A champion for so many causes, Senator Ted Kennedy was one of us. A family member of an individual with disabilities, he unabashedly championed rights and funding for individuals with disabilities, including intellectual or developmental disabilities. His legislative achievements would fill a small book as they include civil rights, health care, limiting nuclear proliferation, fighting bio-terrorism, judicial reforms, supporting working families and the poor, and a range of regulatory protections.
From my vantage point, there are two themes in Senator Ted Kennedy’s work which are worth specifically noting: advancing disability rights in the context of the American dream and advocating for bills with bi-partisan sponsorship. In a setting where politics has become increasingly negative, he worked across the aisle with Senators such as Orrin Hatch and Chuck Grassley.
Yes, Ted Kennedy and his staff also advanced “specific” disability provisions such as the reauthorization of special education (IDEA) and the Rehabilitation Act. As early as 1975, he provided leadership expanding the scope of the Developmental Disabilities Act. However, he also amended existing legislation such as the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act to ensure that persons with disabilities were included. Ted Kennedy advanced mental health parity in insurance legislation and regulation. In addition to being a leader on IDEA, Ted Kennedy worked to make sure that the education bill, “No Child Left Behind,” was applied to all children.
The high point of this approach was realized in July 1990, when the Harkins-Kennedy Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted into law. Individuals with disabilities need protections and supports to be part of their communities, families, workplaces and schools. The ADA provides the foundation for this vision.
Bi-partisanship is another theme that runs through the Senator’s career. Although a favorite target of Republicans during election time, Ted Kennedy was respected by his colleagues across the aisle. Republican Orrin Hatch said “…today I lost a treasured friend.” Both Senate and House Minority Leaders released warm statements regarding the Senator. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell praised him as “one of the giants of American political life, a longtime Senate colleague, and a friend.”
I first met Ted Kennedy in 1986 at a Stop and Shop in Quincy. He had missed receiving a national award at a ceremony in DC and an employment site was chosen as a substitute. The Senator knew The Arc well, having spoken at its conferences in the past. He was in the middle of a hectic appearance tour but he took the time to speak with employees during his short photo stop. On a more recent occasion he displayed his sense of humor, continuing to joke as the camera clicked away capturing a few of us with broad smiles. Ted Kennedy has left a remarkable legacy. As Martha Ziegler, founding director of the Federation for Children of Special Needs, said last May, “Those of us working in disability advocacy and political activism have much to learn from our hero, Senator Edward Kennedy.”
Ted Kennedy’s legacy was possible due to his savvy, passion and ability to recruit capable staff who shared a similar vision. Paul Marchand, long-time leader of The Arc and founding chair of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, noted in a recent NPR interview that the absence of the Senator on Capitol Hill is problematic for persons with disabilities as health care reform is negotiated.
As we mourn his passing, let’s hold onto these words from Ted Kennedy: “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”