Question and Answer Interview with Former U.S. House of Representatives Tony Coelho, California, co-author of the Americans with Disabilities Act and How Hollywood Can Showcase People with Disabilities

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Interview coordinated by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, President,

Part 1: Interview questions by Don of

Part 2: Interview questions by CarolAnn P. Popovich, Ed.S.

Responses by former U.S. House of Representatives Tony Coelho, California

September 8, 2016

Note: Since original interview was provided, “Born This Way” has won an Emmy on September 11, 2016. A detailed press release from RespectAbility is within this interview.

Question and Answer Interview with Former U.S. House of Representatives Tony Coelho, California, co-author of the Americans with Disabilities Act and How Hollywood Can Showcase People with Disabilities

Part 1

1. Since your oped was published in THE WRAP, “In TV’s Diversity Push, Let’s Not Forget People With Disabilities” as of Sept. 4, 2016, has anyone or organization reached out to you directly? What is your hope with this oped being published?

(Coelho) The goal of the oped was to get more potential Emmy voters to actually take the time to watch Born This Way. We know it is a great show, well beyond the diversity issue. If they see it, they will want to vote for it. And the reason we want it to win an Emmy, beyond the fact that it deserves it, is that it really would be a glass-ceiling breaker for people with disabilities.

2. What specifically prompted you to write that oped?

(Coelho) Emmy’s have become big business. A number of shows take out ads. Indeed, I saw one on the front page of the NY Times for one show. The disability community had no such ad budget. So an oped was a great way to get our message out.

3. Has any specific collaboration had been done between you and Mr. Jonathan Murray while you both served on the board of RespectAbility?

(Coelho) We will see each other in person at the next board meeting – so who knows? But a lot of potential is there.

4. How can movie studios or casting firms help those with disabilities to become more available for options to cast in roles?

(Coelho) They need to know more about us really. People writing scripts need to know how it could easily fit into a story, and that actors with disabilities have the stamina and talent to do a great job. I am very excited, for example, about the new ABC show Speechless. It revolves around a young man who can’t speak due to his disabilities. The actor himself has cerebral palsy and is very talented. And Minne Driver plays the mom. She’s terrific.

5. Could there be financial incentives by local and national government (tax breaks) for movies being made with casting those with disabilities with the use of quotas?

(Coelho) Interesting. I haven’t thought of that. But I think the financial incentive is actually already there. Fully 1-in-5 Americans have a disability. So they and their loved ones will connect more deeply with shows that feature the diversity they know in their lives and their world.

6. How can theater repertories and conservatories encourage those with disabilities to participate in traditional training?

(Coelho) Make sure that the auditions are held in places that are accessible. You’d be surprised how many times they are done in a building that is not ADA accessible. Not to mention how often the postings online are not screen reader accessible for people who are vision impaired.

Part 2

CarolAnn P. Popovich, Ed.S.

Q: Has the American with Disabilities Act changed and evolved as needed in order to reflect and support the changing needs of the Americans with disabilities?

(Coelho) Yes. The ADA is a broad non-discrimination statute for people with disabilities. As we learn more about the needs of people with disabilities and there are technological advances in assistive devices, ADA can keep pace with evolving best practices for inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society.

Q: Are individuals with disabilities seen more as a resource drain as opposed to a resource gain?

(Coelho) Depends on who you ask. The fact is that they clearly are a GAIN, but people often don’t know that. Let me give you some specific examples. Steven Hawking is unlocking the secrets of the universe from a wheelchair. Beethoven was deaf. Business and creative genius Richard Branson is dyslexic. All of these people, like myself, are people with disabilities who contribute significantly to society every day.

Q: How does the American with Disabilities Act support students with disabilities?

(Coelho) It depends on what grade or level of school the student is in. If they are students in elementary or secondary grades they are most likely covered by IDEA or the Rehabilitation Act. However, if they are college level and above, their accommodations are mandated by the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA. For example, Deaf students can obtain captioning of videos and other online learning opportunities in addition to other accommodations in class such as interpreters and CART.

Q: How has the support for students with disabilities changed in the last 25 years within education?

(Coelho) There are a lot more tools and resources online for free. Parents of children with disabilities blog, people find each other online, disability groups offer expert advice for free. But if you don’t have literacy to read those resources – or don’t have access to a computer, it is a problem. Likewise, it is extremely challenging to raise a child with a disability when you have a single parent family. That is because advocating for your child at some times can be almost a full time job of its own.

Q: How can Americans with disabilities have greater inclusion?

(Coelho) We need to organize and stand up proudly as a group. Elected officials need to know there are 56 million of us — and we matter. We need to be the enforcers of our own civil rights and that isn’t always easy.

Q: Do all groups of individuals with disabilities have equal levels of support by the American with Disabilities Act? If not, what groups do not adequately and fairly have their needs met and their voices heard?

