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Former Sen. Bob Dole, who fought for disability rights, has died

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Former Senator Bob Dole, who died yesterday, was a decorated combat veteran and a masterful bipartisan dealmaker. But to people with disabilities, especially those who remember the days before wheelchair ramps and aids for the visually impaired, Dole was a bona fide hero. Frank Morris of member station KCUR explains.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Bob Dole lived 98 years, but he was very nearly killed at 21. A German machine gunner shot him fighting in Italy in World War II. Bullets tore through his shoulder and shattered his right arm. He never recovered the use of that arm, and his left arm wasn't fully functional, either. The injuries not only derailed his dream of being a doctor, it gave him a taste of what it meant to be looked down on. Dole Institute director Audrey Coleman says that after the war, Dole confronted a stark new difference in the way people treated him - first, when he was in uniform.

AUDREY COLEMAN: They recognized him to be a war hero. But if he were wearing civilian clothes, folks wouldn't treat him with the same - you know, not look him in the eye, not give him the same kind of respect. And clearly, their perception was that he, as an individual, did not have that same kind of value.

MORRIS: That made a mark. Coleman says that in 1969, Dole used his first speech on the floor of the Senate to talk about expanding opportunities for people with disabilities. Bob Dole was a staunch Republican but also a master dealmaker. And he got behind a massive effort pushed by Democrats called the Americans with Disabilities Act. Dole was crucial, Coleman says, because he knew how to frame the issue as a pragmatic win for the economy.

COLEMAN: This was not an entitlement program. It was not a welfare program. This was enabling people with disabilities to be participants in the workplace.

MORRIS: That eventually helped win Republican support. And when President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA in 1990, he singled out Bob Dole.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE H W BUSH: Very risky with all these members of Congress here who worked so hard, but I can say on a very personal basis, Bob Dole has inspired me.

MORRIS: And you can see the fruits of Bob Dole's effort all across the country.

MIKE OXFORD: So we see the grade of this curb cut being very shallow, and we see the rumble strips for people that are blind or visually impaired.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE BEEPING)

MORRIS: Disability rights advocate Mike Oxford is navigating downtown Topeka, Kan., in a motorized wheelchair, something that would have been almost impossible when he was young.

OXFORD: That comes right from the ADA. Thank you, Bob Dole, for helping get people out of institutions - thousands, tens of thousands.

MORRIS: Because before the ADA, Oxford says some people with disabilities found themselves almost completely shut out of society. Many couldn't ride public transit. Public buildings, even sidewalks tossed up serious obstacles that kept them from work and from friends.

OXFORD: But it's meant the world to so many people. Everyone knows Bob Dole in the disability community, and he is in the pantheon of our heroes.

MORRIS: But the ADA was passed more than 30 years ago, and Mike Oxford says that many people now living better because of Bob Dole's perseverance may not give him enough credit.

OXFORD: He can never know how many people he has really helped gain basic liberty and the right to be out and around and have a chance to live the life that you want. He can never know how far that's going to go worldwide, but I'm sure he'll be watching that from heaven.

MORRIS: So far, 163 countries have signed on to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a body of provisions based on what Bob Dole often called his proudest legislative accomplishment, the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.