Hall, 1965. Courtesy KU University Archives.

The disability rights movement emerged during the 1960s, a time of unprecedented action for civil rights in the US. Bob Dole became a national political leader in this pivotal period. As a congressman representing Kansas, Dole voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. These laws helped open the doors to change on many fronts.

Two legendary people with disabilities inspired by the social movement atmosphere were Ed Roberts and Judy Heumann. Both survived childhood polio; both used wheelchairs. Visible, vocal, and influential disability rights leaders, they followed the examples of the African American freedom struggle and the movement for women’s rights.

Thanks to Roberts, Heumann, and many others, “Independent Living” (IL) became a new philosophy for people with disabilities. Independent living meant that people with disabilities would make as many of their own decisions as possible—about their rehabilitation, employment, healthcare, and housing.

The IL movement became a force for change throughout the US aand had an impact in Lawrence, Kansas, where activists like Roger Williams found an ally in Bob Dole.

Ed Roberts

Ed Roberts (1939-1995) enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1962 after fighting administrators who saw him only as a “cripple.” He helped found the Independent Living Movement. In 1975, Roberts became director of California’s rehabilitation agency.

Judy Heumann

Judy Heumann (1947- ) overcame job discrimination in New York City, her hometown. A qualified public school teacher, Heumann was denied employment simply because she used a wheelchair. She founded the Disabled in Action organization in 1970.

Roberts and Heumann achieved global recognition with the establishment of the World Institute on Disability in 1983. Currently, Heumann is special advisor for international disability rights in the US State Department.

Roger Williams

Roger Williams (1934-1993) founded Independence, Inc. in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1978. This was Kansas’ first independent living center. He also led efforts to ensure compliance with the 1973 Rehabilitation Act at the University of Kansas. A KU Law School alumnus, Williams acquired muscular dystrophy in adulthood and became a wheelchair user.

Advocating Independence and Engagement

Legislative Efforts

Senator Dole with Special Olympics medal winner

Special Olympics was founded to provide opportunities for children with intellectual disabilities. In this photo, Senator Dole congratulates a Special Olympics medal winner, 1970.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973
The Air Carrier Access Act

By the 1970s, Americans were traveling more by air. Still, many passengers with disabilities faced restrictions on commercial aircraft.

Bob Dole authored the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA). The law stated airlines could not refuse to serve people simply because of their disabilities. The ACAA also banned higher airfare rates for people with disabilities.

The 1970 Developmental Disabilities Act

The 1970 Development Disabilities Act is one of several laws stemming from greater concern for the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. There were crucial efforts by parents and family members of people with developmental disabilities to call attention to this population’s needs.

Advocating Independence and Engagement

Engaging the Public with the Process

In the political arena, Dole worked within the Republican Party to promote disability-related issues, as well as to attract people with disabilities to the party.

Dole wanted people with disabilities to be able to participate readily in their government and its processes.

Physical Access

One way Dole facilitated this was to encourage improved physical access to government facilities, such as the US Capitol and Senate buildings. In pursuit of this goal, Dole sustained a decades-long correspondence with George M. White, the architect of the Capitol.

Closed Captioning

Dole also advocated strongly for closed-captioning service within the Senate and for national public and commercial broadcasts.

With passage of the ADA in 1990, telecasts of US Senate proceedings began using closed-captioning technology. Dole authored Senate Res. 13, which mandated this procedure.

Press Release

1988 Press Release on Improving Senate Accessibility

View PDF »

“. . . Disabled Americans lacked the hope of equal opportunity, but, during the past four years, under the leadership of President Reagan, we have become a nation renewed.”
-Bob Dole’s 1984 endorsement of the Reagan-Bush ticket.
Advocating Independence and Engagement

The Dole Foundation

Dole Foundation logo

In 1983, Dole announced establishment of the Dole Foundation for Employment of Persons with Disabilities. Its mission was to help disabled Americans earn economic independence through job creation, training, and placement. It also assisted disabled entrepreneurs. Later efforts included making private-sector employers more aware of the advantages of hiring people with disabilities.

The Dole Foundation sought recognition across America for its expertise on employment of people with disabilities. The foundation closed operations in 1998 after Paul Hearne, its charismatic president, died suddenly.

