Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who spearheaded passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and was a leader in health care reform efforts, died Tuesday night after battling brain cancer for more than a year.
Kennedy, 77, was the youngest and the last living of his politically active siblings who helped shape American politics and the the way that this country views people with disabilities. His brothers, John and Robert, served as president and senator, respectively. Just two weeks ago, Kennedy’s sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, died. She founded Special Olympics, which was inspired in part by their sister Rosemary who had an intellectual disability and died in 2005.
One of Kennedy’s sisters, Jean Kennedy Smith, survives him.
As a senator, Kennedy served longer than all but two others, staking his reputation on legislation to help those without the trappings of wealth that he himself was born into. He was a chief sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1990 legislation ensuring people with disabilities equal access to public places and employment.
That legislation culminated years of civil rights work to expand the rights of people with disabilities to employment, appropriate housing and care, voting, air travel and protection from crimes. Kennedy was an original co-sponsor of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which later became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). He also helped to craft government definitions for terms like “developmental disability” and change the terminology from “handicapped” to “disability.”
“His legacy will be felt for generations to come, as millions of Americans with disabilities and our families recommit ourselves to his vision of equality and full citizenship for all people,” said Andrew Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities.
Kennedy’s signature issue, however, was health care. He helped to institute expanded access to the poor via the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, among other initiatives.
“We’ve lost the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism, and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever,” Kennedy’s family said in a statement. “He loved this country and devoted his life to serving it. He always believed that our best days were still ahead, but it’s hard to imagine any of them without him.”