When the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) was founded in Berkeley, California in 1979, society tended ether to pity, shun, and isolate people with disabilities, or to treat us as patients who required charity and medical help. DREDF’s founders understood the historic similarity between the experience of people with disabilities and that of racial and ethnic groups, women, and others who sought legal solutions to discrimination. Thus, the organization set out to foster full inclusion of disability in the national civil rights agenda. Achieving this goal has been an uphill struggle, but we were inspired by and learned from the best possible guide. Senator Kennedy understood deeply that people with disabilities, who have experienced historic discrimination and second-class treatment, are entitled to basic civil rights. Armed with this insight, he embraced disability issues with the same conviction and commitment that he devoted to the other great civil rights causes of our time.
Senator Kennedy’s stalwart support was the single most important factor contributing to the success of groundbreaking federal disability civil rights legislation, and we were privileged to have witnessed his legendary legislative prowess at work. As the author or sponsor of every piece of significant disability legislation enacted over the past three decades, the Senator’s ability to face down the greatest foe was matched only by his ability to build consensus. He was the supreme negotiator who could bring people together without compromising basic principles of equality, inclusion, and fairness. Senator Kennedy’s gravitas established a place at the table for disability in the civil rights community. It is not an overstatement to say that, without Senator Kennedy’s leadership, there would be no Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities would not be included in the Fair Housing Act Amendments, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) would have been stripped of due process protections for children and their families.
In addition to disability civil rights, Senator Kennedy was an unparalleled champion of equality for racial and ethnic minorities, women and families, children, workers and the working poor, sexual minorities, and immigrants and refugees. Moreover, he was the leading voice in Congress for education reform and immigration reform, wage equity, environmental issues, health care reform, and protecting and strengthening Social Security and Medicare.
But most of all, we at DREDF are awed and honored to have been befriended by this great man. There are no words to adequately express our deep appreciation for all he did for the disability community, and our sadness at the enormous loss his passing brings to the Kennedy family, the disability and civil rights communities, the nation, and the world. Thank you, Senator.