This week marks the 22nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The National Archives holds many records that relate to American citizens with disabilities. From personal letters to historic legislation, these records from the Presidential Libraries provide insight into disability history.
For the opening of the Public Vaults exhibition at the National Archives Building in 2004, public affairs specialist Miriam Kleiman was assigned to track down and bring to Washington some of the people mentioned in the exhibition. This is her account of her search for John Beaulieu.
I was intrigued by the letters from children in the “Dear Uncle Sam” section of the “Form a More Perfect Union” vault. One unusual letter in the stack interested me a great deal—a letter written in Braille to President Dwight D. Eisenhower by a young boy in the fall of 1956.
Thirteen-year-old John Beaulieu offered the President the following campaign stump speech: “Vote for me. I will help you out. I will lower the prices and also your tax bill. I also will help the negroes, so that they may go to school.”
The return address listed Perkins School for the Blind (Helen Keller’s alma mater) in Watertown, Massachusetts. After my Internet searches led nowhere, I called the Perkins School but was not optimistic. After all, John had not been a student there for nearly 50 years.
Much to my surprise, a helpful staffer at Perkins turned up a current address and telephone listing for John! One day later, I spoke with John for the first time. He clearly remembered the letter and explained how it evolved from a sixth-grade government class project in which students presented mock stump speeches and voted.
John’s mock Eisenhower stump speech was a hit with the class, and his teacher suggested he share his speech with the President. John wrote a careful letter in Braille, and his teacher wrote out the words over the Braille.
A few weeks later, John received a response from the President himself, who wrote: “It was nice of you to send me a little speech to help win the election. Your good luck wishes for November mean a lot to me too, and I am very grateful to you for them.”
For John, the call from the National Archives was another wonderful surprise, albeit nearly 50 years later. John is now a father and a grandfather of five. The boy who once suggested that the President pledge to lower taxes now works for the Internal Revenue Service! He and his family spent a week in Washington at the Public Vaults opening events, during which he proudly shared his story with archival staffers, invited guests, and the media.
“It is absolutely amazing to think that something I did as a child would get this kind of recognition. I still find it hard to believe, but I know that it’s real because I was there,” he later said.