Tony Coelho: Co-Author of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and this year marks the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in 1990.  Since then, many physical barriers that once prevented people with disabilities from having the same access to public buildings and establishments as everyone else, have been removed.  But, there is still a lot more work to be done, and no one knows this better than my friend and mentor, former Congressman Tony Coelho, co-author of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Frankly, I could not think of anyone more appropriate to be featured as our cover subject for the inaugural edition of this magazine.

Tony was born on June 15, 1942 at home in Los Banos, California, to a poor, Portuguese family.  He and his brother would wake up at 4:30 each morning to help milk the nearly 300 cows on the dairy farm, rush home to clean up then run to school.  The teachers knew they would be late every day, arriving by 8:30 AM, so the teachers kindly arranged their first class to be study hall or library.  Both boys would attend classes all day and get home by 4:30, just in time to start the evening milking of the cows.  When they finished at 8:30 PM, they would eat a quick meal and Tony’s brother would head off to bed while he stayed up to study.  He loved to learn and wanted to go to college someday.

During his junior year in high school, he was riding in a pickup truck with a friend on a gravel road that ran beside a canal.  His friend lost control of the truck and crashed into the canal.  As the truck turned over in the crash, Tony hit his head.  He was ok and felt fine at the time.  But, about a year later, he was in the family barn, bending over the feed-bin to get food for the cows, when without warning, he passed out, waking up later to see his parents speaking with the doctor. The doctor told his parents he passed out because he had epilepsy and that he had suffered a grand mal seizure, but they did not share the diagnosis with him.  Instead, his parents, who were very strict Portuguese Catholics, believed he was possessed by the devil and took him to many other doctors who also diagnosed him with epilepsy, but they still refused to believe. They finally took him to three witch doctors to essentially “exorcise the devil” from their son.  Coelho remembers it being one of the strangest experiences ever as a young man but, his “passing out spells”, as he referred to them, kept happening.

Around this time, Coelho heard of Loyola University and having a keen interest in the Jesuit community, applied and was accepted although his “passing out spells” continued. In 1963, at the end of his junior year, he became Student Body President.  He remembers this quite clearly as it is the same year President John F. Kennedy was shot.  The Head Jesuit priest at Loyola relayed the sad news and asked him to ring the large school bell to gather the students to the square on campus to pray for the recovery of the President.  When JFK died, it had a deep impact on Coelho who was studying to be a trial lawyer at that time.

His interest in law waned in the second half of his senior year when he decided to become a Jesuit priest.  Part of his process for entry into the priesthood required him to take a physical. On completion he was told his results consisted of “good news and some bad news.”  The good news was that he had epilepsy, was classified as a “4F” and therefore not eligible for active duty in the service – it was after all, 1964 and the Vietnam War was taking place.  Medicine will help with his seizures, he was told and this was, understandably a relief. It was the very first time he was actually told he had epilepsy!  The bad news, however, was he could not become a priest because a clause in the Catholic Church’s Canon Law dating back to 400 A.D. prohibited men with epilepsy or being possessed by the devil from being priests.

With his dream of becoming a priest shattered, after Coelho graduated from Loyola he applied for many jobs and recalls that one of the questions on every application asked if the applicant had epilepsy. He, being a strict Catholic and always honest, would check the box and didn’t think anything of it. After not hearing back from many potential employers, it dawned on him that he checked the box thereby disclosing he had epilepsy! He was now not able to challenge their decision to not hire him because of his disability.  This was years before the Americans with Disabilities Act came to be.

Coelho felt conflicted, divided and rejected – divided from his family who could not accept the thought of their son having epilepsy and its implications, divided from his church because he could not become a priest due to his epilepsy, and rejected from getting a job because he had epilepsy.  He started drinking heavily and fell into a deep depression.  Life lost its meaning, and one day, while observing children at a carnival happily riding on a merry go round, standing there in his depressed, drunken state, at that moment, decided he was going to take his life. As his forlorn gaze hypnotically followed the children’s movements on the merry go round, he remembered hearing a voice in his head quite clearly saying to him “Like those children on the merry go round, you can be anything you want to be.  You can do anything you want to do.” This heralded the turning point in his life.

