by Nils Skudra, Communications Specialist, DI-NC
As we commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the passage of the ADA, we should pay homage to Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy, the chief sponsor of the bill and one of its most outspoken supporters. A scion of the elite Kennedy family, Senator Kennedy devoted his career to championing health care reform and disability rights legislation on behalf of those who were marginalized in society. His efforts were motivated in part by Senator Kennedy’s deeply personal connection to disability in his family, and he brought himself to the task of securing the ADA’s passage with ardent commitment and perseverance. Senator Kennedy’s advocacy of the ADA played an instrumental role in the enactment of the ADA, which would have a transformative impact on the lives of millions of Americans with disabilities.
Edward M. Kennedy was born on February 22, 1932, in Dorchester, Massachusetts, to Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald. The youngest of nine children, Edward grew up in an affluent and privileged family, with his father serving as the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James in Great Britain. However, his formative years were marked by a family tragedy involving his sister Rosemary, who was diagnosed with an intellectual disability as an infant and was institutionalized following a disastrous lobotomy as an adult. The fact that his sister had a severe intellectual disability had a profound influence on Edward and later served as the basis for his passionate advocacy for the ADA.
As a Senator, Kennedy’s support for national health insurance was significantly influenced by a personal tragedy: His son Ted contracted bone cancer at the age of twelve, leading to the amputation of his leg above the knee, followed by chemotherapy and injection of anticancer agents, which Senator Kennedy had to personally administer. This experience gave him a personal appreciation for “both the realities of people with disabilities and the difficulties their families face in terms of the costs and care.” Together with the traumatic memory of his sister Rosemary’s institutionalization, his son’s struggle with bone cancer would become an important factor in Senator Kennedy’s support for the ADA.
Another important influence on Senator Kennedy’s support for disability rights was his sister Eunice Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics in 1968. This provided opportunities for children with intellectual and other disabilities to participate in athletic sports and remains one of the lasting hallmarks of Eunice Shriver’s lifelong devotion to “improving the world’s treatment of people with intellectual disabilities.” In addition, Senator Kennedy’s son Patrick struggled with bipolar disorder and substance abuse as an adult, which therefore provided a “front-row seat from which to witness society’s all-too-often callous and bigoted treatment of children and adults with disabilities.” These experiences deepened Senator Kennedy’s commitment to disability rights, which he would bring full-circle to the debate over the ADA.
Senator Kennedy played a leading role in the ADA debate, co-sponsoring the bill together with Senator Tom Harkin. In the negotiations with the Bush administration, he displayed a forceful and fiery temper toward presidential chief of staff John Sununu, an archconservative who opposed several of the ADA’s important mandates, such as requiring businesses to renovate their establishments to make them accessible. At one point, during a meeting on July 28, 1989, Senator Kennedy became enraged as Sununu rudely dismissed the protests of Harkin’s aid Bobby Silverstein, yelling at Sununu, “You want to fight? Fight with me. You want to yell? Yell at me.” This exchange prompted Sununu to back down in fear. Lennard Davis writes that while this gesture might have been tactical, Sununu “also might have recognized that the others gathered in the room had a lot more at stake than he did.”
On the floor of the U.S. Senate, Senator Kennedy spoke firmly in support of the ADA. In his speech on September 7, 1989, he declared that the ADA would end “the American apartheid,” arguing that the bill had “the potential to become one of the great civil rights laws of our generation.” He further elaborated, “Disabled citizens deserve the opportunity to work for a living, ride a bus, have access to public and commercial buildings, and do all the other things that the rest of us take for granted. Mindless physical barriers and outdated social attitudes have made them second class citizens for too long. This legislation is a bill of rights for the disabled, and American will be a better and fairer nation because of it.” Furthermore, he maintained, “Our message to America today is that disabled people are not unable. With all the challenges facing the country, we cannot afford to ignore the talent of the disabled or neglect the skills they have to offer.”
In the years following the passage of the ADA, Senator Kennedy continued to champion disability-related causes. On the 17th anniversary of the ADA’s passage, he proclaimed that the ADA succeeded in its goal of ensuring the “promise of a new and better life for every disabled citizen, in which their disabilities would no longer put an end to their dreams.” Senator Kennedy’s advocacy for disability-related causes translated into his support for a variety of other important pieces of legislation: “the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988, which added disability to the group of protected classes under that critical law; the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which outlaws discrimination and guarantees a free appropriate public education to all children with disabilities; the Family Opportunity Act, which gives parents of disabled children the ability to purchase Medicaid coverage for their children even if they were not low-income; the Help America Vote Act, which requires every polling place to have a machine where disabled people could vote privately and independently; and the more recent Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act and mental health parity legislation.”
After years of actively supporting the passage of numerous disability-related laws, Senator Edward Kennedy was diagnosed with a brain tumor in May 2008, which would claim his life on August 25, 2009. Senator Kennedy’s passionate commitment and advocacy proved critical in bringing the passage of the ADA to fruition, profoundly changing the lives of over 43 million Americans with disabilities. His accomplishments in the area of disability law and policy, writes Andrew J. Imparato, “may prove to be his greatest and most long-lasting success as a legislator. Furthermore, his support for disability rights legislation has had a far-reaching impact on both a national and international scale, leaving a legacy which “will be felt by more than 600 million children and adults with disabilities around the world for generations to come.” As we commemorate the anniversary of the ADA this year, Senator Edward Kennedy will remain a central figure, and his legacy as a lifelong champion of disability rights will endure in the hearts and minds of the disability community.
- “Americans with Disabilities Act – Kennedy’s Top 10 Legislative Battles.” https://time.com/. Time Magazine. Published August 26, 2009. Accessed May 13, 2023. https://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/printout/0,29239,1918873_1918869_1918865,00.html.
- Davis, Lennard J. “Ted Kennedy had one thing in common with the heavyweights gathered to negotiate the ADA: Experience with disability.” https://www.salon.com/. Salon.com. Published July 11, 2015. Accessed May 13, 2023. https://www.salon.com/2015/07/11/ted_kennedy_had_one_thing_in_common_with_the_heavyweights_gathered_to_negotiate_the_ada_experience_with_disability/.
- “Edward Moore Kennedy | American Experience.” https://www.pbs.org/. PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Accessed June 7, 2023. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/kennedys-bio-edward-kennedy/.
- Imparato, Andrew J. “Commentary: Kennedy a champion for disability rights.” https://www.cnn.com/. CNN. Accessed May 13, 2023. https://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/08/29/kennedy.disabilities/index.html.
- Kennedy, Edward. “Ending Segregation and Discrimination Against Disabled Americans.” https://www.emkinstitute.org/. Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate. Delivered September 7, 1989. Accessed May 13, 2023. https://www.emkinstitute.org/resources/ending-segregation-against-disabled-americans.
- “Ted Kennedy | Biography Career, & Facts.” https://www.britannica.com/. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 7, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ted-Kennedy-American-senator.