(Coelho) The ADA, the Fair Housing Act and the IDEA give people with disabilities a number of key rights in many aspects of life, including employment, transportation, education, public services, telecommunications, and public accommodations. Compliance with the requirements of these laws is not always forthcoming and enforcement is not as robust as it should be.

If you don’t know your rights, or you don’t claim them, or don’t have the time or energy to stand up for them, it can be tough. The battle goes on. This is my mission. I am fighting for full equality and opportunities for people with disabilities. We have accomplished a lot, but we have a long way to go. For example, People with mental health challenges still experience significant discrimination and stigma in society today. Society continues to have a message delivered to them by the media that all people with mental health issues are dangerous and that is just not true.

Q: Are individuals with disabilities adequately consulting and representing themselves in order to ensure their voices are heard and their needs are understood with respect to decisions being made on their behalf?

(Coelho) Some people are doing a spectacular job. But we need many more people to self-identify as members of the disability community. Too many of us are still in the closet. That is especially true, of course, for people with non-visible disabilities like chronic pain and/or mental health challenges. We need all people with disabilities to stand (or wheel) and be counted.

Q: Last month, President Obama gathered 500 leaders and advocates to celebrate the 26th anniversary of the passage of the American with Disabilities Act. What do you feel was the greatest takeaway of that event?

(Coelho) This time the event was much more diverse. When the ADA was passed in 1990 there were more than 100 members of Congress there from both sides of the aisle. Disability leader Justin Dart was there, as were hundreds of activists. But most of them were white, and were raised in families with two parents. This time the celebration was much more diverse racially, ethnically, religiously and in every way. When ADA was passed it was mostly thought about for people who use wheelchairs. But now people understand that it is for EVERY kind of disability.

Q: What or barriers or contradictions continue to exist for Americans with disabilities?

(Coelho) Oh – there is so much to be done! People with disabilities have serious issues that must be addressed. Consider these facts:

  1. Children with disabilities are three times more likely to be victims of rape or sexual assault than children without disabilities. (1)
  2. Every nine minutes an adult with a disability is sexually assaulted or raped. (1)
  3. Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension as students without disabilities. (2)
  4. Male African American and Latino students with disabilities have the highest suspension rates of all students with disabilities. (3)
  5. Youth with disabilities only graduate high school at a rate of 61 percent, compared to 81 percent for people without disabilities – a 20-point gap in outcomes. (4)
  6. Youth with disabilities who do not complete a high school education are far more likely to interact with the criminal justice system than those who complete their degrees. (5)
  7. Two-thirds of inmates in state prisons failed to complete high school, and seven out of ten people in jail are high school dropouts. (6)
  8. Recent studies have found that only one third of undergraduates with learning disabilities were receiving accommodations. This research confirms that wealthier students have an easier time getting proper diagnoses and receiving appropriate accommodations than those with fewer financial resources. (7)
  9. More than 60 percent of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate. They will not gain literacy unless their disabilities are addressed appropriately as a part of their education. (8)
  10. Only a third of working-age Americans with disabilities have a job, despite the fact that studies show that 70 percent are striving for work. (9)
  11. One-quarter of homeless adults living in shelters have a serious mental illness and an estimated 46 percent have psychiatric disabilities and/or substance use disorders. In many places, homelessness has been criminalized, which adds to the burden of these individuals who already have substantial barriers to employment. (10)
  12. The newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act provides for improved assessments upon entry for justice-involved youth including disability screening. However, that is not yet happening, and similar requirements are missing in the adult system. (11)
  13. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 32 percent of federal prisoners and 40 percent of people in jail have at least one disability. People with disabilities in the corrections system routinely have their rights violated. Inmates who are deaf, hard of hearing or have another disability frequently are put in solitary “for their own protection,” which can cause significant mental health challenges. (12)
  14. The experience of prison or jail can worsen pre-existing mental health conditions and can indeed create new mental health disabilities among inmates who leave the system. (13)
  15. Some people with mental health issues are completely stabilized with medications and therapy while incarcerated. However, if they do not have access to Medicaid when they leave, many will be unable to receive the treatment they need. Ninety-five percent of the prison population will be released, and each year nearly 600,000 people leave incarceration. Within five years, three quarters of people who are paroled will be re-arrested and two-thirds will ultimately return to the prison and jail systems. (14)
  16. Only 34% of working age people with disabilities have ANY job, and people with disabilities are the poorest of the poor.

