It’s a personal mission for Ted Kennedy Jr.
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.
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.”
Ted Kennedy Jr. introduces the first set of panelists at a District Environmental Strategic Planning Summit in 2015 at the Branford Fire Department.