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The Kennedys' disability legacy

Posted Aug 29 2009 10:47pm
The disability community lost two great advocates in the Kennedy family: Eunice Kenndey Shriver and Ted Kennedy. The Kennedy family has a history of supporting disability rights issues. The following excerpts give tribute to their work. We need to make sure that work was not done in vain and continue to advocate for those with disabilities.

Small Steps, Great Strides

Originally published in Sports Illustrated Magazine, December 8, 2008

On a steamy July 20th afternoon in 1968, Eunice Kennedy Shriver strode to the microphone at Soldier Field in Chicago and convened the first Special Olympics Games. It was only seven weeks after her younger brother, Robert, had been gunned down in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, and about five weeks before the Windy City exploded in violent confrontations between police and protestors at the Democratic National Convention.

The assassination and the violence had lasting political effects on the American landscape...and, in a much different way, so did the Games at Soldier Field.

With a crowd of fewer than 100 people dotting the 85,000-seat stadium, about 1,000 athletes from 26 states and Canada, all of them routinely classified in those days as mentally retarded, marched in the opening ceremonies and followed Shriver as she recited what is still the Special Olympics oath:

Let me win,
but if I cannot win
let me be brave
in the attempt.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who would become a polarizing figure at the convention that August, attended the four-day event and told Shriver, "You know, Eunice, the world will never be the same after this."

While skeptics shook their heads and most of the press ignored the unprecedented competition, Shriver boldly predicted that one million of the world's intellectually challenged would someday compete athletically.

She was wrong. Today, more than three million Special Olympic athletes are training year-round in all 50 states and 181 countries. They run races, toss softballs, lift weights, ski moguls, volley tennis balls and pirouette on skates. There are World Winter Games, the most recent in Boise, Idaho, in February, and World Summer Games, which will be staged next in Athens in 2011. Documentaries, Wide-World-of-Sports presentations, after-school TV specials, feature films, cross-aisle Congressional teamwork and relentlessly positive global word of mouth have educated the planet about Special Olympics and the capabilities of the sort of individuals who were once locked away in institutions. Schooling, medical treatment and athletic training have all changed for people with intellectual disabilities as a result of Shriver's vision; more important, so have minds, attitudes and laws.

Disability Rights

In 1978, Senator Kennedy cosponsored the Civil Rights Commission Act Amendments of 1978, which expanded the jurisdiction of the Civil Rights Commission to protect people from discrimination on the basis of disability. Two years later, Kennedy cosponsored the Civil Rights for Institutionalized Persons Act, which enforced the rights of people in government institutions such as the elderly, the disabled, the mental ill, and the incarcerated under the Constitution. This law grew out of increased awareness of the unhealthy and inhumane living conditions and treatment of many people within government institutions, such as the case of the Willowbrook State School for the Mentally Retarded, which came to the forefront in 1972. Beyond assuring humane living conditions and basic rights to such individuals, the law details its protection of the religious practice of the institutionalized.

Senator Kennedy cosponsored legislation in 1984 requiring polling stations to provide physical accessibility for disabled and elderly people on federal election days. If this is not possible, polling places are required to provide alternative voting methods so that individuals in such a situation are able to cast a ballot. The law also holds that polling places must make registration and voting aids available for the elderly and people with disabilities. In 1986, Kennedy was an original cosponsor of the Air Carrier Access Act. This law required that facilities and services be provided to people with disabilities traveling by air. Accessibility requirements applied not only to the aircrafts but also to airports and terminals.

In 1988, Kennedy introduced the Fair Housing Act Amendments to extend the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to include people with disabilities and families with children. By expanding the law, theFHAAprohibited discrimination towards people with disabilities in the sale or rental of housing and in the terms, facilities and services provided. It also sets certain guidelines for remodeling and necessary modifications to a residence for both the landlord and the tenant.