Computer training for individuals with developmental disabilitiesIndividuals with developmental disabilities are trained on computer and office equipment at The Green Door, a Washington, DC, vocational rehabilitation program and recipient of Dole Foundation funds, 1991.

Voices and Allies

Senator Dole visits the campus of Ft. Hays State University, 1970s
Senator Dole at the campus of Ft. Hays State University in the 1970s.

Bob Dole was a political leader with national influence. He shared his advocacy efforts with people and organizations representing a wide range of American identities, viewpoints, and concerns.


Senator Dole learned much about living with disability from his constituents. In personal letters, many of them handwritten, these citizens advocated for themselves and for others.

While many letters came from Kansans, people throughout the nation thought it worthwhile to write to Bob Dole. Their correspondence educated, moved, and motivated him.

Legislative Aides

Some of Dole’s legislative aides, including Christina Bolton, Maureen “Mo” West, Mary Wheat, Judy Brotman, and Alec Vachon, specialized in disability policy.

They helped the senator stay connected to disability activist networks, kept him up to date on legislative developments, and offered policy suggestions.


For disability rights leaders, supporting new government policies was just one part of their work. They also needed to defend legislative victories they had achieved.

Changes in presidential administrations, shifts in congressional majorities, challenges in the courts—all these factors, and more, impact a law’s effectiveness and enforcement.

Working Toward the ADA
The basis for the ADA first appeared in 1986, when the National Council on the Handicapped (now known as the National Council on Disability) published Toward Independence. That report strongly influenced the first version of the ADA proposed in Congress in 1988.
Working Toward the ADA

Senate Leadership and Deliberation

Draft version of S.933

An early draft of S.933 from May, 1989

“My support for ADA is based upon my commitment to seeing that its provisions can work to the benefit of all and the detriment of none.”
Bob Dole, statement on the Americans with Disabilities Act (S.933)
September 6, 1989

Dole championed S.933 as a “good example of Bi-Partisanship in action.” That version of the ADA passed the Senate in September 1989, with 76 “yes” votes.

Personal Experience into National Advocacy

Journalist Joseph Shapiro, in his 1993 book No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement, called the millions of US citizens who have had personal experience with disability the “hidden army for civil rights.”

This “army” has included several current and former political leaders. Some, like Bob Dole (paralysis) and Tony Coelho (epilepsy), have disabilities. Others have family members with disabilities: one of Lowell Weicker’s sons has Down syndrome. Orrin Hatch’s brother-in-law had polio. Tom Harkin had a brother who is deaf; one of his nephews is quadriplegic. The late Edward Kennedy’s sister Rosemary had intellectual disabilities and his son, Ted Kennedy, Jr., lost a leg to cancer.

The death of his daughter Robin, from leukemia, was one of several experiences that made President George H.W. Bush interested in disability rights. Another was his late uncle John Walker’s struggle with polio.

When Sandra Jensen, a woman with Down syndrome, met with President Bush, her strength and independence impressed him. Like so many others in Washington, Bush drew on these interactions to bring a personal dimension to the ADA’s political drama.

Working Toward the ADA

Executive Support

Ultimately, the ADA’s passage also depended on Bob Dole’s effective negotiations with the executive branch and President George H. W. Bush. Though the two had a history of political rivalry, as Republican Senate Leader Dole supported President Bush, and they shared commitment to disability rights and other issues. When President Bush signed the ADA into law in 1990, he was putting his name on legislation that testified to Dole’s political skills and personal character.

Things had been more challenging for Dole during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. He had to balance disability rights advocacy with his budget-cutting duties as chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Many disability rights activists saw the cuts as threats to Section 504 and other laws benefiting people with disabilities.

As Reagan’s vice president, George H. W. Bush developed a strong interest in disability policy. C. Boyden Gray, one of Bush’s advisers, helped the vice president align conservative principles with disability rights. The Reagan-Bush-Dole approach was to use government to create opportunities for people with disabilities to contribute to the US economy as workers. This approach struck a chord with disability rights activists who carried signs with the slogan “We want to be tax payers, not tax users.”

When he became President in 1989, George H. W. Bush was ready to team up with Bob Dole on behalf of people with disabilities.

