Remembering Orrin Hatch and the Americans with Disabilities Act

My 2015 article on being an autistic journalist covering Washington included an anecdote about an interaction I had with Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and my deep embarrassment at my breach of Senate decorum. My stomach dropped when I got an email saying that Hatch, then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the ranking Republican senator, wanted to talk to me.

Hatch telling me that his sponsorship of the Americans with Disabilities Act was his proudest moment in the Senate was a reminder that most politicians want to make the right policies.

My fears were unfounded. The fact that Hatch tells me that his sponsorship of the Americans with Disabilities Act was his proudest moment in the Senate was a reminder that most politicians want to make the right policies, even if they don’t succeed.

When Hatch died on Saturday at the age of 88, I couldn’t help but feel sad. But I also lamented the reality that he so often chose the more partisan route, even when it meant tarnishing the ADA, the crown jewel of his legacy.

It may come as a surprise to some, but before the ADA was signed in 1990, there was a tradition of conservative Republicans supporting the rights of people with disabilities. Their positions made sense insofar as promoting disability rights was seen as helping people with disabilities integrate fully into their communities and hopefully find gainful employment and independence.

Disability rights activist Evan Kemp was conservative enough that President George HW Bush appointed him chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when Clarence Thomas was appointed to the Washington District Court of Appeals. Columbia of the US Kemp was also a friend of Thomas and his wife, Ginni Thomas.

Bush-appointed Attorney General Dick Thornburgh had been a Republican governor of Pennsylvania. Thornburgh’s son, Peter, suffered a brain injury after a car accident, and the older Thornburgh helped sell the ADA to Congress as a means to empower and liberate people. Justin Dart, the cowboy-hatted disability rights activist who sat next to Bush when the president signed the ADA into law, said he resigned from the Democratic Party because “gradually I came to appreciate the importance of independence and liberation from the overly paternalistic central government. ” (Dart would later become disillusioned with the Republican Party and endorsed Bill Clinton in 1996.)

Hatch, a Latter-day Saint, became concerned about disability because his brother-in-law had polio and slept in an iron lung. “I personally carried him in my arms all the way through the Temple of my faith in Los Angeles,” Hatch said at the time.

His co-authorship of the ADA did not make Hatch a liberal by any means. He had a history of making damaging comments about gay people, including saying he would oppose gay teachers just as he would Nazi teachers and characterizing the Democrats as “the party of gays.”

His co-authorship of the ADA did not make Hatch a liberal by any means.

However, when Jesse Helms, the Republican senator from North Carolina, tried to include an amendment to the ADA to allow restaurants to prevent workers with AIDS from handling food, Hatch neutralized it with a requirement that the secretary of health and human services will create a list of diseases that can be spread through food handling.

“I think if we relied more on science and a little less on fear and misperception, we would be better off as a society, as a nation, and there would be less bias,” Hatch said.

Unfortunately, Hatch was also more than willing to go along with the GOP’s willingness to erode the rights of people with disabilities, which began in earnest after the passage of the ADA. In 2012, three years before our call, Hatch joined other Republicans who had voted for the ADA to oppose the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a UN treaty that would have advanced the rights of people with disabilities. disability. Hatch did not relent even after a friend, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, himself disabled, personally lobbied Republicans on the Senate floor.

During one of the Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, disability rights activists shouted “Don’t cut Medicaid! Save our freedom!” and Hatch replied, “If you want an audience, you better shut up.” In 2020, after retiring from the Senate, he wrote an op-ed criticizing the “transit lawsuits” that resulted from the ADA and called for weakening the very law he helped write by giving businesses a grace period. to correct the inaccessibility. It doesn’t matter that the law is as old as I am and that companies have had just as long to comply with it.

I should have known he would take these positions, but I suppose I expected more having experienced his personal decency myself. He had experienced it as a gentleman with a first-rate mind who responded artfully in the halls of the Capitol.

But being personally nice doesn’t mean one doesn’t also make blatant mistakes. By ignoring his friend Dole’s advice, yelling at protesters, supporting weakening the ADA, and writing an op-ed calling for its dismantling, Hatch made such mistakes.

What breaks my heart. Because whatever commitment he had to making good policy gave way to his commitment to a Republican Party that has become less and less committed to the ADA.

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