A great man is going to his final rest today, next to his wife and daughter, near a library that bears his name.

George Herbert Walker Bush, born in Milton, Mass., is being extolled for his kindness, decency and dry wit. Most of the coverage of his term centers on his international skills. When the U.S. protected Kuwait in the Gulf War, we accomplished our objective and stopped. As head of the CIA, he learned about foreign leaders, and when the Berlin Wall came down, he was in a unique position to deal with Mikhail Gorbachev. As the Soviet Union collapsed, his diffidence in public and determination in private allowed all parties to preserve dignity; he genuinely helped avert thermonuclear war.

While these are great and important accomplishments, they overshadow what I regard as his greatest legacy – the Americans with Disabilities Act, which became law 28 years ago.

Before that, I was a client of the Mass. Rehabilitation Commission, the state agency responsible for finding jobs for the handicapped. They gave me training and sent me to one of the businesses that had agreed to hire clients. Despite my grand mal epilepsy, I had done well in job training, but the bank official said, “We could never allow someone with a disability like yours to work with the public.” I was young, and just felt ashamed. After all, public schools were closed to epileptics in Massachusetts until the mid 1960s. Mass. Rehab felt that I would not be placed due to my condition, and offered me a lifetime of Social Security Disability Insurance instead, which I declined. I wanted a job, but that was just unrealistic.

Later, I got a job in the Handicapped Unit at the Internal Revenue Service. I was the only sighted person – all my colleagues in the unit were blind. We worked in the Taxpayer Service Division in the Saltonstall Building in Boston, answering taxpayer questions about tax forms, how to file, and so on. I watched them with awe as they handled tough questions from memory, aided by a copy of the tax code in Braille – which occupied a floor-to-ceiling bookcase of thousands of pages. I watched them make notes with slate and stylus, or type up reports with a six-key Perkins Brailler. Working on the telephone, they were not judged as handicapped, but only for their competence. They were only treated like cripples when they left work.

It is hard to explain how casually the handicapped were dismissed as defective before the ADA. I know my own strategy was to get a job, work for three or four weeks, and then ask my boss if I was doing a good job, etc. All during that time, I was praying not to have seizure at work. If they said I was doing a good job, then I would tell them about my invisible disability. Sometimes I was fired (sometimes I wasn’t), but we both knew it was perfectly all right and even understandable to do that.

The ADA changed that legally, but President Bush went further than that. Even after the law was changed, he and Barbara Bush created the Thousand Points of Light Foundation, to encourage charity and volunteerism. The agency I ran for seven years, Sight Loss Services Inc. in Dennis, was one of the original Thousand Points of Light, and was supported by the family and the foundation. We were and are an organization of the blind and for the blind, with visually impaired support group leaders and staff helping those losing their sight to learn how to cope and adapt from others who have already had to make that transition. We do not take or require insurance, as losing sight is stressful enough without worrying if you qualify for help. Indeed, the agency exists because the state – by law – cannot offer any services until you are legally blind; merely having vision of 20/189 instead of the standard of 20/200 means you aren’t quite blind enough – yet. We are a Point of Light, however dim, because we offer an unreplicated service beyond government help, relying on donations and volunteers. President Bush was not content to merely sign the bill into law; he also committed to helping that law become part of the fabric of society with his advocacy.

Averting a catastrophic war, which would have ended life as we know it, is a great accomplishment, but George Herbert Walker Bush also made sure that life would be worth living for millions with disabilities. He deserves the rest and respect that will be offered to him today.

Cynthia Stead of Dennis may be emailed at cestead@gmail.com.