DAN HAAR

It’s a per­sonal mis­sion for Ted Kennedy Jr.

Stamford Advocate (Sunday) - - Front Page - DAN HAAR

The seeds were sown for Ted Kennedy Jr.’s exit from the state Se­nate back in 2015 when he was not yet through his first year in of­fice. But he didn’t know it yet.

Then-pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump had al­ready dubbed U.S. Sen. John McCain a loser for be­ing cap­tured in Viet­nam and had long since called Mex­i­can im­mi­grants rapists when he mocked a dis­abled news re­porter with arm ges­tures, then lied and said he had not done it.

“To me it was ob­vi­ous,” Kennedy said in his Hart­ford of­fice this past week, re­call­ing Trump’s cruel ges­ture a year be­fore the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. “Peo­ple in the dis­abled com­mu­nity were hor­ri­fied.”

Kennedy, a Bran­ford Demo­crat, was — and is — a mem­ber of that vast and di­verse com­mu­nity of 54 mil­lion peo­ple, having lost his right leg to cancer at age 12. The Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act, co-in­tro­duced by his fa­ther, U.S. Sen. Ed­ward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., had passed 25 years ear­lier.

The younger Kennedy was also a long­time board mem­ber of the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of Peo­ple with Dis­abil­i­ties, a mem­ber­ship group that’s a sort of um­brella for the 200-odd as­so­ci­a­tions re­lated to dis­abil­i­ties.

He be­came chair­man in 2017 and the as­so­ci­a­tion is step­ping up an ef­fort that started a few years ago, work­ing with cor­po­ra­tions on en­gage­ment with, and equal treat­ment of, dis­abled peo­ple — as em­ploy­ees, customers and ven­dors.

The cen­ter­piece is a mea­sure, called the Dis­abil­ity Equal­ity In­dex, with 200 cor­po­ra­tions par­tic­i­pat­ing so far — well be­hind the num­ber that take part in in­dex mea­sures for gay rights and en­vi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship, to name two of many in cor­po­rate life.

“My goal is to work with 2,000 com­pa­nies,” he said. “I have been meet­ing with a lot of peo­ple.”

He’ll now do that work in place of run­ning for re­elec­tion to the Se­nate, where he dived in as cochair­man of the en­vi­ron­ment com­mit­tee, pass­ing, by his count, 70 bills, some very sig­nif­i­cant.

“I couldn’t watch 30 years of my work go down the drain. That’s why I de­cided to fo­cus now on the dis­abil­ity rights move­ment,” said Kennedy, a health care lawyer at a na­tional firm with of­fices in Stam­ford. “There’s not that many peo­ple who have the ex­pe­ri­ence that I have and the re­la­tion­ships that I have.”

The phone rang

The dis­abil­ity mis­sion is not about pass­ing laws — as Trump’s de­spi­ca­ble be­hav­ior showed. “The big­gest chal­lenge is cul­tural at­ti­tudes and stereo­types. And here you have a can­di­date of a ma­jor party mock­ing a re­porter with a dis­abil­ity, mak­ing fun . ... It just was such a sad day.”

Then a year later, “When Don­ald Trump got elected, the as­sault on the rights of

peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties be­gan,” Kennedy said.

That’s when Kennedy’s phone started ring­ing.

“When Trump was elected, we didn’t re­ally know how bad it could con­ceiv­ably get. The dis­abil­ity com­mu­nity was hop­ing that he would con­tinue the course of bi­par­ti­san progress on dis­abil­ity rights.”

That’s a long bi­par­ti­san tra­di­tion, with Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush sign­ing the ADA.

Armed with doc­u­ments and a mem­ory girded by pur­pose, Kennedy ticks off a list of ways the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion — and con­ser­va­tive House Repub­li­cans — have eroded ADA and more broadly, the rights and ser­vices avail­able to dis­abled peo­ple: in the thou­sands of pages of reg­u­la­tions by fed­eral agen­cies that put in place the broad laws; in fund­ing for key po­si­tions, for ex­am­ple, 40 lawyers in the Depart­ment of Jus­tice en­forc­ing the ADA un­der pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions, now down to four.

On the health care front, where, ob­vi­ously, dis­abled peo­ple have a mas­sive in­ter­est, Trump’s as­saults on Med­i­caid and the Af­ford­able

Care Act, aka Oba­macare — es­pe­cially loos­en­ing the rule re­quir­ing in­sur­ers to cover any­one with a pre-ex­ist­ing med­i­cal con­di­tion — are erod­ing progress, Kennedy and oth­ers say.