“Let’s face it. We would not be here today without the support of the President.”
-Bob Dole, from remarks “The Americans with Disabilities Act (S. 933) September 6, 1989”
“. . . it is very risky [to say] with all these members of Congress here who worked so hard. But I can say on a very personal basis, Bob Dole inspired me.”
-President George H.W. Bush, on the signing of the ADA legislation, July 26, 1990
Working Toward the ADA

Passing the ADA

President Bush signing the ADA
1990 was the year of the ADA.

There had been two years of negotiations, lobbying, hearings, and testimonies in Congress.

A wide range of individuals and organizations had demonstrated in Washington, DC. Some generated controversy, but most captured the nation’s attention and its support.

On July 12, the ADA passed the House of Representatives, followed by Senate passage on July 13.

The White House signing ceremony took place July 26, 1990, in a history-making Rose Garden ceremony attended by thousands, many of them people with disabilities.

Influencing International Dialogues on
Disabilty Rights

Bob Dole complemented his national disability rights leadership with international efforts. The senator was especially interested in helping people with disabilities in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as the Cold War entered its closing stages.

Working with the Soviet Union

In 1981, Dole and Representative Larry Winn of Kansas sought President Reagan’s support for coordinated advocacy by the United States and the Soviet Union in the International Decade of Disabled Persons.

When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had a summit meeting with Reagan in 1988, Dole sought to place disability issues on the agenda.

A Special Guest

When the US Senate passed S.933 in 1989, a special guest from the Soviet Union was in attendance.

Ilya Zaslavski, a textile research scientist with a disability, traveled from Russia to witness the proceedings. Zaslavski’s election to the Congress of People’s Deputies in Moscow had gotten Bob Dole’s attention.

During his campaign, Zaslavski spoke out for “the powerless,” a group that included people with disabilities and the elderly.

Ilya Zaslavski during his 1989 visit to the US

Ilya Zaslavski during his 1989 visit to the US

Paul Hearne, of the Dole Foundation, in the USSR, 1990

Representing the Dole Foundation, Paul Hearne went to the Soviet Union in 1990 to participate in seminars sponsored by Design USA. Hearne and members of other US disability advocacy organizations encouraged investment in wheelchairs, access equipment, and employment and job training for people with disabilities.

New Law, New Context, New Challenges

“Countless men and women with disabilities have been able to reach their stars because of the leadership of President George Bush.” -Bob Dole’s draft remarks for a US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lunch honoring President Bush, January 12, 1993
Senator Dole gives remarks at the luncheon hosted by Congressman Tony Coelho.

Senator Dole gives remarks at the luncheon hosted by Congressman Tony Coelho, April 14, 1994.

Senator George Mitchell, Dole, President Clinton, Elizabeth Dole, and Congressman Tony Coelho on the steps of the US Capitol, 1994

Senator George Mitchell, Senator Dole, President Clinton, Elizabeth Dole, and Congressman Tony Coelho on the steps of the US Capitol, April 14, 1994

A Remarkable “Retirement”

Aging and Healthcare

“ . . . We believe in the equality of all people before the law and that individuals should be judged by their ability rather than their race, creed, or disability.”
From “Restoring the American Dream”, The Republican Platform 1996.

Effects of aging, and of illnesses such as cancer and diabetes, are relevant to ADA coverage if they fall under the law’s multipart definition of disability.

Disability Research

In August 1990, the University of Kansas dedicated the Robert J. Dole Human Development Center, in honor of Dole’s disability advocacy. The Dole Center is home to research and training centers related to disability and aging.

Cancer Awareness

As a prostate cancer survivor, Bob Dole testified before Congress about prostate cancer awareness and prevention in 1997 and 1999, bringing attention to potentially life-saving screening procedures.

Men's Health

As a spokesperson for Viagra, a prescription drug he used during research and development stages, Dole made TV commercials and gave speeches on men’s health issues. These broached sexuality, disability, and aging in a humorous way and brought attention to prostate cancer and related conditions.

Prescription Drug Advocacy

In 2006, Dole embarked on a US speaking tour to inform citizens of a new Medicare prescription drug benefit policy.

