Washington, D.C., Feb. 25 – Last week, former Senator Bob Dole announced that he had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. A one-time GOP presidential candidate and long-time advocate for bipartisan solutions, Dole has been a fixture of Washington, D.C. since he was first elected to the Congress in 1960. Throughout decades of public service, he consistently championed many of the key issues impacting millions of people living with disabilities. He did so both as an ally, and someone who became a person with disabilities in combat during World War II.
A farm kid from Kansas, Dole enlisted in 1942 and soon was selected to be commissioned as an officer. In 1945, while serving with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy, Dole was wounded by German machine gun fire. He was paralyzed by wounds in his shoulder and with a fractured vertebra in his neck. The wounded Kansan would have to wait nine hours in the freezing cold before he could finally be evacuated to a field hospital. Dole survived with his right arm permanently immobilized and had a long road to recovery that eventually included years of rehabilitation. Like so many people who acquire disabilities, Dole had to relearn key skills and improvise new ways of doing tasks. Because of the impairment in his arm, Dole taught himself to write with his left hand.
From the very beginning Bob Dole embraced his disability identity, as later recounted in an interview with ABILITY Magazine: “Experiencing a disability yourself…changes your whole life, not just your attitude.”
Dole would go on to get married, complete his education, and seek new career opportunities, just like thousands of other Americans with disabilities. Bob Dole’s career path would eventually culminate in a 30 plus year career as a Senator representing the state of Kansas.
While Dole was not the first American politician with a physical disability, he had a career of public service that included the passage of many of the laws that created the fundamental framework of disability rights in America today. These legislative accomplishments include the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the implementation of which gave the disability rights the opportunity to lead the famous 504 sit-ins. Senator Dole also worked to pass the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 1975 which created a range of critical programs to meet the needs of people with intellectual and development disabilities as well as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975 which helped to create the modern system of special education for students with disabilities. Likewise, Senator Dole worked with fellow Republicans and Democrats to pass laws such as the 1986 Protection and Advocacy for the Mentally Ill Act, the 1986 Air Carriers Access Act, the 1986 Education of the Deaf Act, the 1988 Technology Assistance Act and the 1990 Television Decoder Circuitry Act.
Yet, it was in the ultimate passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act that Bob Dole would help “to end the unjustified segregation and exclusion of persons with disabilities from the mainstream of American life.”
Passing the ADA with the bipartisan support of Democrats in Congress and a Republican president was not the end of Bob Dole’s political career. Indeed, the elder statesman stepped up and ran to become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 1996. While Dole could not defeat President Bill Clinton at the polls, his campaign did make history. For the first time in American history, a presidential campaign embraced the nascent technology of the internet and launched a website to connect with voters across the country. Critically and notably, the Bob Dole-Jack Kemp 1996 website explicitly highlighted Dole’s record on disability issues as an example of working to empower millions of Americans. You can even still visit the website and see the Dole platform on disability issues here.
It is also worth noting that the Clinton-Gore website also included a direct statement about their commitments to the disability community and why voters with disabilities ought to support them. You can find that campaign website here.
After his electoral defeat in 1996, Bob Dole would retire from the United States Senate, but not from public life. In the years that followed, he would dedicate himself to leading the Bob and Elizabeth Dole Foundation. While their foundation initially focused on disability employment issues, it would eventually reinvent itself in the post-9/11 era with a new focus on military caregivers.
However, the former Kansas Senator would soon step again onto the floor of the Senate. This time, Dole did so to try and raise support for the United States to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). In op-eds, public statements, and in meetings on the Hill, former Senator Dole called on our nation’s leaders to put aside partisan bickering and ensure that disability rights remained a bipartisan issue. Ultimately, despite years of advocacy, the CRPD remains unratified.
Over the course of his life and career, Dole was dedicated to the idea that our nation is at its best when all people, including people with disabilities, have the opportunity to get skills, jobs and succeed. From championing special education to advancing voting rights for more citizens, former Senator Bob Dole worked to make the nation live up to it’s grand promise. While he was a Republican his entire life, Dole worked with Democrats to find common solutions and built friendships with his political opponents. It may seem quaint in the 21st century, but the importance of working across the aisle was reflected in the fact that President Biden personally visited the ailing senator shortly after the cancer announcement.
“Senator Dole was a real American hero, both for his service to the nation & in his political career as a forceful advocate for people with disabilities,” said The Honorable Steve Bartlett, former Congressman and current chairman of RespectAbility. “Senator Dole’s work included not only the ADA but also multiple other legislative initiatives to advance the cause of disability inclusion. More than any other member of Congress, Bob Dole worked to make health care, education, employment, and transportation better for millions of Americans with disabilities. People with disabilities lives have been enhanced by the life and vision of Bob Dole.”
Advancing opportunities for Americans with disabilities to earn an income, contribute to society & achieve independence, just like anyone else, depends on lawmakers finding common ground. With the massive challenges facing the nation today, more elected officials need to look to the life and efforts of people like former Senator Bob Dole.
RespectAbility is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that fights stigmas and advances opportunities so people with disabilities can fully participate in all aspects of their communities. RespectAbility does not rate or endorse candidates.