(Coelho) We have so much to do! I am on the board of RespectAbility, a relatively new nonprofit that is working to get candidates to take a stand on the issues. Check out our online publication,

(1) Disability Justice – Abuse and Exploitation of People with Developmental Disabilities –

(2) DOED Civil Rights Data Collection – Data Snapshot: School Discipline –

(3) Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap? – The Civil Rights Project-UCLA –

(4) Public High School Four-Year On-Time Graduation Rates and Event Dropout Rates –

(5) The Post-High School Outcomes of Young Adults With Disabilities –

(6) The National Guard Foundation –

(7) Financial status affects success of students with learning disabilities – AAAS! EurekAlert –

(8) Literacy Statistics – Begin to Read –

(9) 2015 Kessler Foundation National Employment & Disability Survey: Overview –

(10) Mental Health By the Numbers – National Alliance on Mental Illness –

(11) What the “Every Student Succeeds Act” Means for Youth in and Returning from the Juvenile Justice System –

(12)##DeafInPrison Campaign Fact Sheet – HEARD –

(13) – The Effects of Incarceration on Mental Health –

(14) Offender Reentry – Congressional Research Service 7-5700 –

Q: What do you feel that the American public might not realize but should know about American with Disabilities Act?

(Coelho) It gave us our independence. But it is a gift that we cannot take for granted. Justin Dart used to say that you need to act as if your life depends on it – because it does!


Press Release from RespectAbility, September 11, 2016

BREAKING NEWS! Glass-ceiling broken at Emmy Awards! First Series Starring Cast with Disabilities, Born This Way, Wins

Cast and Producers of Born This Way on stag celebrating their Emmy win

Washington, Sept. 11 – For the first time ever, a series starring a cast with disabilities has won an Emmy Award. Born This Way, which is in its second season on A&E, won for Outstanding Unstructured Reality Series beating out five other series including previous winners Deadliest Catch and Intervention. In addition, two episodes from Born This Way were nominated for Outstanding Picture Editing for an Unstructured Reality Program but lost out to HBO’s Project Greenlight.

A&E Network’s critically acclaimed and award-winning original docuseries Born This Way’s honors keep adding up – showing that disability is a winning theme.

Produced by Bunim/Murray Productions, Born This Way, an unscripted reality show on A&E, follows a group of seven young adults with Down syndrome along with their family and friends in Southern California. Because its focus is on showing their everyday lives, including employment, efforts for independent housing, loves and more, Born this Way breaks down stigmas surrounding disability.

Show creator Jonathan Murray, the innovator behind the first-ever reality-show, The Real World, and many other hit shows including Keeping Up with the Kardashians, said the cast members of Born This Way remind all of us that “every individual has something to contribute.”

“In thinking about the show, we wanted to focus on the ability within the disability and I think that is what is exciting to see,” said Murray. “We are also very proud of the fact that our cast is very diverse. Born This Way is not only the first show to win an Emmy that stars people with disabilities – it also has a cast that includes people who are African American, Hispanic and Asian. This is a breakthrough for those minority communities as well.”

RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization working to end stigmas and advance opportunities for people with disabilities, has been honored to consult during the creation of Born This Way and congratulates the entire team for its hard work in achieving this recognition.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, its president who herself has a disability and who knows what it means to raise a child with multiple disabilities, said: “I am thrilled that the Emmys see the value in showing real people with disabilities and their powerful lives on TV. For generations TV-viewers saw people with disabilities through the lens of the Jerry Lewis telethon. Though it was well intended, it showed people’s inabilities and used a lens of pity. Born This Way is empowering and uplifting. It shows, as one member of the cast frequently says, that the public should not ‘Limit me.’”

Mizrahi continued: “As detailed in the Ruderman White Paper on Disability in Television, disability often is absent from mainstream film and television – both the depiction of and, even when a character has a disability, the actor often does not. But programs like Born This Way that feature people with disabilities, or that tackle disability issues, in a positive light can be successful both critically and financially. Audiences want to see strong, capable role models with disabilities. By focusing on showing these young individuals’ everyday life choices regarding employment, living independently and dating, Born this Way breaks down stigmas surrounding disability.”

Murray agrees that shows like Born This Way and more diversity in Hollywood are good business.

“Hollywood has been really, really slow to recognize the diversity of this country,” Murray said. “I think it is catching up fast now. And I think it’s realizing that diversity is good business. I don’t think it’s necessarily because it is altruistic. I think they are recognizing that TV shows will do better if they reflect what the country is.”

According to the U.S. Census, one in five Americans has a disability. Currently 70 percent of working-age people with disabilities are not working – even though most of them want jobs and independence. The numbers are even worse for people with Down syndrome. According to the National Down Syndrome Society, there are more than 400,000 people with Down syndrome. Many studies show that people with disabilities, including those with Down syndrome, can work successfully and live relatively independently. The individuals on Born this Way prove that as several are productive employees and one is a business owner herself.

“We have a long way to go in how television shows people with disabilities,” Mizrahi said. “For almost five decades, the Jerry Lewis telethon stigmatized people with disabilities by showing what people with disabilities CAN’T do. Now is the time to show what people with disabilities CAN do.”

The portrayal of people with disabilities in shows like Born This Way is in direct dichotomy with scripted television, where less than one percent of all characters on television had a disability. Furthermore, according to the recent Ruderman report, able-bodied actors on television play more than 95 percent of characters with disabilities.

