Dave Durenberger, 85, fondly recalls his years in Congress as a time when, much in contrast to the current political environment, Republicans and Democrats worked together to pass landmark civil rights legislation. There’s no better example than the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which prohibits discrimination based on disability, requires employers to ensure reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities, and mandates accessibility in public places. As lead Republican sponsor in the U.S. Senate, Durenberger, a Minnesota senator from 1978 to 1995, helped shape a measure that will mark its 30th anniversary on July 26. He reflects on that momentous occasion below.
Q: How did the Americans with Disabilities Act come about?
A: We were doing a lot of work on unnecessary discrimination. I had worked over a period of years with some women in the House on getting rid of all the discrimination against women that was contained in federal statute. All the “he’s” and “hims.” It ended up being one of my first big bills.

Q: How did you move from that type of discrimination to issues facing those with disabilities?
A: One of our jobs [as lawmakers] was to level the playing field, create opportunities for everybody, despite any disabilities or whatever their case might be. So the first one I took on was voting rights for the handicapped, which was the term that was used in 1985 when we passed that one. So, what that meant was that every town and city and village that ran polling places had to make sure people with wheelchairs could get in. That got the attention of the disability community, and it’s what led [Sen. Ted] Kennedy to ask me and [Sen. Tom] Harkin to be the authors of the ADA.

Q: This was at a time when members from both political parties collaborated on major legislation, is that right?
A: During most of the [former President Ronald] Reagan years, who was the president I served with the longest, and even into the Bush and Clinton years, Democrats and Republicans were sharing power in Washington, and so we had the opportunity to take on issues that both Democrats and progressive Republicans wanted to take on. And so that’s why you saw action to end discrimination, you had tax policy that worked at balancing the federal budget, you saw major environmental legislation. It’s hard to understand in today’s political context, but in those days people in the Senate worked to get things done, not just to stay in office.

Q: How did you build support from both political parties for the ADA?
A: The idea was we were taking down barriers so that the natural abilities and instincts of ordinary Americans could be pursued in the name of opportunity. Yes, there were distinctions between Republicans and Democrats, and those distinctions were important, but when it came to issues like that, there’s not that much distinction.

Q: What did the work on the ADA mean to you personally?
A: Like a lot of Minnesotans who grew up here in the ’50s and ’60s, I was familiar with the fact that we institutionalized the handicapped as, again, they were called at the time. There’s a whole history of that, that my wife wrote a book about (“The Crusade for Forgotten Souls” by Susan Bartlett Foote). When I worked in [former Gov. Harold] LeVander’soffice, one of the trips I’ll never forget was up to Cambridge, to the State Hospital. I saw a whole bunch of young men, most of them naked, some of them hopping around like animals. Just warehoused there. And I never forgot it, and I can forward that to a lot of my life’s work.

Q: And I understand that work that had already been done in Minnesota on crafting legal protections for people with disabilities informed what you did with the ADA?
A: Colleen Wieck [the longtime executive director of the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities] and people like her from Minnesota got me interested and engaged again in challenges to people with physical and mental disabilities. And because of my work with LeVander, it wasn’t new to me, but it was new in the context of, what do you do in terms of national legislation?

Q: Was there resistance to the ADA as you moved it through Congress?
A: I suppose most of the resistance came from people who were going to have to change. Businesses and so forth. But I’ll tell you a story. You know Murray’s Steakhouse in downtown Minneapolis? I remember talking to [then-owner] Pat Murray right in the middle of our ADA discussion in Washington. And I asked him how he might be affected. And he said, “Oh, I think it’s a great idea.” And he told me about a guy that was coming in once a week for something like 13 years, and he was in a wheelchair that had a battery pack, and he had trouble finding a place to plug it in. So Pat said, “I had an electrician come in and install a new outlet for this guy. And now he comes in twice as often!” That’s how you deal with the realities of turning a disability into an ability.

Q: Tell me about the day President Bush signed the ADA into law.
A: It all led to the lawn of the White House on July 26, 30 years ago. My favorite conclusion to that was when the president walked onto the stage, and the band was playing “Hail to the Chief,” and you all of a sudden heard these voices [of people in wheelchairs] coming from the lawn: “Down in front!”