On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted into law. Introduced by Senators Kennedy and Harkin, theADAprohibited discrimination by a covered entity (employer, employment agency, labor organization, etc) against any qualified individual with a disability in job application procedures, hiring or discharge, compensation, advancement, training, etc. The law declared that no qualified individual with a disability shall be excluded from the participation in, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination by a public entity, and also required accessible rail transportation and telephone services for persons with speech or hearing impairments.

In response the alarming level and increase in the victimization and violence against people with disabilities, Congress passed the Crime Victims and Disabilities Awareness Act of 1998. Kennedy cosponsored the bill, which directed the Attorney General to conduct a study on the issue and to include specific details regarding the crimes against people with disabilities and to include them in the National Crime Victimization Survey, an annual publication. In 2004, Kennedy was an original cosponsor of the Assistive Technology Act, which supported states in an effort to sustain and strengthen the capacity to meet the assistive technology needs of individuals. In addition, it would focus funding on investments in technology that could benefit those living with disabilities. Millions of Americans experience severe disabilities that affect their ability to see, hear, communicate, walk, or perform other basic life functions. This should not preclude any individual from enjoying full integration in the economic, political, social, and educational activities embedded in American life.

Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment

Senator Kennedy was a strong supporter of the Rehabilitation, Comprehensive Services and Developmental Disabilities Amendments of 1978. These amendments included a number of very important steps in disabilities legislation. It established a functional definition of developmental disability, created the National Council on the Handicapped and the National Institute of Handicapped Research, set a funding minimum for protection and advocacy services and authorized a grant for independent living services and opportunities for people with disabilities.

In 1982, Kennedy was one of the main cosponsors of the Job Training Partnership Act, which was designed to break down some of the barriers facing “economically disadvantaged” individuals and among them people with disabilities. Kennedy made sure to include provisions stating that people could not be excluded from the training program and the advantages it provides based on a disability or other classification. Four years later, Kennedy and Senator Quayle introduced amendments to the Act that afforded people with disabilities special consideration in the awarding of discretionary grants within this training program through the provisions of these amendments.

In 1986, Kennedy cosponsored the Employment Opportunities for Disabled Americans Act, which made work incentives for disabled individuals a permanent fixture of the Social Security Act. People working despite severe disabilities became eligible for special status to receiveSSIbenefits and Medicaid coverage. This special status was valid unless the impairment went away or their earnings exceeded an amount that zeroed out their cash benefits.

In 1999, Kennedy was the primary sponsor with Senator Jeffords of the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act. The law and its “ticket to work and self-sufficiency” program expanded employment opportunities for people with disabilities through providing disabled Social Security beneficiaries greater support and more options. It also allowed for working people with disabilities to receive benefits from Medicaid and/or Medicare.

Assistive Technology

Senator Kennedy was an original cosponsor of legislation that provided funding to all 50 states in order to raise awareness about the potential of assistive technology to significantly improve the lives of people of all ages with disabilities. It also aimed to facilitate a coordinated effort amongst state agencies to provide and encourage the use of assistive technology for individuals with disabilities. Senator Kennedy cosponsored reauthorizations of the Act in 1994, 1998, and 2004.


Senator Kennedy was an original cosponsor of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which later became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The law served to amend the Education of the Handicapped Act and to guarantee a free and appropriate public education to children with disabilities, regardless of their severity, in all states.

Kennedy was an original cosponsor of the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act of 1986, which overturned a Supreme Court decision and allowed courts to award sensible attorneys fees to parents of children with disabilities winning in due process proceedings and other court actions under part B of the Education Act. That same year, Kennedy cosponsored amendments to the Education of the Handicapped Act, establishing a new grant program aimed at developing an early intervention system benefiting infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families. It also sought to provide and promote preschool programs for children ages 3 to 5 with disabilities.