“The majority of Americans have a loved one with a disability – themselves, their child, a sibling; so there’s a hunger for people to see and be reflected on TV and in ways that are accurate and respectful for who they are,” Mizrahi said.

During its first season, Born This Way grew across all demographics each episode, achieving more than a million viewers per episode. Since its premiere, Born This Way’s total viewership is up 83 percent. Recently, the series was chosen as one of six honorees for the 2016 Television Academy Honors, an award that recognizes “television programming that inspires, informs and motivates.”

“By honoring and embracing diversity on television, Born This Way is uniquely redefining the art of honest storytelling and altering the way society views individuals with differences,” Elaine Fontain Bryant, EVP and Head of Programming for A&E said.

“What I would like to see is that more shows have a diversity to them where the diversity is not the point of the show,” Murray added. “I’d like to get beyond the labels to accurately reflect what is going on in our country today.”

Born This Way airs Tuesday nights at 10/9c on A&E.

About RespectAbility

RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization working to empower people with disabilities to achieve the American dream, is on the front lines in the battle to reduce stigmas and other obstacles that deny people with disabilities the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.

One area of concern is entertainment; films and television can and must do much more to reshape attitudes so that people with disabilities can more fully participate in and contribute to society. We know that by putting people with disabilities on TV – in scripted television, reality TV, the news and in jobs behind scenes — it can help empower people with disabilities to achieve as much of the American Dream as their abilities and efforts permit.

Entertainment contributes to the values and ideals that define us; and what we desire to share with our children. What we see, we feel. In addition, what we feel impacts how we act.

RespectAbility encourages arts and entertainment leaders – just as we encourage businesses in every sector – to recognize the disability but respect the ability. We ask them to focus on what people with disabilities can do, rather than on what they cannot. We want the power of arts and entertainment to help move the needle of perception regarding people with disabilities so that people of ALL abilities can achieve the American Dream.



Departing from his original plan to become a Catholic priest, Tony Coelho instead dedicated himself to a political career, first as a staffer and then as a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives. During his six terms in office, Coelho led a push to revive the Democratic Party’s fundraising abilities and became the first Hispanic American to attain a top-tier leadership position as Majority Whip. Coelho was unabashedly partisan, even by the standards of an already partisan age. “You know, politics reminds me of driving a car,” he once remarked. “You put it in D and you go forward. You put it in R and you go backward.”1

Anthony Lee (Tony) Coelho was born June 15, 1942, in Los Banos, California. His parents, Otto and Alice Branco Coelho, were the children of Portuguese immigrants.2 As a teenager, Tony Coelho had an accident on his parents’ dairy farm that caused him to black out sporadically for the rest of his life. Coelho attended the public schools in Dos Palos, California, before graduating from Loyola University in Los Angeles in 1964. Intent on attending law school, he changed his plans after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, believing that the priesthood encapsulated Kennedy’s vision of public service. But his plans were derailed when he learned on his 22nd birthday that his blackouts were caused by epilepsy. At the time, epileptics were barred from the priesthood.3

After suffering a bout of depression, Coelho worked briefly for comedian Bob Hope, who encouraged him to pursue a career in politics. A Jesuit acquaintance introduced Coelho to Hope, for whom Coelho did odd jobs. Coelho also lived for a while with the Hope family. Hope enjoyed nighttime drives on Los Angeles-area freeways and often took Coelho along for company. Hope once suggested that Coelho should work for a Congressman. “It’s obvious that you have this burn to help people,” Hope said. “If that’s your bag, why don’t you go work for a member of Congress?” Coelho sent his résumé and a letter of introduction to Congressman Bernie Sisk, whose district encompassed Coelho’s hometown and much of the San Joachin Valley.4 Shortly thereafter, Coelho began working as an intern in Representative Sisk’s office. In June 1967, Coelho married Phyllis Butler, a legislative aide to Indiana Representative Andrew Jacobs, Jr. The couple raised two daughters, Nicole and Kristen.5

Sisk was an influential Democratic member of the California delegation with a decade of experience in the House when Coelho joined his staff in 1965. He held a post on the powerful Rules Committee and was a serious contender for Majority Leader in 1971.6 An expert on Western water politics, Sisk directed millions of federal dollars to irrigation projects that helped establish central California as an ideal location for agricultural business. Moreover, as a native Texan who moved with his young family to California during the Great Depression, Sisk was popular with the Southern Members, who ruled the House at the time. He was particularly close to the Texas delegation—allowing Coelho, as a senior staffer, to establish important relationships with the group, notably with Representative Jim Wright from the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. In an era when the California and Texas delegations vied for influence in the House, Coelho was often on the outs with an alliance of California Democrats headed by one of the most skilled and powerful Members in the House, Phil Burton of San Francisco.7

