Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Senator Kennedy's Inspiration and Call to Action for Advocates

Last year, I was volunteering for the Obama Presidential Campaign as a Precinct Captain in my neighborhood, and also with the national call team. I was pretty fired up about the election as a whole, and watched and read the news every day avidly. Among all of the great moments, two moments at the top of my list of "important moments" both involved Ted Kennedy. The first was the day of the announcement during the primaries that Kennedy was endorsing Obama. The second was the speech given by Kennedy at the convention.

I guess, for me, those two moments were inspiring because I have always been such an admirer of Senator Kennedy, especially (as a student of rhetoric) in terms of his skill as an orator. I remember hearing that he was endorsing Obama and feeling so proud that I was involved in something he too believed in. I remember listening to the speech and comparing it to all of those I had read and heard from the earlier days in his career, and thinking about how admirable it is to see a person who is so consistent with his passion, devotion and message throughout his life.

I studied Speech Communications in my undergraduate studies at the University of Georgia. We studied various forms of rhetoric, reading speeches given in the context of social movements, from the Woman's Suffrage Movement to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, orations given during political campaigns, and in moments of national crisis or disaster. Ted Kennedy was one of the great orators of our time. Now we can debate as to what was the greatest speech of his life, which speech was most moving, inspiring, or most important. There are many to choose from; the most notable perhaps being "The Dream Never Dies" speech from the 1980 DNC, in which Kennedy talked about all of the issues he had championed throughout his career, and ended with the rousing words "the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die." Then of course, there is the emotional and inspirational speech given at Bobby Kennedy's funeral, when he spoke of the hopes of his brother for a better world, saying the moving words "Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world."

If you study the speeches and interviews of Ted Kennedy, it is statements like these that sum him up so well. These statements speak to the hope that he envisioned for America, the dreams and causes he believed in and fought for, and the endurance of those hopes.

For me, one of the speeches I love is not from a great moment like a funeral or a convention. It was an interview in the early 1970's in which Kennedy talked about why he believed Health Care Reform was necessary. He spoke frankly about his families struggles with medical issues, and talked about the fact that they were fortunate to have access to quality health care when they needed it. He talked about Health Care as being a right, not a privilege, and about his vision for an America in which any family would have access to the medical care they needed.

This is why I admired Ted Kennedy as a Senator, a leader. He saw issues that affect us at our most fundamental levels and looked for ways to make the world a better place. He championed the causes of the disadvantaged, and inspired others to do so likewise.

As a disability advocate, I owe much to this inspiration, and his work. Senator Kennedy introduced the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, prohibiting discrimination against persons with disabilities in the workplace, and requiring reasonable accommodations and accessibility which literally opened the doors to people with disabilities in places like theaters, shops, museums, hotels and restaurants. He was instrumental in the Family Opportunity Act, opening up access to Medicaid for families of disabled children, even if they were not in the "low income" status; the Help America Vote Act, requiring polling places to provide a machine that ensured access and privacy for voters with disabilities; and the Mental Health Parity Bill, which required mental health and substance abuse coverage to be on par with other coverage. Other important disability legislation included the Fair Housing Act Amendments, the Air Carriers Access Act, the Civil Rights Commission Amendments, the Comprehensive Services and Developmental Disabilities Amendments, the Crime Victims and Disabilities Awareness Act, the Employment Opportunities for Disabled Americans Act and countless others.

And of course, as an advocate in the special education field, I must be eternally grateful for Senator Kennedy's work on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and No Child Left Behind. He passionately believed, in his own words, that "all children deserve a quality education." He was an original co-sponsor of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, which later became the IDEA, recognizing the fundamental importance of ensuring that students with disabilities were given the right to a free appropriate public education. He was also an original co-sponsor of the Handicapped Children's Protection Act, allowing for prevailing parents to recover attorneys fees, which was an important early step in ensuring a level playing field. Senator Kennedy remained committed to the cause of special education, sponsoring and negotiating the re-authorizations of the IDEA throughout the years, and he continued even through the last year to push for legislation that would promote a fair and level playing field and hearing process to protect the rights of children with disabilities.

A lifetime of work on these important issues does not come to a halt now. Now the burden is on us, the advocates and attorneys, the parents and loved ones of persons affected by disabilities, the teachers and educators, the law makers, and the community as a whole. Perhaps none of us can live up to what he has accomplished on behalf of persons with disabilities. But we must now strive to ensure that the cause goes on, and that the dream doesn't die.

1 comment:

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