In 1990, Kennedy was an original cosponsor of a bill that changed the name of the Education of the Handicapped Act toIDEA, changed the term from handicapped to disability, and added two categories to the amendment: autism and traumatic brain injury. It also reauthorized the programs under the previous act to provide improved support to students with disabilities particularly in the terms of computer access and assistive technology. In 1997, Kennedy was an original cosponsor of amendments that consolidated the original 9 subchapters ofIDEAinto 4 subchapters. Among the other changes were the inclusion of special education in state and district-wide assessments, the promotion of mediation as an option to disputes between teachers and parents of children with disabilities, a provision that special education students be disciplined in the same way as other students, the continuation of services to adult inmates with disabilities who were eligible forIDEAprior to their incarceration, and the requirement of charter schools to meet the needs of children with disabilities and to receiveIDEAfunds from district schools.

In 2004, Kennedy was the sponsor and lead negotiator of the reauthorization of theIDEA, with a new focus on promoting better alignment of special education with general education and having school districts be accountable for the educational outcome of all students, including students with all ranges of disabilities.

Health Care

In 1982, Kennedy was an original cosponsor of legislation that allowed for states to cover home health care services for particular children with disabilities under their Medicaid plans. This was intended to allow parents “respite” or rest periods with a trained professional helping to care for their child’s needs.

In 1990, Kennedy, along with Senator Hatch, introduced the groundbreaking Ryan WhiteCAREAct, which provided emergency relief to thirteen cities hardest hit by theAIDSepidemic, and also provided substantial assistance to all states to develop effective and cost-efficientAIDScare programs, aimed particularly at early diagnosis and home care. Other services included in the bill were drug treatment, dental care, substance abuse treatment, and outpatient mental health care.

In 1991, Kennedy sponsored legislation to reorganize the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration. Specifically, it separated the previously combined treatment and research branches of the department, which improved the capacity to effectively address both the prevention and treatment of substance abuse and mental health.

The Ryan WhiteCAREAct reauthorization of 2000 reaffirmed Senator Kennedy’s commitment to providing access for persons withHIVdisease to life-sustaining medications, medical care and other essential services. The Act authorized nearly $9 billion inHIV/AIDS services over the next five years.

In 2006, Kennedy won a 5-year-long battle to pass the bipartisan Family Opportunity Act. The law provides states the option of allowing families of disabled children to purchase health coverage through Medicaid. The bill passed as an amendment to the budget reconciliation bill.

In 2007, Senator Kennedy reauthorized the Ryan White Care Act of 1990. The reauthorization focused on quality of life issues, new and emerging therapies, and ensuring that funding for programs followed the people affected by the disease. Having over 15 years worth of information and recognizing that the disease had changed significantly, the focus was placed on prevention and issues of chronic care. It also acknowledged that the demographics had changed and the disease was now evident beyond the cities and in rural areas as well. Drug treatments had also advanced and people living withHIVwere staying alive 20 to 30 years beyond their day of diagnosis.

In 2008, after more than 10 years of effort, Senator Kennedy championed historic legislation to reform the inequities in the way mental health and substance use disorders are treated by the insurance industry. This legislation, co-sponsored by Senator Domenici, assured individuals living with mental health and substance abuse issues that there mental health benefit would be treated equally with the medical-surgical benefit regarding treatment limitations and financial requirements. This means that co-pays, out of pocket expenses, and deductibles cannot be treated differently than they way medical-surgical is treated. This legislation assured equity for 113 million Americans.

In July of 2009, Senator Kennedy succeeded in having theCLASSAct be included in the text of the Affordable Health Choices Act that was passed out of theHELPCommittee. This bill aims to provide the elderly and disabled with a daily cash benefit that allows them to purchase the services and supports they need to remain in and be productive member of one’s community.

Developmental Disabilities

In 1975, Senator Kennedy cosponsored legislation to create a “bill of rights” for people with developmental disabilities. The bill also provided funding for services for people with this type of disability, supplemented funding for affiliated university facilities and created state-based systems of protection and advocacy groups in all 50 states. Kennedy was an original cosponsor of the reauthorization in 1987, which updated the language of the 1975 law. It also gave greater independence to the State Planning Councils, fortified the authority of the state-based protection and advocacy systems in investigations into abuse and neglect, and established separate line items for funding and training in university affiliated programs.

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