Coelho walked away and never felt depressed again.  He decided to live, and promised himself to do something meaningful with his life.  And, he did.

Thereafter, a friend, a Jesuit priest, introduced Coelho to Bob Hope and his family.  Yes, THE Bob Hope.  Coelho remembers going to the Hope mansion and meeting with them.  He was invited to live with them and was initially given a room over their two-car garage while his room in the home was being set up. Coelho remembers walking up the stairs to his temporary room which was “the most beautiful room I (he) had ever seen, with fresh flowers and a bowl of fruit” waiting for him!

He spent a lot of time with Bob Hope, playing golf – which he did not succeed at, and enjoying time including dinner, with the family.  One day, Bob told Coelho “a ministry wasn’t only in the church, but in business, entertainment, and government.”  He specifically suggested that Coelho get involved in politics.  So, on that advice, Coelho wrote a letter to then Congressman Bernie Sisk of California requesting a job. He was granted an interview which he was told would be for only 20 minutes – it lasted 45 minutes!  He was hired a short while after on April 1, 1965 as an Agricultural staffer in Washington, D.C.  During his time working for Congressman Sisk, a close friendship developed. Sisk became like a father to him, close to Coelho, his wife and family.  When he would have seizures, Sisk was always sympathetic and made sure Coelho was ok.  Eventually he became Sisk’s Chief of Staff.

Coelho and Bob Hope lost touch for many years and it wasn’t until 15 years later that Coelho, now a Congressman for the state of California, ran into Hope during an event in Modesto, California.  A staffer approached Coelho and said, “Bob knows you’re here and he’d like to see you.”  He met with Hope and remembers Bob saying to him, “Why haven’t you called?”  Coelho reminded him that he promised not to use their friendship to his personal advantage.

Congressman Tony Coelho increased his advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities. In 1986, he met with the Chair and Vice of President Ronald Reagan’s Council on Disability and pursued the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) draft.  In 1987, as House Majority Whip, he was gaining more support for his ADA legislation from Members who did not like the way people with disabilities were being treated.  The rights of people with disabilities were increasingly gaining bi-partisan support.

During his tenure as the Majority Whip, he travelled with his delegation to three places that left an indelible impression.  The first leg of his trip took him to Portugal – his homeland – where he represented the U.S. as the highest-ranking Portuguese member.  The second leg of his trip was to Morocco for Middle East negotiations between Portugal, Israel, and the Arab States.  The third leg of his trip was to the Vatican to meet with Pope John Paul II (now Saint John Paul).  He recalls standing at the podium giving his speech which was pre-approved by both the Vatican and the State Department. At the conclusion of his speech, Coelho took the liberty of saying a few words of his own, directly addressing the Pope: “Your Holiness, as young man I wanted to be a Catholic priest but was denied because of a Canon law established in 400 A.D. which would not allow me to be accepted because I have epilepsy.  I think this is un-Christian of our Church and I wish you will look into it?”  Pope John Paul II thereafter delivered his own pre-approved speech with no mention being made of Coelho’s ad lib request. When all the speeches were done, Coelho and his delegation took photos with the Pope.  Upon leaving the meeting, the Pope blessed Coelho’s wife but did not offer him any blessing. Instead, the Pope casually mentioned, “Young man, I heard what you said”, then walked away. Coelho was devastated.  Two years later, however, Canon Law was changed to accept men with epilepsy into the priesthood.  Coelho does not take credit for the change, but feels his request to the Pope may have made the difference.

Perhaps the most significant piece of legislation credited to Coelho is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which he co-authored. The Act, signed into law by President George H. W. Bush on July 26th, 1990, prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities, and required employers to provide them reasonable accommodations. The Act also imposed accessibility requirements on public buildings.

