Of banners and buses

Waiting for a Chicago Transit Authority bus on State Street in downtown Chicago last weekend, I noticed a banner on the street pole commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). So when the bus arrived, I was doubly aware of the welcoming sign on its side: This is a Kneeling Bus.

One of those present when President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA on July 26, 1990 was the Rev. Harold Wilke, a minister in the United Church of Christ (UCC). Born without arms, Rev. Wilke was a social activist who participated in the civil rights movement of the sixties and transferred those lessons to the campaign for disability rights in the years following. At the time of his death in 2003, the Los Angeles Times reported a telling anecdote about the bill signing.

He delivered the invocation, believed to be the first for a bill signing, in which he spoke of  “the breaking of the chains which have held back millions of Americans with disabilities.”

Later, as President George H.W. Bush handed out the ceremonial pens, Wilke deftly removed a loafer and stuck out his foot to receive one, which he slipped into his shoe. Later, while seated next to First Lady Barbara Bush, he deposited it in his pocket with his toes. He was greeted with a roar of approval from the assembled guests.


Rev. Wilke was never daunted by his disability. As a young man, he made an enormous impression on my mother-in-law, who attended a camp where he was the chaplain. He used his feet to eat and write. He could drive a car and paint a house. He served as civilian chief of Protestant chaplain services in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, worked as a pastor and as a college and hospital chaplain, wrote four books on coping with disabilities in daily life, and eventually became head of chaplain services for the UCC.

Often when we think of the benefits gained thanks to the ADA, we think of the one-in-ten persons who have an identified disability—those in wheelchairs, those who are visually impaired or deaf, those who are missing a limb or intellectually handicapped or living with a learning disability. Maybe we even commend our society for its generosity to “those people.” But consider the life of Harold Wilke. If the chains of discrimination had prevailed in his life, thousands of soldiers would not have been touched by his ministrations. Thousands more people would not have received his counseling in hospitals and on college campuses. Thousands of others would not have been uplifted by his wisdom, his caring, and his inspiring example. This visionary legislation was a gift to all of us, whether we have an identified disability or not (yet).

So like the buses, on this 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we kneel in appreciation to those whose pursuit of access for all enriches our world. Thank you, Rev. Harold Wilke!

Photo credit: George Bush Presidential Library and Museum

26 July 1990 – President Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act on the South Lawn of the White House. Sharing the dais with the President as he signs the Act are (standing left to right): Rev. Harold Wilke of Clairmont, California; Sandra Parrino, National Council on Disability; (seated left to right): Evan Kemp, Chairman, Equal Opportunity Commission; and Justin Dart, Presidential Commission on Employment of People with Disabilities. 

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