In the re­cent tax re­form act, where one pro­posal — which failed — would have elim­i­nated med­i­cal ex­pense de­duc­tions. In fair housing dis­crim­i­na­tion en­force­ment and in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion at Betsy Devos’s Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion.

“The list goes on and on,” Kennedy said.

The worst: This month as the leg­isla­tive ses­sion wound down, he showed me Trump’s tweet call­ing for im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies to block dis­abled peo­ple.

S&P 500 to the res­cue

That’s where Cor­po­rate Amer­ica comes in. It has hap­pened many times be­fore, that large cor­po­ra­tions have led the way on so­cial is­sues such as gay rights, de­seg­re­ga­tion and ac­cess to health care. Now, with un­em­ploy­ment un­der 4 per­cent, the time seems right for the sort of ex­pan­sion of equal­ity for dis­abled peo­ple that Kennedy is un­der­tak­ing.

“There’s a war for ta­lent and get­ting the best ta­lent means be­ing rel­e­vant,” said Mark Boxer, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent and chief in­for­ma­tion of­fice at Cigna, based in Bloom­field.

Cigna is one of about 60 com­pa­nies at the 100 per­cent rat­ing in last year’s in­dex — the list will grow sharply when this year’s list comes out in July — and he’s the spon­sor for an ac­tive affin­ity group for dis­abled peo­ple at the health in­surer.

“I took up the chal­lenge about two decades ago and Cigna is in many ways a leader. We want to be the em­ployer of choice,” Boxer said, “and we want to make sure that we are highly sen­si­tized.”

There’s a busi­ness im­per­a­tive of course, as Cigna not only em­ploys more than 40,000 peo­ple — the num­ber who are dis­abled is not avail­able — but also cov­ers more than 15 mil­lion with dis­abil­ity in­sur­ance.

Kennedy sees a vir­tu­ous cy­cle as com­pa­nies join the move­ment. The CEO of Mi­crosoft, whose child has cere­bral pansy, has com­mit­ted $25 mil­lion to de­velop ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence tools for cer­tain dis­abil­i­ties. “He

wants to make dis­abil­ity in­clu­sion the signature is­sue of Mi­crosoft,” Kennedy said.

And in Stam­ford, Mar­garet Keane, CEO of Syn­chrony Fi­nan­cial, ap­peared on Bloomberg TV speak­ing pas­sion­ately about the is­sue. Kennedy has yet to ap­proach her about the in­dex.

His fa­vorite ex­am­ple is air­lines, but he sees CEOs ask­ing their lieu­tenants why the hell their com­pany isn’t on that list. And he’s talk­ing with pen­sion funds, too, as part of the move­ment to­ward so­cially re­spon­si­ble in­vest­ing.

“The train’s leav­ing the sta­tion, they don’t want to be left be­hind,” he said of com­pa­nies and in­vestors.

Po­lit­i­cal mis­sion

With so many types of men­tal and phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties and so many lev­els of abil­ity and dis­abil­ity, it may be hard to see dis­abled peo­ple as an affin­ity group, or having much in com­mon with one another. Kennedy re­buffs that skep­ti­cism and says the con­nec­tion is in at­ti­tudes.

He cites a Gallup poll show­ing com­mon ex­pe­ri­ences of peo­ple with many types of dis­abil­i­ties.

Pol­i­tics is an as­sumed pur­suit for the Kennedys, so much that Ted Jr. said in his farewell to the Se­nate that his fa­ther had been “des­per­ate” for him to run. But then, he said, so is ad­vo­cacy for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. His aunt, Eu­nice Shriver, co-founded the Spe­cial Olympics 50 years ago and the Kennedys will cel­e­brate that in Chicago this sum­mer.

“I’m not re­ally step­ping away from pol­i­tics,” he said. “The is­sues I’m in­volved in are cam­paigns in and of them­selves.”

Will he run for of­fice again some­day? Maybe.

“I’m very proud of my fam­ily legacy but I know I’m a dif­fer­ent per­son than my fa­ther and my un­cles,” he said. “I’m in a way for­tu­nate be­cause my cir­cum­stances as a bone cancer sur­vivor and los­ing my leg, lit­tle did I know that that would di­rect me to my mis­sion in life.

“A lot of peo­ple never find out what their life’s mis­sion is…I didn’t feel happy at the time. But in ret­ro­spect, it was the defin­ing mo­ment of my life.”

Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia file photo

Ted Kennedy Jr. in­tro­duces the first set of pan­elists at a District En­vi­ron­men­tal Strate­gic Plan­ning Sum­mit in 2015 at the Bran­ford Fire Depart­ment.

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