Senator Dole testifies about prostate cancer

Senator Dole testifying before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, September 1997

“If I, the senate republican leader, a member of the finance committee where health care issues frequently dominate the agenda, and an individual who had a great deal of personal experience with health care, had never really heard of this disease, would not have known to ask for a PSA test or any other test for that matter, and who really had almost no symptoms, how many other men were out there who didn't know to go to their doctor and get checked. I couldn't possibly be the only person to have had prostate cancer. But, why had I never heard of anyone else discussing it?”
-Bob Dole, speaking about the Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) test, in his testimony before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, September 23, 1997
A Remarkable “Retirement”

Caring for Veterans

Dole has advocated for wounded service men and women directly and through related organizations.

Wounded Warrior Project

In 2007, President George W. Bush selected Dole and former US Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala to cochair the President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors. The commission evaluated medical care for US soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Assessing conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was a high priority for the commission.

For their work on behalf of wounded and disabled veterans, both Donna Shalala and the Wounded Warrior Project have been recipients of the Dole Institute of Politics’ Dole Leadership Prize, which bears a $25,000 award.

The Elizabeth Dole Foundation

Senator Elizabeth Dole, former US Senator from North Carolina (2003-2009), established Caring for Military Families: The Elizabeth Dole Foundation in 2012. Senator Bob Dole serves on the Foundation’s national advisory board.

The Elizabeth Dole Foundation logo
A Remarkable “Retirement”

Human Rights

In December 2012, Dole appeared on the floor of the US Senate to support ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), an international human rights treaty adopted by the United Nations.

Dole’s appearance garnered significant media coverage, as did the Senate’s failure to pass the CRPD.

At present, the CRPD’s status in relation to US ratification remains unchanged, but Dole’s efforts to garner support for the treaty continue.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights presented Dole with the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award for “selfless and devoted service in the cause of equality” in 2015.

Dole on the Senate floor, 2012

Dole appeared on the Senate floor to support US ratification of CRPD in 2012.
Photo courtesty C-SPAN

Inspiration From the Past
For Change in the Future

In 1945, Bob Dole confronted life as a person with a disability. He became his own leader during his recovery and began to identify opportunities to improve life for others.

One early effort was his draft of an eight-page letter and questionnaire, in which Dole calls attention to the “inadequate” care he and other veterans endured in US Army hospitals.

Image of draft letterPage 2

Dole wasn’t merely complaining. He wanted all disabled veterans to get what they had earned—“the best medical attention possible.” To achieve this goal, Dole sought help with gathering evidence of poor hospital conditions and going public with these facts.

Dole, who learned to write with his nondominant hand, composed this document, likely in 1949. This letter excerpt captures several of Dole’s defining traits at a pivotal time in his life. Dole communicates pride as well as humility. Referring to hospital “inmates” and bungled surgical operations, Dole reveals his sharp wit alongside his determination to improve the situation.


Photo of Dole delivering keynote address

Senator Dole delivering keynote address
President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, 1969

There is something about the plains of Kansas . . . that tells you to keep going, that even though others are there for support, you’re going to have to do it on your own.
- Bob Dole, in his forward for the book Changing the Rules, by Frank Bowe

As we commemorate the ADA’s twenty-fifth anniversary in 2015, we are inspired by Bob Dole’s decades long leadership on behalf of people with disabilities. Though the ADA has achieved much, its work remains urgent and unfinished. Through acts both large and small, we can all take — and make — opportunities to enable positive change in our society.

What Work Remains?

There are many reasons why the ADA continues to be relevant to the lives of all Americans. How do these issues relate to your life or those of family and friends? What can you do to address these problems in your community and beyond?

More than 56 million US citizens have disabilities. At least 3.6 million US military veterans have service-connected disabilities. These numbers will increase, along with the needs for disability-related health care and its costs.
Access to transportation remains a problem for many Americans with disabilities, especially those without cars and those who live in areas with little or no public transportation.
The Internet is central to our lives and work, but many people with disabilities still lack full access to the World Wide Web.
People with disabilities often struggle to find affordable, safe, and accessible housing.
Generally, attitudes toward people with disabilities have improved because of the disability rights movement and the ADA. But prejudice and stigma persist, especially for people with mental illness, developmental disability, and intellectual disability.
Unemployment and underemployment rates among people with disabilities in America are high. Compared with their nondisabled counterparts, people with disabilities make lower wages and are more likely to live in poverty. These problems persist, even though employers often give workers with disabilities high marks for reliability and job performance.