FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 26, 2023
WASHINGTON--On this 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the National Council on Disability looks back at its origin role in making the legislation happen.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of NCD's 'On the Threshold of Independence' report that contained the original draft of ADA. The person who originally authored that first draft was recognized during an event July 12 in the nation’s capital.
NCD Chairman Andrés Gallegos hosted a fireside chat with guest of honor Robert L. Burgdorf Jr., former NCD research specialist, who shared his experience of creating the landmark legislation that would, for the first time, provide a comprehensive law specifically aimed at protecting the rights of people with disabilities.
“Not everyone knows that every time we celebrate the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we’re really celebrating our own agency’s history as well, said Gallegos. “The two are inextricably and proudly linked, thanks to the efforts of Bob Burgdorf Jr.
The ADA draft appeared in the 1988 report published by the Council, then known as the National Council on the Handicapped. It was the follow-up report to NCD’s 1986 report titled, ‘Toward Independence’ that recommended the creation of an ADA to the President and Congress.
“In my mind, there’s the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, Civil Rights Act of 1964, and then the Americans with Disabilities Act,” the Chairman said to Burgdorf. “Sir, you wrote the Americans with Disabilities Act—that’s a big frigging deal.”
During the chat, Burgdorf shared his personal experiences with disability that shaped his views, leading to him pursuing a law degree; his journey to joining the Council staff; and the history of the draft.
“Many of my significant accomplishments in my career were done with or for the National Council on Disability, so I owe a lot to this entity,” said Burgdorf.
The Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1984 made the Council an independent federal agency and Congress charged it to issue a report to the President and Congress by 1986 making recommendations.
“The council members took seriously their obligation, and they went out at community forums and asked what they’d like to have done in Washington, he said. “Justin Dart went around the country holding meetings in every state.”
NCD found that the number one issue for people with disabilities was not lack of services or lack of money, but discrimination.
The Council discussed and came up with 10 topic areas to focus on. The 10 topics produced 10 topic papers found in the appendix of the 1986 report Toward Independence.
Burgdorf became the point person putting the report together and boiling down the recommendations.
“Congress had once again said: ‘two more years, give us another report,’” said Burgdorf. “So we set about producing a report, where Congress said: ‘˜tell us about how we did in the last two years on the recommendations you made.’”
While no one had called for a draft, Burgdorf took it upon himself to start one on his own.
“I wanted to see if it was doable, so I started drafting the ADA,” he said. I didn’t ever formally say anything; when they asked me to draft it I had it.”
In 1988 NCD published a second report, called ‘On the Threshold of Independence.’
Dr. Andi Farbman, his then colleague, who Burgdorf has now been married to for 34 years, was the editor of the report and recommended the draft’s inclusion.
“The Council members embraced it and went to members of Congress,“ said Burgdorf.
Burgdorf’s draft would be sponsored and introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Tony Coelho and the U.S. Senate by Sen. Lowell Weicker. Coelho and Sen. Tom Harkin would reintroduce the ADA in 1989 and President George H.W. Bush would sign the legislation into law on July 26, 1990, during a ceremony at the White House.
This is a man who deserves all the accolades we can bestow upon him, said the Chairman.
Burgdorf was presented with the NCD Chairman’s Award for his work authoring the ADA and gave credit to NCD’s advisory role to the President, Congress and federal agencies, as well as providing policy recommendations to state, tribal, U.S. territorial and local governments.
Burgdorf and Farbman now run a website focused on the history of the ADA journey and disability rights at ADAChronicles.org
The video of the fireside chat is available for viewing on NCD.gov and NCD’s YouTube channel.