Evan J. Kemp Jr., who had to take a Government job in 1964 because nobody else would hire a disabled lawyer, died at a hospital near his home in Washington on Tuesday, satisfied that he had helped to make the world a bit more accepting of people like him. He was 60 and, as the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1990, helped shape the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act.
His wife, Janine Bertram, said the cause has not been determined but was not related to Kugelberg-Welander disease, the progressive and degenerative form of spinal muscular atrophy that had dogged him since he was 12.
Evan J. Kemp at signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990
For a man in a wheelchair, Mr. Kemp cut a fancy swath through the corridors of power. That was partly because he was an expert bridge player who had card-playing cronies all over official Washington, and partly because he was so bright that as his friend C. Boyden Gray, who was President George Bush’s counsel, put it yesterday, ”He was usually three steps ahead of everybody else and would sort of sit there bemused until the rest of us caught up.”
But it was mainly because he was a man with a mission.
A perennial hard-luck guy who turned his misfortunes into opportunities, Mr. Kemp had been battling the odds since he was a budding 12-year-old football player and heard a doctor tell him that the sporadic muscle weakness he had been experiencing was an incurable disease that would kill him before he was 14.
Two years later, when he was defiantly still alive, his doctors said that they had been wrong and that he really had another incurable disease, one that would kill him before he was 20. (It was not until he was 28 that he received the diagnosis that stuck.)
By some measures, Mr. Kemp should have been grateful when he found a Government job in 1964. He had made it through Washington & Lee University and graduated in the top 10 percent of his class at the University of Virginia Law School.
But after 39 different law firms turned him down, Mr. Kemp, a native of New York who grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, realized that there was no room in private practice for a lawyer so disabled that he lurched when he walked.
He may have been glad enough to get a job with the Internal Revenue Service, and later one with the Securities and Exchange Commission, but when he asked whether he could use the commission’s garage entrance because it made access to his office easier, he was told that he could use the entrance but would have to park elsewhere no matter how hard it might be for him to walk from his car.
Then in 1971 the garage door slammed down him as he was going to work, fracturing a leg so badly that when the fractures healed he could no longer walk even laboriously and had to use a wheelchair.
”When I was walking I had the same disability,” he once said. ”But when I was in a wheelchair it was more visible,” so visible that he was yanked off the commission’s management track and told that a man in a wheelchair would not be suitable for a supervisory position.
In 1977 he filed a job discrimination suit and won, but by then he had become so incensed at the way the disabled were treated throughout society that he left the Government in 1980 to become the director of the Disability Rights Center.
As not only Washington’s leading advocate for the disabled, but also a Republican, Mr. Kemp was named to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. By the time President Bush made him the chairman three years later, Mr. Kemp had already played a major behind-the-scenes role in writing the American for Disabilities Act, which extended protections to the disabled.