For 14 years, Coelho worked his way up the ladder in Sisk’s office. By 1970 he was Sisk’s administrative assistant, the equivalent of a present-day chief of staff. He was also staff director of the Subcommittee on Cotton of the House Agriculture Committee, a consultant for the House Parking Committee, and a staff coordinator for the House Rules Committee’s Subcommittee on Broadcasting. Coelho enjoyed a filial relationship with Sisk, who shared with him many of the eccentricities of the House and its Members. At one time Sisk chaired a three-man panel that assigned Members parking spaces while Coelho handled administrative duties. Coelho was astonished when he found out that a senior Texas member who was a close friend to his boss had routinely complained to the Speaker because Sisk had a more desirable spot than he did. Coelho considered the problem petty but informed Sisk, who immediately yielded the spot, saying, “You don’t understand. Parking spaces are important.” Coelho learned that such gestures, deference, and small favors cemented loyalty and turned the wheels of legislation.8

Sisk’s district encompassed one of the most fertile stretches of farmland in the country, extending northward from the outskirts of Fresno to include Merced, Turlock, and at its far northern extreme, Modesto. More than 200 different crops were cultivated there, including cotton, grapes, walnuts, and peaches. The district’s population was mixed; about one-fifth were Mexican Americans, and an equal number had roots in the South. Like Sisk, many of the residents were from families that had journeyed to the region during the Dust Bowl years. A growing population of Hmong refugees from Laos was centered in Merced. Over time, as the Central Valley leaned Republican, Coelho’s district remained Democratic, though it was more conservative than coastal California on many social issues.

In 1978, by the time Sisk announced his decision to retire at the end of the 95th Congress (1977–1979), he had already chosen Coelho as his successor. Coelho had left his Washington post shortly beforehand to manage Sisk’s district office and had forged strong political ties in the area.9 Vincent Lavery, his only opponent in the Democratic primary, was a teacher from Fresno who had been defeated twice while seeking the party’s nomination in the district. Coelho handily dispatched him, with 79 percent of the vote. In the general election, Coelho faced Chris Patterakis, a local celebrity and a former stunt pilot for the Air Force Thunderbirds. Coelho’s epilepsy became a campaign issue. Describing Coelho as “a very sick man,” Patterakis asked a crowd, “What would you think if Coelho went to the White House to argue a critical issue for you and he had a seizure?” Asked by the press for a response, Coelho quipped, “A lot of people have gone to the White House and had fits. At least I’d have an excuse.” A Modesto native, Patterakis carried the district’s largest city, but Coelho benefited from a two to one Democratic registration advantage and from his ties to the popular incumbent. Ultimately, Coelho prevailed in the bulk of the district and won the election, 60 to 40 percent.10 According to the Los Angeles Times, Coelho’s victory made him the first Portuguese American to serve in Congress.11 In his subsequent five re-election campaigns, Coelho faced no serious challenges, winning between 64 and 72 percent of the vote.12

Coelho earned assignments on the Agriculture Committee and the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.13 The first panel was vital for his constituency, and he took over Sisk’s role as the caretaker of the district’s farming interests. He held several important subcommittee seats, including the Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Subcommittee, which he chaired in the 99th Congress (1985–1987), and the Cotton, Rice, and Sugar Subcommittee. Also in the 99th Congress, Coelho earned a seat on the House Administration Committee, allowing him to influence election and campaign legislation. In his second term, he traded his Veterans’ Affairs assignment for a seat on the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee and gained a critical spot on the panel’s Subcommittee on Water and Power Resources, allowing him to monitor water and irrigation issues that were vital to the agriculture industry in the Central Valley. The industry was supported largely by government-sponsored public works projects that pumped water into the otherwise barren region.14

With the retirement of most of the other senior Representatives in California’s Central Valley in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Coelho emerged as the defender of the region’s large agribusiness sector. Early on, the battle lines were drawn around access to water, pitting Coelho against Democrat George Miller, who represented California’s 7th Congressional District, to the northwest. Nearly a million acre-feet of water flowed through Miller’s district into the valley’s Westlands region. In the 1970s, small farmers backed by Representative Miller and supported by the James Earl (Jimmy) Carter administration sought to enforce a 1902 law that had been largely ignored, limiting the use of federally subsidized water to farmers who worked land in parcels of 160 acres or less. The large-scale agribusinesses in the San Joaquin Valley deemed this requirement unworkable, and Coelho sought to relax the requirements. Supported by a majority of the committee, he orchestrated a compromise with Representative Miller: Owners would pay higher fees but would qualify for federal water regardless of the size of their landholdings.15

