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At White House Celebration of Disability Law, Obama Leaves Treaty Aside

Dole has made repeated appearances to advocate for the disability treaty. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Dole has made repeated appearances to advocate for the disability treaty. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

When President Barack Obama hailed the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, he didn’t make mention of a treaty on disabilities that’s been stymied in the Senate.  

Both former Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., were in attendance at the White House event Monday. Both longtime senators played key roles in the enactment of the landmark ADA a quarter century ago, and both advocated for Senate concurrence in the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  

When that debate played out on the Senate floor, Dole was there to push Republicans to support the measure, despite advanced age and health challenges. The fact that the former party leader and 1996 Republican presidential nominee could not persuade GOP senators led former Roll Call reporter Meredith Shiner to declare in a December 2012 Roll Call article : “It isn’t Bob Dole’s Senate anymore.”  

Dole has appeared on Capitol Hill several times in recent years to advocate for the treaty, despite long odds.  

By happenstance, Shiner was the fill-in White House pool reporter representing Yahoo! News at the East Room ceremony Monday. She reported seeing Harkin receive a substantial round of applause. In a CQ Roll Call exit interview before he retired at the end of the last Congress, Harkin was emotional in describing the importance of the legislation for which he is likely to remembered.  

“The way I describe the ADA generation is that kids that were born after that — or in your time coming of age — that their expectations changed. In the old days, if you had a disability and you were a child … you just were told not to expect a heck of a lot. Barriers were there: educational barriers, work barriers, transportation barriers, attitudinal barriers, some of which still exist,” Harkin told this reporter, knowing I was a beneficiary of both the ADA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. “But, you just had lower expectations.”  

Obama praised former President George Bush for the original effort 25 years ago, and he said that more work must be done in terms of accessibility and access.  

“The ADA offered millions of people the opportunity to earn a living and help support their families. But we all know too many people with disabilities are still unemployed — even though they can work, even though they want to work, even though they have so much to contribute. In some cases, it’s a lack of access to skills training. In some cases, it’s an employer that can’t see all that these candidates for a job have to offer,” Obama said. “Maybe sometimes people doubt their own self-worth after experiencing a lifetime of discouragement and expectations that were too low. Whatever the reason, we’ve got to do better — our country cannot let all that incredible talent go to waste.  

Obama also highlighted recent efforts, including an executive order, to get more persons with disabilities into the federal workforce.  

“Some of these folks are some of my closest colleagues and have been incredible leaders on behalf of the administration on a whole host of issues, and I’m grateful for their contributions every single day,” Obama said.


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