Coelho’s passionate pursuit of rights for the disabled continued throughout Bill Clinton’s Presidency. He was offered the Chief of Staff position, but Coelho could not forget his poor childhood.  Being Chief of Staff had always been his dream, but he turned down this opportunity because his position on Wall Street meant he could provide financially for his children and grandchildren. Clinton kept him busy, however, appointing him to several jobs – pro bono! He appointed Coelho the Chair of the President’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities, which he led from 1994 to 2001. He also appointed him to the Co-Chair of the President’s Committee on Adults with Disabilities. While in that role, he was able to finally get the Federal Contractor’s Act implemented for those with Disabilities. Women and people of color were also covered by the act but the data on people with disabilities was never developed.  The Act mandated Federal contractors to recruit and hire people with disabilities. It was a lengthy, involved process that required Census Bureau data, statistics from the Department of Labor, and a clear definition of “disability” from the Office of Management and Budget.  It took 25 years, but President Obama signed an Executive Order to implement it in 2016.  Coelho was also appointed the United States Commissioner General at the 1998 World Expo in Portugal, and then Co-Chair to the U.S. Census Monitoring Board, a position he held until his appointment as general chairman of the Gore Presidential Campaign.  In the summer of 1994, Coelho was the principal Democratic political strategist during the run-up to the mid-term Congressional elections.  Officially, he was Senior Advisor to the Democratic National Committee.

Coelho’s life continued smoothly until June of 1989 when he was accused of receiving a loan from a savings and loan executive to purchase junk bonds with his campaign funds.  It was not true and he was never charged with any crime as the FBI closed the case.  He resigned from the House after serving six terms, moved to Wall Street as the CEO of an asset management company, then started a few businesses.

The end of Coelho’s political career did not mean an end to his advocacy work on behalf of people with disabilities.  Today, he serves on the National Board of the American Association of People with Disabilities.  But that’s not all.  In 2018, with the support of major funders, the state of California, and his alma mater, Loyola University, he opened the Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy, and Innovation to help lawyers with disabilities become judges or serve in public office, and other disability programs.

Opening the Center was especially important to Coelho and was directly related to his diagnosis with epilepsy.  When he was elected to Congress, he realized that people in the disability community did not have basic civil rights. They could openly and legally be discriminated against and it was lawful, because  they were not legally covered under Civil Rights Legislation. Coelho wanted to do something more than what he already did with the ADA. The Coelho Center brought visibility to the lack of people with disabilities in the state and federal courts. He found that law schools did not recruit or get credit for having students with disabilities, it was the same with law firms. While bills were being passed to help the disability community, it was up to the courts to interpret them. And, as the Supreme Court had done with challenges to the ADA, they ruled the ADA did not cover all disabilities.  So, Coelho and others worked hard to get the ADA Amendments Act passed.

The Center has a program for high school students with disabilities, but primarily college students who are interested in legal rights for people with disabilities are the ones admitted. The Center then helps them get into law schools.  The goal is to assist these students after they graduate, to get jobs with law firms or to serve as judges on State or Federal Courts.

Amidst all of the important responsibilities in Coelho’s professional life, huge changes were taking place in his personal life. It all started with the purchase of two horse racetracks in 1998, an investment undertaken with friends. For many years, he remembered seeing a winning horse and its jockey receiving the winner’s trophy from an elected official or beauty queen.  At his racetracks, however, someone with a disability presents the winner’s trophy!  While seeking out persons with disabilities for this task, he met Bobby who was then running a group home for individuals with disabilities. Coelho’s life changed dramatically – he came out as a gay man. He admits losing close friends because of this but said, “life goes on.”  Coelho added, “I am very open about my sexuality, and as far as my business opportunities and relationships go – it has been very positive.” His daughters have accepted Bobby with open arms and his ex-wife remains one of his best friends.

Thanks to Coelho and others who supported him, the ADA is a civil rights law and it was a good start, but he believes it is only good when the civil rights law is enforced.  Coelho has very strong feelings about President Trump.  “Under the current administration, you have a President who mocks us and wants to take away some of our critical needs – like Obamacare, which impacts anyone with pre-existing conditions.”  In order for people with disabilities to live in a more inclusive society, Coelho goes on to say, “We need to do more work on creating opportunities for employment, housing, transportation, and expand health care. The problem is, that only happens if we beat Trump and win back the Senate.”

Tony Coelho is a wonderful example of someone who has lived the American dream.  He was born into an immigrant family.  He studied hard, went to college and graduated.  He worked hard and devoted his life to his passion, and, like others who were fortunate enough to realize their dreams, he finds ways to give back and to help others realize their own dreams.  As a result of his passion to help people with disabilities, thankfully millions are now able to live their lives more independently.