Coelho’s primary focus was to strengthen congressional Democrats’ campaign fundraising capabilities. As a freshman Representative, he sold more tickets to the party’s annual fundraising dinner than any other House Member. He then built up a considerable war chest for his 1980 re-election effort, and when his Republican challenger conceded the contest, Coelho used the money to fund other Democrats’ campaigns. In 1981, at the start of his second term, party leaders selected Coelho to be chairman of the moribund Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), whose purpose was to raise funds and provide strategy for House Democratic candidates. Coelho was only the second junior Member ever tapped to lead the DCCC (the first was Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas).16 Coelho proved to be an excellent fundraiser; he had the ability to work a crowd and speak to the issues. Under his chairmanship, the DCCC was revived from an organization that was nearly bankrupt—out funded 10 to 1 by Republicans—to a robust financing machine that helped propel Democrats to victory in 1982 and enabled them to retain their House majority throughout the Reagan presidency.17 “We won the battle of the ‘80s,” Coelho boasted. “They [Republicans] were determined they were going to take the House on Reagan’s coattails. We have, in effect, destroyed the Reagan impact.”18

In 1985 Coelho joined the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) after having been denied admission for unspecified reasons.19 When reapplying for admission, Coelho emphasized his Portuguese roots and insisted that since Portugal is situated on the Iberian Peninsula (named Hispania by the Romans) many Europeans consider it a Hispanic country. “The dictionary definition of Hispanics includes those from the Iberian Peninsula,” Coelho maintained.20 Coelho’s admission to the caucus, the first for a Portuguese American, provided the group with several benefits: his prodigious fundraising; his influential spot on the Agriculture Committee, which could be helpful for immigration measures to protect migrant farm workers; and his district’s constituency, which was roughly one-fifth Hispanic.21

Many new Democratic Representatives looked to Coelho for support in their campaigns, and those who were elected to the House were indebted to him. In 1987 Coelho tapped into this growing network in an effort to ascend the leadership ladder. He succeeded Thomas Foley of Washington as Democratic Whip, handily winning a vote in the caucus to defeat Charles Rangel of New York and W. G. (Bill) Hefner of North Carolina. This was the first time the No. 3 Democratic leader was elected, rather than appointed.22 With his election, Coelho became the first Hispanic American in House history to serve in a top party leadership post. Coelho’s easy embrace of big-time donations left some observers ill at ease.23 But Coelho maintained that his work was on the level. “I solve people’s problems because I like to solve people’s problems,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “What people are used to in politics are people who deal under the table. I do things out in the open. I am an open book.”24

The most significant piece of legislation Coelho sponsored was the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which he introduced in the House on May 9, 1989. “The Americans with Disabilities Act provides a clear, comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities. This mandate is urgently needed by our Nation’s 43 million disabled citizens,” he stressed.25 His passion for this legislation stemmed from his experiences as an epileptic and from witnessing discriminatory behavior toward other epileptics. “My epilepsy is what makes me tick,” he said.26 “Discriminatory attitudes hold that you can’t employ someone with epilepsy because they may have a seizure on the job, when today the overwhelming majority of people with epilepsy have their physical conditions under control through medication.”27 The act passed the House in May 1990 and was signed into law on July 26 of that year.

Though Coelho excelled at fundraising as chairman of the DCCC, some were uneasy about his financial dealings. Newsweek published a story alleging that Coelho had violated House Rules and federal law through his interactions with a savings and loan bank in Texas. The allegations focused on Coelho’s use of a yacht he had borrowed from the bank, far exceeding the monetary limit set by House Rules and the contribution limit for federal political action committees. He was also criticized for failing to report a $100,000 junk bond on his financial disclosure forms. After the U.S. Department of Justice initiated an investigation, Coelho determined in May 1989 to resign from the House.28 “I don’t intend to put my party through more turmoil,” he said. “And, more importantly, I don’t intend to put my family through more turmoil.”29 On June 15, his 47th birthday, Coelho delivered his farewell address to the House. “The generosity of my constituents, and the good will of my colleagues, have enabled me to serve for 25 years: as a staffer, as a Member, as campaign chair, and as majority whip … I thank my colleagues for their friendship, hard work, and dedication to this great country.”30

After leaving the House, Coelho worked as the head of the American mission to the 1998 Exposition in Lisbon, Portugal. He then managed Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential bid, resigning on June 15, 2000. Coelho later served as chairman of the Board of Directors of the Epilepsy Foundation.31


1Bob Secter, “Tony Coelho’s Dramatic Rise Means a New Style in Democratic Leadership and New Clout for the California Delegation,” 11 January 1987, Los Angeles Times: 10.

2Linda Greenhouse, “Anthony L. Coelho,” 9 December 1986, New York Times: B17.

3Carmen E. Enciso and Tracy North, Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822–1995 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1995): 19; Mark Grossman, Political Corruption in America: An Encyclopedia of Scandals, Power, and Greed, vol. 1 (New York: Grey House Publishing, 2008): 84; Secter, “Tony Coelho’s Dramatic Rise Means a New Style.”

4Betty Cuniberti, “Epileptic Congressman Finds a New Ministry,” 21 November 1982, Los Angeles Times: G1; Ruth Shalit, “The Undertaker: Tony Coelho and the Death of the Democrats,” The New Republic ( 2 January 1995): 17.

