Presidents’ Day: who did the most for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilites?

TaylorTylerWashingtonIt’s Presidents’ Day: which President did the most for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities?

The Presidential Historic Sites we have visited

The above picture includes a visit we made to Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania, a site where George Washington suffered an embarrassing rout during the French and Indian War while commanding a unit of British soldiers. Also included are visits to Vincennes, Indiana, where we visited the home of Indiana Territorial Governor, William Henry Harrison, who would become the 9th President. The picture of the kids with headstones is from Zachary Taylor National Cemetery, the 12th President.

Below is a picture tracing the youth of Abraham Lincoln through (moving clockwise) his birthplace in Kentucky, to the farm his family moved to when he was two, to his home in Indiana, where he lived from ages 7 to 21, and then the point where he crossed over into Illinois. Lincoln is the reason today is “Presidents’ Day,” as it previously had been commemorated as George Washington’s Birthday.

Lincoln Collage

Following chronologically, the next picture collage includes the kids before a statue of Lincoln’s Vice President, Andrew Johnson, who became the 17th President, and at the battlefields of Fort Donelson and Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, where Ulysses S. Grant fought during the Civil War, before becoming our 18th President.

Grant Collage

Finally, is a collage of the presidential-related sites in Ohio we’ve visited: the home of James A. Garfield before he became the 20th President; the burial site of President (25th) McKinley; and, President (27th) Taft’s birthplace. (Somewhat morbidly, only in putting these collages together did I realize I’ve taken my children to the sites for three of the four presidents who’ve been assassinated).

OH Pres

Not pictured are visits my kids made at a very young age to the presidential libraries of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry Truman.

So, we’ve visited a lot of historic sites of many of our country’s presidents. And, I can’t recall at any of them mention being made of anything they did for those with intellectual or developmental disabilities (“I/DD”).

Which President’s policies most benefited individuals with I/DD?

This silence is no slight to these men or their accomplishments. Instead, it reflects that for most of the United States’ history, and indeed for most of human history, those with I/DD were not the focus of policy, aside from institutionalization, and, at the worst extremes, sterilization and extermination.

The public policies that I’m aware of that have benefited individuals with I/DD did not come about really until the latter half of the 20th Century.

President Kennedy signed into law funding for centers like the one that employs me at the University of Kentucky, which are part of the Association of University Centers on Disabilities. The Kennedy family, too, is associated with what may be the most effective inclusion advocacy measure the world over, Special Olympics. But that was spearheaded through President Kennedy’s sister, Eunice and not a public policy measure.

President Lyndon Johnson’s institution of Medicaid arguably could be cited as the program that has most benefited individuals with I/DD. It has provided access to medical care and funding for caregivers, therapists, and residential options. The program, though, is managed on a state-by-state basis, resulting in disparity in the quality and breadth of programming and healthcare options available to individuals with I/DD.

I doubt many would think to include President Nixon in a “best of” list, but it was during his administration that the Rehabilitation Act was passed, prohibiting discrimination of individuals with disabilities by programs that received public funds and required the hiring of individuals with disabilities by federal agencies and contractors.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was originally passed during the Ford Administration (then as the “Education for All Handicapped Children Act.”). This law is the one relied upon by parents and school administrators for guiding how and to what level children with disabilities are included in their educational environments. Having grown up through the evolution of this law, attending schools where children with disabilities were segregated and now having a daughter that is included in the classroom with her peers with less obvious special needs, I can attest to the systematic change of IDEA.

Reagan DS Awareness MonthI’m sure that President Carter had his own initiatives, or acts which were passed during his tenure, that benefited individuals with I/DD. Likewise for President Reagan, including the one depicted in the photo at right of declaring October National Down Syndrome Awareness Month.

President George H.W. Bush’s administration saw the passage of the American with Disabilities Act. While not supplanting the Rehabilitation Act, the “ADA” has been another system-changing public policy, prohibiting discrimination against those with disabilities and mandating accommodation for those with disabilities to be included in the workforce.

Under President Clinton’s administration, the IDEA was reauthorized. President Bush (43) signed into law as one of his final acts the Prenatally and Postnatally Diagnosed Conditions Awareness Act. And, President Obama enacted “Rosa’s Law” which removed the language of “mental retardation” and replaced it with I/DD in federal statutes, regulations, and other writings.

Just as with Presidents Carter and Reagan, I’m equally sure other public policy measures were either reauthorized or passed within the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations that are all worthy of note. Further, there are other measures President’s can take that have an impact on those with I/DD, such as enforcing the Olmstead decision which has resulted in de-institutionalization of many individuals with I/DD.

This listing is simply those measures that I am aware of. Still, if you happen to be a new or expectant parent, you may take heart in seeing the litany of public policy measures designed to eliminate discrimination, foster inclusion, and provide for health care, employment, and residential options for individuals with I/DD.

Which is where you come in.

I’m sure that many of you know of measures that have benefited those with I/DD and which President they were enacted under. Probably even more so, you have an opinion about which of the Presidents has benefited those with I/DD the most.

So, I invite you to comment. If I have overlooked or mischaracterized an act, please clarify or bring it to our attention by leaving a note below. Equally, explain from a positive perspective (i.e. not by attacking another President in contrast) which President you believe has done the most to benefit those with I/DD.

I hope for a lively, respectful, and educational discussion!


  1. Ricki Sabia says:

    George W. Bush enacted the No Child Left Behind Act, which for the first time required the collection and reporting of data regarding the achievement of students with disabilities and held schools accountable if these students were not meeting academic content standards used for all students. Suddenly principals knew how their students with disabilities were doing academically and were expected to do something about underperformance.

  2. Susan Adelman says:

    Thanks so much! Great information!

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