The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) extends its sympathy to the family of the late Senator Kennedy and joins them in mourning the loss of one of the greatest senators in our nation’s history. Because the most fitting way to honor the Senator’s memory is direct action, we shall pause momentarily to remember his remarkable accomplishments, which have paved the way for freedom and equality for people with disabilities, in order that we may draw inspiration to carry on his legacy and continue fighting for the fulfillment of his dream.
In 2008, NCIL recognized the achievements of Senator Kennedy by presenting him the Frank Harkin Memorial Award. Frank Harkin was a person with a disability who fought for his civil rights many years before the passage of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. His efforts taught his brother, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, about the discrimination faced by people with disabilities and the importance of civil rights. As the nation looks back on Senator Kennedy’s accomplishments, NCIL is reflecting on his efforts to bring people with disabilities closer to being free and equal citizens. As you read through the following inventory of the achievements for which we are especially grateful, remember the words of Senator Harkin as he accepted on his colleague’s behalf, “Senator Kennedy said one time to me, ‘We're never going to be a fully integrated society until we fully integrate every person with a disability into every aspect of our American life.’”
Senator Harkin continued: “Talking about Ted Kennedy and his achievements, you kind of quickly exhaust the superlatives. He is the most effective and accomplished senator of the last half century, no doubt about it. He has been known as the lion of the Senate and in particular he has been a lion in his advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities. Ted's sister, Rosemary, lived 86 years with an intellectual disability and the entire Kennedy family is well acquainted with the joys and struggles of those with disabilities.”
It is that fundamental belief in equality and opportunity that made Senator Kennedy a leader in the Senate on so many disability issues. Here are a few of the accomplishments that have had a lasting impact on people with disabilities:
- In 1975 Senator Kennedy helped to pass the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).
- In 1978 he passed legislation expanding the jurisdiction of the Civil Rights Commission to protect people from discrimination on the basis of disability.
- In 1980, he introduced the Civil Rights for Institutionalized Persons Act protecting the rights of people in government institutions, including seniors and people with intellectual and mental disabilities.
- In 1990, Senator Kennedy was instrumental in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The New York Times wrote: “Perhaps his greatest success on civil rights came in 1990 with passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which required employers and public facilities to make “reasonable accommodation” for the disabled. When the law was finally passed, Mr. Kennedy and others told how their views on the bill had been shaped by having relatives with disabilities. Mr. Kennedy cited his mentally disabled sister, Rosemary, and his son who had lost a leg to cancer.”
- And in 2009, his personal contribution to the healthcare reform legislation, the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act (CLASS Act) was included in House legislation, as well as the Senate draft.
NCIL’s Executive Director, Kelly Buckland, recalls his experience working on healthcare reform, twenty years prior to the battle being waged now. “Senator Kennedy flew me out to Washington to testify. He wanted me to talk about the difficulty people in small companies, especially people with disabilities, had getting health insurance. This truly was the ‘Cause of his life.’” As Kelly described his work with the Senator a generation ago, a personally signed note from the Senator, thanking him for his testimony, hung on the wall of his office.
Finally, NCIL would like to reflect on some of the words that Senator Kennedy shared at some major moments in his life. As he conceded the Democratic Nomination for President at the 1980 Democratic Convention, he stated, “Circumstances may change, but the work of compassion must continue. It is surely correct that we cannot solve problems by throwing money at them, but it is also correct that we dare not throw out our national problems onto a scrap heap of inattention and indifference. The poor may be out of political fashion, but they are not without human needs… For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on. The work continues, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die."
NCIL shares the vision that the cause must endure, the hope must live and dreams must never die, and we pledge to continue our fight to ensure the social justice and rights of people with disabilities throughout our nation.
From the National Council on Independent Living, and people with disabilities throughout the country, thank you Senator Kennedy.