5Cuniberti, “Epileptic Congressman Finds a New Ministry”; Shalit, “The Undertaker: Tony Coelho and the Death of the Democrats.”

6For more on Sisk’s career, see B. F. Sisk, A Congressional Record: The Memoir of Bernie Sisk (Fresno, CA: Panorama West, 1980); and Robert L. Peabody, Leadership in Congress: Stability, Succession, and Change (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976): 190–204.

7Brooks Jackson, Honest Graft: Big Money and the American Political Process (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988): 31–40; Peabody, Leadership in Congress: Stability, Succession, and Change: 190–204.

8Jackson, Honest Graft: Big Money and the American Political Process: 46–47.

9Politics in America, 1990 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1989): 141.

10David Hoffman, “Rep. Coelho: Democrats’ Fund-Raiser Extraordinaire,” 26 August 1982, Washington Post: A2; Ellen Hume, “Central Valley Farmers Face a New Game,” 1 June 1978, Los Angeles Times: SD3; Politics in America, 1982 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1981): 120.

11Ellen Hume, “11 New Congressmen in State: 3 Incumbents Lose, 25% of Delegation Replaced,” 9 November 1978, Los Angeles Times: B21.

12“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,”

13For a full listing of Coelho’s committee assignments, see Garrison Nelson, Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1947–1992, vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1994): 175–176.

14Congressional Directory, 97th Congress (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1981): 295.

15Hoffman, “Rep. Coelho: Democrats’ Fund-Raiser Extraordinaire”; Almanac of American Politics, 1982 (Washington, D.C.: Barone & Company, 1981): 119.

16Politics in America, 1982: 119.

17Almanac of American Politics, 1990 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal Group, 1989): 118; Helen Dewar and Edward Walsh, “Arkansas Rep. Anthony Succeeds Coelho as Chief Democratic Fund-Raiser,” Washington Post, 30 January 1987: A4.

18Secter, “Tony Coelho’s Dramatic Rise Means a New Style in Democratic Leadership and New Clout for the California Delegation.”

19Marjorie Hunter and Warren Weaver, Jr., “Washington Talk— Briefing: Señor Coelho,” 25 March 1985, New York Times: A12.

20Kenneth Weiss, No Title, 15 April 1985, States News Service.

21Hunter and Weaver, “Washington Talk—Briefing: Señor Coelho.”

22Politics in America, 1990: 139.

23Ellen Hume, “Freewheeling Rep. Coelho Rising Fast,” 29 September 1982, Los Angeles Times: B3. “He’s such a power broker, and he kind of shows off with it,” noted a lobbyist. “He’s got one foot in the fast lane and one on a banana peel. If he’s not careful, he’ll take a big fall.”

24Hume, “Freewheeling Rep. Coelho Rising Fast.”

25Congressional Record, House, 100th Cong., 1st sess. (9 May 1989): 8714.

26Secter, “Tony Coelho’s Dramatic Rise Means a New Style in Democratic Leadership.”

27Congressional Record, House, 100th Cong., 1st sess. (9 May 1989): 8712.

28Grossman, Political Corruption in America: 85; David LaGesse, “Politicians Flew on Planes of Texas Thrift That Collapsed,” 18 June 1987, The American Banker.

29Michael Oreskes, “Coelho to Resign His Seat in House in Face of Inquiry—The No. 3 Democrat: In Surprising Decision He Speaks of Sparing His Party Turmoil,” 27 May 1989, New York Times: 1.

30Congressional Record, House, 101st Cong., 1st sess. (15 June 1989): 11952. See also Robert Shepard, “Coelho Says Goodbye to the House,” 15 June 1989, United Press International; Steven Komarow, “Saying Goodbye to Congress with a Speech and a Bash,”15 June 1989, Associated Press.

31Grossman, Political Corruption in America: 85–86.

COELHO, Tony, a Representative from California; born in Los Banos, Merced County, Calif., June 15, 1942; attended the public schools in Dos Palos; B.A., Loyola University, Los Angeles, 1964; staff member of United States Representative B. F. Sisk, 1965-1978; became administrative assistant in 1970; staff director, Subcommittee on Cotton, House Agriculture Committee, 1971-1972; consultant, House Parking Committee, 1971-1974; staff coordinator, House Subcommittee on Broadcasting, House Rules Committee, and House Select Committee on Professional Sports, 1965-1976; delegate, California State Democratic convention; delegate, Democratic National Convention, 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1988; elected as a Democrat to the Ninety-sixth and to the five succeeding Congresses and served until his resignation on June 15, 1989 (January 3, 1979-June 15, 1989); majority whip (One Hundredth and One Hundred First Congresses); chair, President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, 1994-2000; business executive; political adviser; is a resident of Merced, Calif.



”Tony Coelho” in Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-2012. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of the Historian and the Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2013.


(The following paragraphs were lifted from an official press release from RespectAbilityUSA on August 26, 2016 and edited for brevity and clarity which had pertinent details and relates to the interview.)

