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Remembering the Bush family and passage of the Americans with Disability Act

Zach Vance • Updated Dec 5, 2018 at 11:33 PM

Former President George H.W. Bush will be remembered for many things, but arguably his most enduring endeavor domestically was signing the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 into law.

On June 26, 1990, Bush capped a multi-year effort by signing the landmark bill, which protects physically and mentally disabled Americans from discrimination.

Bush’s death on Nov. 30 prompted Johnson City resident June Simmons to reminisce about her time working at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C., where she worked alongside Bush’s daughter, Dorothy, in the hospital’s communications and development office.

“She was very, very quiet and shy,” Simmons said of the 41st president’s youngest child. “She was very pleasant, but I really didn’t have a lot of action around her because she was always with the hospital administrators. We had Secret Service outside our door at all times.”

Simmons specifically remembers asking Bush to see if her mother, first lady Barbara Bush, would mind autographing six copies of a book she recently wrote, titled “Millie’s Book.” To this day, Simmons still has one signed copy of the book, covered in plastic wrap, on her shelf.

While Simmons occasionally saw the president when she was invited to official functions at the White House, she vividly remembers Barbara frequenting the Rehabilitative Hospital.

“Once (Dorothy) started working there, most of the time it was Barbara Bush who came to the office. She would come and visit with the patients,” Simmons said.

“Most of our patients were in wheelchairs because it was a rehab facility. (Barbara) would go to the gym and get down on the floor with the patients and talk with them. She was down on their level and would always do that. The patients just loved her, and she would talk for a long time with them. She was such a sweet person, and she was friendly to all of us at the hospital when she would come in.”

Simmons started working in the Rehabilitative Hospital in 1988, first as a manager in the Office of Associate Medical Director and then as a special audiences coordinator.

Perhaps Simmons’ most influential responsibility was to serve as the primary liaison between the rehab hospital and The Kennedy Center’s International Organization on Arts and Disability, then known as Very Special Arts.

Founded by Jean Kennedy Smith, who Simmons proofread scripts for, Very Special Arts’ goal was to provide people with disabilities the opportunity to learn, participate and enjoy the arts.

To promote that mission, Simmons was asked to coordinate the closing gala of The First International Very Special Arts Festival at the Kennedy Center in June 1989, one year before Bush signed the ADA legislation into law.

That event, centered around advocating for the disabled, was broadcast a few months later on NBC and featured performances from Kenny Rogers, Jim Henson and Melissa Manchester.

When broadcast, the television special was titled “From the Heart” and opened the eyes of the nation to the potential of those deemed “disabled.” Americans saw a ballet choreographed for blind dancers, a young girl performing a dance segment in a motorized wheelchair and an armless man playing guitar using his feet and toes.

It was on the same day the ADA bill was signed that Simmons said she really began to understand why such a bill was needed.

“One of my friends at the hospital was in a wheelchair, and we had to go to Capitol Hill for something. I think it probably was the day the bill was signed ... I never had to push anyone in a wheelchair before. I had to push him up the hill — I was young then — and get him into the Capitol building,” Simmons said.

“I felt totally frustrated over that because he was hard to push. He didn’t have an electric wheelchair, and he was a quadriplegic, so he couldn’t do anything to help. I guess that is what made my really want that bill passed, and made me proud I had helped to get it done.”

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