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50 Years: The President's Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities

President Clinton, the President's Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities The 1947 Academy Award winning film, The Best Years of Our Lives, depicts the homecoming of three World War II veterans who were forced to pick up the streams of their interrupted youths after gaining a new perspective on life. The horrors of war and the thrill of victory over the greatest evil humankind had ever faced instilled a quiet self assured confidence in the veterans who would try to change their nation with the same courage and ideals that they had changed the world with. As historians William Strauss and Neil Howe put it, "Many [veterans] would never again know such responsibility, excitement, or triumph. Emerging as world conquerors, they laid claim to a heroism that, later in life, would blossom into a sense of entitlement." This sense of entitlement and commitment to "doing the right thing" led to the great emergence of the American welfare state, the extension of civil rights and the protection of human rights the world over.

Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower all played great roles as the elder statesmen and patriarchs to these young men. Their values and courage during the great conflict were not lost on the generation of GIs who would go on to become presidents; Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush. Each of these presidents did not and could not forget their generation or those men who had missed out on the "best years of their lives" to fight selflessly for their country, democracy and the human rights of all.

For one of the main characters in the 1947 film, The Best Years of Our Lives, the project was more than just a movie. It wasn’t because it won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He would never get a role in film again. The Best Years of Our Lives, wasn’t just another acting job for Harold Russell because it was his story and the story of hundreds of thousands of other veterans who had lost a part of themselves to the great conflict. Never before had America faced the prospects of hundreds of thousands of young soldiers returning from the war with disabilities. The miracles of modern medicine had saved soldiers who would have died from their injuries in past conflicts. These men needed something to do when they returned. They had fought to save the world from a horror to horrible to imagine and now any job they could get at home seemed to pale in comparison. For many they could not be so selective. Any job would do.

3 pictures: left showns President Johnson speaking to soldier in Vietnam, center shows President Bush signing the ADA, and the right image shows Churchill, Truman, and Stalin shaking handsThe problem was that American business had never faced the reality of how to employ people with disabilities on such a large scale — and it wasn’t as if they weren’t needed. The supply of workers nowhere met the demand of a nation trying to rebuild a world torn by war with the Marshall Plan. Congress took action in 1945 by passing legislation which created the observance of National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week which resolved that, "There is now, and shall ever be for some time to come, a positive necessity for utilizing every available ounce of manpower in America....[And] the Physically Handicapped are among the most important problems in our national economy , as, if a means is provided to make such people self-supporting wholly or in part, the entire Nation will be the beneficiary" However, rather than an actual functional institution the intent of the week was, as the then President of the American Federation of the Physically Handicapped Paul Strachan, believed, "an effort to direct the attention of the Nation, and especially employers, to the true worth of the handicapped as valuable members of the Nation’s work force."

This framework changed in 1947, the same year in which Harold Russell won his Oscar for his portrayal of a young veteran with a disability, when President Truman wrote three identical letters to the Secretary of Labor, the Administration of Veterans’ Affairs, and the Federal Security Administrator, which advised these bodies to. . .

 

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