C. Boyden Gray: statesman and champion of the underdog
History is a funny thing.
We tend to choose what we want to remember and how we want to remember it, leaving out things and people that are inconvenient to our narrative. Such is the story of C. Boyden Gray — whom we lost recently at the age of 80 — and his pivotal role in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990.
Today's activists tend to forget it was not a liberal White House that made the ADA a reality, and they often refuse to acknowledge that the independent living principles of the disability movement are championed by conservative ideology.
President George H.W. Bush made the promise to pass a civil rights legislation for disabled people as soon as he could when entering the White House, building on his work as vice president to modernize section 504 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). He had two "secret weapons" in the mission to better the lives of disabled Americans: Evan Kemp and C. Boyden Gray.
Kemp was appointed to head the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC). Gray was the chief counsel to President Bush, continuing from his vice presidential staff. Evan died in 1997 at the age of 60 to complications from Muscular Dystrophy. On May 21, we lost 80-year-old Gray to heart failure.
Gray, whom Senator Ted Cruz eulogized as a champion of "rein[ing] in the regulatory state," urged the passage of the ADA because he understood that it would mean more independence for people with disabilities — in all areas of their lives — by giving them easier access to public bathrooms, elevators in new and retrofitted buildings, sign language interpreters at live arts performances, and equal footing in educational settings without limitation.
As Gray noted on the 30th anniversary of the ADA, Bush and his team sought "to liberate, in effect, to empower ... this largest civil rights group in America, to empower them to live out their lives without barriers where possible."
Epitomizing Bush's agenda of compassionate conservatism, much understanding was gained through meeting with disabled individuals, their families, and his late-night bridge games with Kemp and the resulting friendship. We could move past the divisiveness that has been created in American society today if we learned to follow the example set forth by the ambassador and former head of the EEOC. We must strive to see people for their abilities and talents, not any other criteria.
Gray is also somewhat responsible for Cruz's political rise. Able Americans, the National Center for Public Policy Research's new program to provide conservative solutions to problems faced by those with disabilities, has worked with Senator Cruz's office to streamline disability policy in education and move it forward into the 21st century. We would welcome the opportunity to work with any partners in streamlining government, including the ADA, to better serve the American people.
Gray was a friend to the National Center for Public Policy Research and supporter of the Able Americans mission. He was also my friend. Larger than life at six and a half feet tall, he commanded a room but always made time to speak with me if he found me there. I knew his history with the ADA, but it was his personal comportment that caught my attention. He was a gentleman and a patriot.
He knew how to look at people as individuals, build bridges, and bring together people of differing political ideas for the end goal of doing the right thing for the American people.
Rest in peace, sir. You will be missed. Thank you for everything.
Image: National Archives.