“In TV’s Diversity Push, Let’s Not Forget People With Disabilities” oped from Rep. Tony Coelho, is the co-author of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He served as the House Majority Whip and is a person with a disability himself (Epilepsy). He is a longtime champion of diversity and inclusion. [On the board of RespectAbility] Jonathan Murray who is widely credited with helping to usher in the modern reality television genre with his late partner Mary-Ellis Bunim. Murray continues to inspire, influence and entertain television audiences worldwide. Since the launch of The Real World on MTV in 1992 Murray has created and executive produced some of the industry’s most innovative, unscripted, entertainment television programs including Keeping up with the Kardashians, Total Divas, Project Runway and now stigma-busting and ground breaking Emmy nominated Born This Way (A&E), which documents the lives of young adults with Down Syndrome and their families. In 2012, Murray was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

Born this Way is the first series starring people with disabilities to ever be nominated for an Emmy. Its cast also is diverse in many other ways as well. You heard about #OscarSoWhite. They have a point, and we also can’t forget, #EmmysSoAble as well, Let’s break the glass ceiling for the 1-in-5 Americans who have a disability, (For full disclosure, both Rep. Coelho and Murray serve as unpaid volunteers on the board of RespectAbility, a non-profit organization advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. If you are familiar with GLAAD’s work on LBGTQ diversity in Hollywood, we are new and do the same, but for people with disabilities).

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi



Tony Coelho | August 25, 2016 @ 1:48 PM

Former congressman who co-authored the Americans With Disabilities Act praises shows like A&E’s “Born This Way” — and argues that more must be done.

“In TV’s Diversity Push, Let’s Not Forget People With Disabilities”

As someone who found his vocation as a congressman, I know that our political discourse is only getting worse. While I still have high hopes that things will get better in Washington, Hollywood can offer strong leadership by example on some of the most important issues of our time. Even as political mudslinging descends into hateful slurs, there are leaders in media, movies and television who are creating a more diverse and positive culture.

However, we still have a long way to go in order to make our culture more accepting of different faiths, ethnicities, orientations and abilities. The media we consume should reflect and celebrate our diversity as a nation. That is one of the reasons why the #OscarsSoWhite campaign gained national attention by talking about bias against African-Americans in Hollywood.

That effort has lessons to share, as does the LGBT community. According to GLAAD and its Network Responsibility Index (NRI), which measures positive media portrayals of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters on television, things are getting better. Television has started to see an increase in positive depictions of LBGT characters. Other diverse communities can learn from that success.

But while Hollywood has made some positive strides, the entertainment industry still largely fails in many aspects.

For example, the lives and stories of people with disabilities are far too often missing in Hollywood productions. This is despite the fact that there are over 56 million Americans with disabilities and we are the nation’s largest minority group.

When disability does appear, it is often shown through the lens of pity and tokenism. To add insult to injury, many roles that do depict disability are played by actors without disabilities. Think about the film Me Before You, where the main character, who is a quadriplegic, commits suicide.Advocates rightfully protested because the film had an implicit message that devalued the lives of people with disabilities and told people that committing suicide is a courageous act. This message is horrific to the one in five Americans who have disabilities, and to those who love us.

Hollywood’s casting agents and directors must do better and become the leaders we now know they are capable of being. We need more stories that affirm the value of people with disabilities. When I see those types of stories being told, in a positive way, I think of it as leadership. I see positive portrayals of disability in films and television as moving our culture forward. Think about Pixar’s blockbuster Finding Dory, which showed disability as something that makes the main character valuable and informs her approach to the world. Or think about the potential of ABC’s upcoming series Speechless that will tell the story of a mother of three children, one of whom happens to have a disability and will be played by an actor who has Cerebral Palsy.

This year’s Emmy Awards highlight the progress that Hollywood has made. For the first time ever, a series with a cast made up of people with disabilities has been nominated for an Emmy. Indeed, the A&E showBorn This Way (pictured) has received three nominations — a true milestone in diversity and inclusion. The show follows seven young adults with Down syndrome, each with his or her own distinct personality and challenges.

I urge Hollywood to recognize the significance of the show’s success.Born This Way, while being true to showing the challenges of having a disability, is dedicated to dissolving the stigmas surrounding disability, as cast member Megan Bomgaars’ message “Don’t Limit Me” epitomizes. Born This Way was created to show audiences that people with Down syndrome have the same hopes, dreams and dramas as everyone else.

The cast also includes members of multiple minorities: John, who is an African American man; Elena, who is a woman of Japanese descent; and Christina, who is Hispanic. This show comes at a necessary time, as the vitriol against immigrants, religious minorities and African-Americans grows. By portraying these people for who they are — members of multiple minority groups who are all genuinely friends — it shows Americans that despite our differences, we are all to be valued.

Our popular media should reflect the range of our diversity as a nation – but also recognize that more must be done.


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